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Driving in Guatemala

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Have just returned from a 1200 mile trip around Guatemala by good ol’ standard Chevy.
Far too much to report for just the driving alone, even for a trip report, but happy to answer questions about directions, road conditions, etc.

Our Itinerary (and general travel times)
Note: These times reflect the real-world guidelines from an experienced under-developed country driver who is cautious, but pretty aggressive.

La Aurora Airport to Antigua ½ hr to 2 ½ hr
Antigua to Pana 2 ½ - 3 ½ hrs.
Pana to Coban 5 – 6 hrs
Coban to Languin 1 ½ hr
Coban to Flores/St. Elena 4 – 5 hrs.
Flores to Rio Dulce 3 – 4 hrs.
Rio Dulce to Guate/Airport 4 – 6 hrs.

If you are planning traveling west to east from Pana or Xela to Coban: Much of the road is normal Guatemala, BUT, about a ½ hour east of Cunen (on the final leg to Coban), the road turns really rough – boulders and deep pot holes, lots of rocks and gravel (good idea to make sure some other car is either ahead of you or behind you, because you’re well past nowhere in the mountains. AND THEN THE ROAD SIMPLY ENDS and you’re looking down into the abyss of a deep valley (there was a total washout more than a year ago, and it’s not clear whether this section will ever be repaired). Up to this point the driving was slow but ok since you’re dealing with flat road and modestly curving roads. NOW, you’re into the mother of all road trips. Down, down into the valley on a makeshift, narrow, rocky, dusty road, then up along the same type of road into steep hairpin turns. I can’t come close to exaggerating what this road was like or the anxiety of traveling along this stretch. I was basically in 1st gear the entire trip. Eventually the road made its way into some semblance of civilization and apparently in the right direction to Coban, which was less than an hour away.

In hindsight, the far easier (but possibly longer, and definitely not as the crow flies) ride to avoid this section would possibly be to return from Pana towards Guate, and then picking up the main north-south road to goes directly to Coban. But, the ride from Pana to Coban was easily one with some of the most varied and amazing vistas and local views of any I’ve taken. You pays your money, you takes your chances.

Some tips and observations:
First, buy a cell phone as soon as possible in the country. They’re dirt cheap (~$20), and TIGO (they’re the primary cell company) minutes were also inexpensive and almost any shopkeeper can sell you a $6 or $12 card and they can directly call into to TIGO to activate the time. Service is available everywhere, and you don’t want to be driving without some communications device.

No matter where you’re going, we found that unless you’re 150% sure that you’re going in the right direction, stop and ask (“la ruta a ________, was all that you pretty much needed in the way of language). There is a national highway system, which will encompass most of your travel, but those “RN __” markers are few and far between. Signage is pretty non-existent, although you’ll generally know what town you’re entering into (but not always). On any route, make sure you know pretty much each town along the way (remember distances are long, towns are few and most likely folks will know only the next town over).

Driving from Lake Atitlan to Pana, we found ourselves way past the turn-off, and moving close to Xela. We couldn’t imagine having missed a sign or even a road (there weren’t that many), but sure enough, there was a large, easily visble sign west-to-east, but not in the direction we were initially traveling.

Unless you have unlimited time to travel, or have unlimited patience traveling behind slow moving trucks and cars, you will need to be able to drive aggressively, meaning basically violating every safe driving rule, from speed limits to passing on curves. If you have any fear of heights or get nervous driving on roads with only modest distance between the road and steep drops, this is not a country for you to even consider driving in.

As a rule of thumb, when calculating your projected travel time, figure on 20mph for areas west of Coban (Antigua > Laked Atitlan > Xela > Coban) and 30mph on areas east (Tikal to Flores). No doubt you will start driving and find yourself going 50-60 and figure my rule of thumb is way off and you’ll pick up time. Be forewarned, driving issues are abundant, and good can turn into really rough very quickly and unexpectedly.

The road conditions, for the most part, and for most of the country, are good asphalt roads – except when they’re not. Even when the roads are good, you still can’t expect to drive at speeds much over 40. Plus, you’ll invariably encounter any one of many “conditions” that will cut into your time.

Among the most pervasive and exasperating conditions you’ll encounter: speed bumps everywhere (usually in sets of three, but as many as 7), often inexplicably placed in remote areas and mountain villages where you can’t imagine why they’re there (my guess is that some shopkeepers put them up themselves to ensure cars slow down near their tienda. Most of the time there’s some warning (“tremulos”), but not always. There are endless variations on the height and width from some being barely there to other where you’ll feel a jolt at any speed above a mile an hour.

Entering any town that’s more than a mountain village of a few shops will generally pose some modest problem and require lots of stops for directions. If you’re imagining that since you’re on a main road and simply going through town, that should be no problem – think again. Any village with “streets” will never be a simple in-out. What with one-way signs, and closed roads and markets, if often took 10 minutes to get back on the main route.

In much of the country, there’s relatively little traffic, but in some areas, particularly the roads moving east and west into Guate, you can end up behind a caravan of trucks and slow-moving cars, chicken buses, pickups with cages, three-wheelers that you’ll probably want to pass. The closer you are to Guate (either moving towards or away), the more horrific the traffic can become (grinding to a virtually halt, bumper-to-bumper). As an aside, on our arrival, we left Guate in the height of rush-hour, on our way to Antigua. A 45-minute trip took over 2 hours.

Geography also plays a key role in your travel time. Winding roads, even those well-paved, are not your leisurely ride in the country at 50 mph. They are frequently curvy, and in the best circumstances, relatively flat. But there’s plenty of up-down as well. (Prior to our travel eventually to Coban, we never encountered a straight stretch more than a kilometer or two).

The number of really nasty rides (after Coban, everything was relative), was modest. There’s an 11km stretch entering into Languin that’s tough, and the road from there to Semuc Champey is slightly shorter, but both take about ½ hour. And there will be patches of poor roads scattered around, often no more than 2-3 km.

And then, there are those silly little unexpected travel situations, like finding out that you need to take a small little car ferry across a 200-yard stretch of what was possibly a small river, on the way to Flores/St. Elena.

General Rental Car Info
Our rate with Dollar for 12 days (thru Expedia) was an amazing $210 for a solid 4-door, 5-speed, A/C Chevy. BUT, on our arrival, the rental agent insisted on contacting directly both my credit card company (to confirm my account included collision coverage) and my auto insurance agent (to ensure the policy included 3rd party liability). I actually had to go online and find out the telephone number, but since it was after hours, I had to take their policy ($160), which could be waived the next day if my agent provided documentation (it turns out my policy didn’t’).

Even though most people don’t, you should probably check the car tires to make sure the lugnuts aren’t machine screwed on (ours were, and we couldn’t get them off with the standard flat tire wrench). You should also check the spare (ours was flat, which we found out only when we had to use it). Maybe take along a container of those products that spray foam in for emergencies.

Gas is cheap (~$3.25/’US GALLON, varies by region, but not by much) and generally easily available, but it’s a good idea to keep the tank close to fill, since you never know when you’ll encounter a long, extended stretch where there are no stations for many miles.

We were advised in Guate by our rental company that police cameras were often placed on roads and used to generate speeding tickets, but nowhere in the country did we encounter cars observing posted limits (on the rare occasion when they even existed) and while there were cops occasionally parked along side the road, enforcement seemed lax.

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