Spanning two days of travel, I realized a fairly brutal journey from Antigua, Guatemala through the Mexican border into Chiapas - ultimately San Cristobal de las Casas: brutal, because 1) I travelled via Camionetas - aka chicken buses on the Guatemala side, colectivos (shared vans) on the Mexican side, six major legs involved, 2) the second day of a disproportional 14-hour span.
Here I document the experience in sufficient detail with all up-to-date cost figures.
The travel legs:
- Antigua, Guatemala
- La Mesia (the GUA/MX border)
- Comitan de Dominguez (Chiapas)
- San Cristobal de las Casas (Chiapas).
On the transport:
The Guatemala camionetas, referred to as (the detestably sounding) ‘chicken buses’ in English, are the most economic way to cross Guatemala, save obviously for hitch-hiking. These are the remodeled versions of mostly the older US school buses that I rode as an adolescent.
They come in different colors and emblems, do away with the retractable stop signs (in contrast to the US counterparts, the camioneta drivers are notoriously the most reckless of public transport I’ve encountered yet), incorporate luggage racks and other minor tidbits, though one factor remains immutable: the narrow, prison-bus seats with nonexistant legroom.
The camioneta drivers are reckless indeed: speeding, swerving profusely, passing slower vessels at the opposite lane: a shaky experience with no seat belts nor restrooms.
Thus considering the 2-3 hour duration of most legs, I somehow managed to avoid the restroom nearly the entire day, consuming about ¼ of the water I’m used to until arrival.
The Guatemala alternative to the chicken buses are the thrice more expensive private shuttles: I haven’t otherwise encountered any large, more luxusious interstate buses.
However perilous the ride, they are impressively easy to catch, making frequent rounds at all hours. Beyond the originating terminals, they stop all along the route, the attendant constantly whisteling and yelling out the destination (also clearly written on the sign up front). They fill to capacity en route, as many as three persons per the child-size seats. The attendant collects payment inside at a later point.
If you’re a foreigner, the attendant, once making rounds to collect payment, will often quote a higher price should you not be accurately informed prior: thus I always inquired one/two passengers to the respect immediately upon boarding.
The luggage racks are surprisingly more spacious than I encounter on many luxurious long-distance buses. Be sure to stow your luggage in view - ideally over your head. That done, opportunity for theft is minimal, there being no intermediary stops, no restrooms, no leaving the seat until destination.
On the Mexican side, the remaining legs involve the colectivos (the large shared vans), these more comfortable, far smoother, air conditioned (alas), and surprisingly not more expensive if not cheaper, per the distance.
Let’s now explore each segment in detail:
Day 1, Antigua -> Chimaltenango (‘Chima’)
Q10, a 1 hour or less ride. Catch these either somewhere at the terminal behind the large market, or along the way. I awaited at the eastbound side of Calle 1 with Avenida 7.
Chimaltenango -> Quetzaltenango (aka ‘xela’)
Q50, a three-hour trip, hailed from the same drop-off point. Effectively all locals, attendants and bus signs refer to the town by the nickname ‘xela’.
Spent two nights at this second most important city after the capital (which I never explored, having proceeded straight to Antigua from the airport). No regrets, this especially being a more authentic city juxtaposed next to the posh Antigua.
Charming, however limiting my explorations along the central regions. Nonetheless, between the strolls across one of the two markets, the glimpses along the streets filled me with certain reminiscence of a European city, insofar that Guatemala in general, from what I’d hitherto observed, leverages an exorbitant amount of what appears ancient stone, both in construction and roadways: large, protruding stone, more prominent than the Portuguese variant in Brazil, more abundant than in Mexico or elsewhere I recall in Latin America.
Day 2: Quetzaltenango -> Huehuetenango (aka ‘Huehue’)
Set out at 6:45AM.
Q3.00 to catch the ‘buseta’ (small shared van) from close to my hostel to the terminal. Strangely, the terminal drop-off, unless there be another, demands that you cross the entire length of a major street market by foot.
Then another bumpy, three-hour chicken-bus trip: Q40. Though supposedly a direct journey, the attendant made us switch buses an eighth of the way there, emitting a small ticket stub that served as a transfer (which the second bus attendant tore and tossed upon collecting.)
Huehuetenango -> La Mesia (the border region)
Hailed the bus very close to the drop-off point, a short walk along another major street market involved. Leverage these markets to acquire minor provisions, as otherwise I lacked much opportunity to eat throughout the day.
Q30 for another three-hour trip.
La Mesia and the border
The drop-off point about a kilometer from the border, downhill: thus I walked and dined along the way, now nearly 2pm.
No issue with obtaining the Guatemala exit stamp.
More challenging at the Mexican side. The immigration office at a town about 4km away, had to hail a shared taxi for MX15 or the unfairly exchanged Q10. Didn’t yet have MX pesos, and regretted not exchanging (albeit unfairly) the leftover Guatemalan quetzales on that side of the border. Handled it later for an even more unfair rate at a convenience store across the MX migration office.
Regretfully the migration procedure consumed about two hours: one immigration attendant, one bank attendant (for paying the entry tax), 15-20 tourists which seemed to arrive nigh simultaneously, very slow overall proceeding. And considering the 1-hour forward time shift, I looked at a very late arrival in San Cristobal.
Concerning the entry tax: all foreigners staying beyond 7 days are looking at MX638 (USD 32), per the time of writing. You pay the fee at the bank next to the immigration office, which, thankfully accepts cards with no extra surcharge.
Now I was expecting the usual 180-day passport stamp: yet I only received 141, which the attendant reluctantly corrected from the initial 121: a consequence of my conservative time estimate I usually exercise to avoid further questioning, assuming the maximum day allowance anyway. Alas, not this time.
La Mesia -> Comitan de Dominguez
MX75 for a 1.5-1.75 hour ride in a colectivo, a large shared van. Hailed at the terminal adjacent to the immigration and the bank. Fairly comfortable, nothing remarkable.
Comitan de Dominguez -> San Cristobal de las Casas
MX70, which I didn’t have enough in cash, having not exchanged all that I should have in La Mesilla. Nearly sprinted to the ATM at a bank down the street, withdrew, sprinted back, purchased the ticket, boarded the colectivo but a minute before departure. The next would probably not leave for another half-an-hour, the time already 20:00.
Nearly a two-hour ride to San Cristobal. Arrived, hailed a taxi for MX40 to my B&B a couple of kilometers away. Would normally walk but for the 22:00 hour and the 14 hours of journeying that proceeded.
Overall travel expenses incurred (excluding provisions, entry tax and currency exchange losses)
- Q10 (camioneta)
- Q50 (camioneta)
- Q3 (buseta)
- Q40 (camioneta)
- Q30 (camioneta)
- Q10 (taxi)
- MX75 (colectivo)
- MX70 (colectivo)
- MX40 (taxi)
Or about USD $28. Not bad: and somehow endured the second long day with zero coffee, little water, and less restroom visits than fingers of one hand.
Have cash in small denominations. Pack some food onto the chicken buses and not too much water, lacking the opportunity to expel. Bring plenty of patience.
Questions, comments? Connect.