From A to B to Xe(la)
June 28, 2016 3:34 PM   Subscribe

I am departing this Friday (three days!) for a three week trip to Guatemala, the first two weeks of which will be spent at Escuela Montana. Hooray! Then my dad got involved. Uh-oh! Many, many cautionary e-mails later, I am considering hiding under the bed for three weeks and just telling people I went to Guatemala. Esperanzame, Mefites!

Solo female traveler, 30s but read younger, my Spanish is workable but improveable (thus the school). I've traveled on my own pretty extensively in Romania/Turkey and also with groups in Mexico/Puerto Rico. My flight lands in Guatemala city around 12:15. My plan was to call a taxi to the Galgos bus station and catch the bus to Quetzaltenango (Xela), based entirely on this schedule, which says there's a bus that leaves around 2:30. I have a hostel reservation in Xela on the night of the 1st, and figured I'd visit PLQE headquarters first thing Saturday for expert advice. I even took the precaution of printing maps from airport to Galgos in GC, and from Galgos to the hostel in Xela, just in case the taxi takes me off-route. I am way overthinking this, right? Right?

What I'm looking for is:
1. Confirmation that the bus schedule I have found is correct, perhaps from someone whose Spanish is better than mine (I have used the contact form on the website but have not heard back). I suspect these companies don't run on clockwork, but just generally want to know that the bus will be there and cost what it says it will.
2. If the schedule is correct, bus will be arriving in Xela at almost exactly sunset. I am taking warnings not to travel after dark seriously. Should I be worried about this? Would it be better to stay in Antigua Friday and travel first thing Saturday?
3. (Stupid thing that I'm fixating on right now instead of packing) Advice as to whether to bring a rolling bag or not. I'm just going to be throwing it in taxis/buses, right?
4. Feedback from anyone who has done similar travel within Guatemala. Tips and things I'm forgetting, but also stories of great times had (last Ask specifically about Guatemala was a while back).

If it wasn't obvious, I'm naturally anxious (and on Lexapro, though I can't get in to up my dosage until after I get back) and have been more so the last half-year or so for various reasons. But really, I think I am excited under there somewhere? I have a raincoat (rainy season!) and mosquito repellent and a Spanish dictionary. A little advice and some internet head-pats and I think I'll be all set. Thank you all so much in advance!
posted by theweasel to Travel & Transportation around Guatemala (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Why not email PLQE? I used a different school in Xela (PLQE was booked!) but they have an amazing reputation and I bet they can help you.

I can't advise on #1, but:

2. What kind of bus is this? If it's a cheap, local bus, then you can expect delays. If it's a tourist/nice bus that goes direct, you should be fine. But remember, it's not like, it's dark and the bandits suddenly come out. I wouldn't do a completely overnight trip in Guatemala, but I also wouldn't necessarily lose a whole day because of this. The likelier thing is that your flight is delayed or something like that and you miss the bus for that reason (in which case it's easy to go to Antigua and get one of the 8 million rooms there). The long-distance bus stations in Guatemala are well-policed and safe.

3. Do you have a backpack or duffel? If so, bring that. Guatemala is not the best place for a roller bag, especially if you'll be in villages.

4. Tips:

- Bring warm clothes! It gets cold in the mountains at night.
- Bring little souvenirs from your hometown for your host family. Doesn't have to be fancy - postcards, magnets, locally-produced shelf-stable food items that are a local specialty, these have all been big hits with local hosts in my travels.
- Are you trying to decide where to go in your free week? I loved Lago Atitlan (especially this hostel) and Tikal. Both are easy to get to, though Tikal is more of a trek from Xela. Antigua is beautiful but I found it slightly boring.

Have fun! You will be fine. Don't go wandering off by yourself in Guatemala City or do any night-time volcano treks, but you knew that.
posted by lunasol at 4:08 PM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't know Guatemala that well (and what I know of it is that Guatemala City isn't a scenic tourist wonder), but can you plan to lose a day dealing with this if necessary? Take that cab directly to the bus station, and if the next bus has you getting in at midnight or something, stay in Guatemala City and get the first bus out in the morning. Which is how I'd ideally arrange this sort of thing anyway. Otherwise, you basically have to get on the next bus to Xela and hope it all works out.

FWIW, I think "get on the next bus and hope it works out" is probably your best bet if spending the night in Guatemala City isn't an option.
posted by Sara C. at 4:18 PM on June 28, 2016

*Always* a rolling bag. Quite why anyone uses backpacks in the days of rolling bags is truly beyond me.
posted by ryanbryan at 4:22 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

1. The bus schedule you found is correct, but buses are often late in Central America. I would contact the school and ask which bus company is the best for getting to Xela. Just from googling, it seems that Linea Dorada might be a little bit better than the one you're planning on using.

4. I live in Honduras and haven't been to Guatemala, but you have to be careful about taxis. If you do indeed decide to go on to Xela that first day, I suggest that you contact the hostel or the school and ask them for the name of a trusted taxi driver and have him meet you at the bus station when you arrive. Always better to use a trusted taxi driver, than catching one from the street.
posted by Lingasol at 4:33 PM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Rolling bags are great for Disneyworld and Las Vegas. They are miserable for travel outside certain carefully designed parts of the USA.

The further you get from major Western cities, airports, resorts, theme parks, etc. the less likely it is that the sidewalk will be in good shape (or that there will be a sidewalk). Accommodations outside the US (especially hostels, budget hotels, host families, dormitories, etc) often do not have elevators, so you'll have to carry your bag upstairs.

If you're really just going from airport to taxi to bus to taxi to school and then back again after your course, and you don't currently have a backpack, sure, it's not that much schlepping and you'll probably be fine. But with each added leg of travel, you have to schlep your stupid useless wheelie bag again. Definitely if you have a free week during your trip and you're planning to travel around Guatemala at all, backpack.

Every time I leave the US, I'm thankful for my pack and get lots of envious looks from people who are stuck schlepping heavy rolling suitcases down dirt roads and up three flights of stairs and into the top rack of a bus.
posted by Sara C. at 4:34 PM on June 28, 2016 [12 favorites]

Backpack. No questions. Just... backpack. Our two weeks around Ecuador would have been comically impossible with a roll-bag instead of decent backpacks.
posted by RolandOfEld at 5:16 PM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Quite why anyone uses backpacks in the days of rolling bags is truly beyond me.

Dirt roads. Mud. Climbing up hills where you want both hands free. Stairs. Do not bring a roller bag.

I've been to Xela though not in a while and when I was in Guatemala for ten days it's the only place I really encountered pickpocket type of stuff. So I don't think you need to be flipped out but keep your stuff safe (in an interior part of a knapsack or a front pocket of pants) and bemindful of your surroundings. And yeah I agree, don't assume bus schedules are super accurate because of general delays not because they're up to something. I've also travelled extensively in Romania and I found Romania was a bit more sketch (in places, not generally) than anywhere in Guatemala including Xela. I'd also suggest not just a raincoat but either a poncho (which can cover your backpack as well as you) or some large trash bags that you can keep your stuff dry inside the backpack with. And as far s random other locations, I really enjoyed a side trip to Sipicate and would suggest it.
posted by jessamyn at 5:24 PM on June 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

Quite why anyone uses backpacks in the days of rolling bags is truly beyond me.

I was assuming based on the question that the asker was going directly to/from the language school, but if not, yes, you'll want a backpack.

I'll also echo others' advice to not depend on any sort of timely public transportation schedule and to definitely line up a taxi with the school beforehand. I've traveled extensively in Africa and Central America, and this advice holds true for both places.

Also, if you can get local money beforehand, that will help; if not, the airport will likely have an ATM you can use - but I always like to hit the ground running with at least a day or two's worth of cash if at all possible.

Have fun!
posted by hapax_legomenon at 9:22 PM on June 28, 2016

Best answer: I spend a lot of time in Guatemala in general and Xela / Atitlan in particular.

1. Yes, the Pullman buses (Galgos is one of the four Pullman lines that go to Xela) are generally punctual. They keep to a fairly punctual departure time, and do not wait for late passengers.

2. You'll be fine. You're getting there at sundown, not 2am. I've heard those warnings too, and yet I travel at night all the time and am still alive to tell the tale :)

3. Backpack, for sure. Trust me on this. Xela's sidewalks are not great. It's also really hilly and steep in places, and dragging a roller bag up some of those streets will SUCK. Keep it with you in the cab when you're in a taxi. The bus will make you put it in the luggage area, so also bring a daypack for stuff you'll want on the trip.

4. You are not going to be the only gringo traveling to Xela, not even on your bus. There will be plenty of people who speak excellent English. Guatemala City is not the greatest, but I've never had a taxi try to rip me off or take me anything other than where I wanted to go.

DO NOT change money at the airport kiosk, no matter what they say. They have terrible exchange rates and fees. Use the ATM in the lobby where you exit to catch a taxi. The taxis will also take dollars, if you . Only use the official airport taxis. There's also a bunch of kiosks in the lobby for travel companies. Do not buy a bus ticket from them, as they cannot actually confirm a seat for you, and charge extra fees. Go to the bus station and get a ticket there.

If the bus you want to take is full (ask the taxi to wait if you like), don't panic. Simply return to the airport, and go to the area you walked out of and find someone with a sign that says "Antigua". This will be a white tourist shuttle (a big passenger van or similar) that will cost $10. Or your taxi will take you for $25. Then hire a tuk-tuk (motorcycle cab things) to take you to El Hostal. For $11 they will put you up for the night, feed you an excellent breakfast, and arrange any further travel you need. They speak excellent English and will provide maps of the city with good restaurants and bars highlighted.

Xela is a lovely town. If you get bored or want a change, hop on a chicken bus (it's fun, I promise) to San Marcos La Laguna and hang out with the yoga tribe and drink kombucha, or if that's not your scene, catch a launcha (little boat) over to San Pedro. SP has a ton of great restaurants, everything from Italian to Burmese, fun clubs and of course kayaking on the lake. There are a bunch of places to stay in either town if you want to stay the night. Don't miss the dawn hike up the volcano if you do go!

You're going to have an awesome time.
posted by ananci at 1:49 AM on June 29, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I loved PLQE, and Xela, and Guatemala. I took a rolling bag and I was glad of it, because I had a small daypack for daily use, and I don't like wearing one pack on my back and one on my front. Lots of people do that, though!

I was there about 10 years ago, when I was 28, and I felt safe when I took common sense precautions.

Does PLQE still have the hostel across the street? A handful of the teachers had just opened it when I was there -- Casa de las Amigas. It was simple and comfortable.

The mountain school is amazing. Guatemala is wonderful. You're going to love this!
posted by spindrifter at 9:15 AM on June 29, 2016

Response by poster: I just wanted to make sure to thank you all for your amazing responses. I'm sitting in the airport as I type, waiting to board, and thanks to all of y'all I can be properly excited instead of breathing into a bag. Muchas gracias!
posted by theweasel at 7:03 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

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