There are several ways to travel from Antigua to Lake Atitlán, with varying levels of cost, speed and safety. The journey, by road, takes 3-4 hours, so it’s not a short trip, and if you have the time I’d recommend spending at least a few days there. There are loads of activities to do around Lake Atitlán and many small towns that you can visit, most of which are most easily accessible by a short boat trip.
This article will tell you how to get to Panajachel from Antigua, and how to get to the various other towns around Lake Atitlán, by Chicken Bus. If you’re looking for the answer to a specific question about Chicken Busses in Guatemala, jump straight to the FAQs!
This week, my temporary travel companion and long-time best friend, Ellie, took the chicken bus from Antigua Guatemala to Lake Atitlan. If you don’t know, the chicken bus is the tourist nickname for the public transportation buses in Guatemala. They are repurposed, repainted old US school buses, which means they look really cool but they do not make for a smooth ride! (Beware if you’re prone to motion sickness.)
Ellie and I are doing a trip through Central America, so expect a LOT of travel content and Central America tips over the next few weeks. Next month I’ll be heading down to South America, so stay tuned for that, too!
Is the chicken bus the best way to get from Antigua to Lake Atitlán?
It’s important to note that taking the chicken bus from Antigua to Lake Atitlán is not the quickest or safest way to travel, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. In fact, the UK government advises against using these buses at all. However, travelling as a confident pair during the daytime, and having spoken to many people at our hostel in Antigua that had made a similar journey, we felt confident that we were up to the challenge.
Taking the chicken bus is quite an experience, and it was common amongst the travellers we met through Guatemala. Below I’ll tell the full story of our trip, but (spoiler alert) we decided to take a shared shuttle bus back to Antigua…
If you’re looking for the best ways to get from Antigua to Lake Atitlán, I always recommend asking the people or staff in your hostel, because they’re the ones who will know the best option, have information on bus schedules, and know if there have been any recent changes in safety. If you’re looking for a fuss-free way to travel, your hostel or hotel will also be able to book you a private transfer, usually for less than $20 (just under 20€).
A private transfer (aka shuttle service) will always be a direct bus, so if you’re nervous about making changes, this is a good option for you. It’s also the best option if you want to go for a day trip, as it’s quicker. It took us almost four hours to arrive in San Pedro by chicken bus from Antigua. A shuttle service offers hotel pickup and will drop you right at your next destination, so it’s a really easy way to travel if you’re tired or you have a lot of luggage.
Is it difficult to take the chicken bus from Antigua to Lake Atitlán?
That depends on who you’re talking to. Having taken the chicken bus from Antigua to Lake Atitlán myself, I would not recommend it to a solo traveller, especially if you are female, Caucasian, or don’t speak any Spanish. It’s quite the adventure and I’d recommend giving it a go in a group (preferably with at least one male and one Spanish speaker). I’m usually a solo female traveller, and I would have felt out of my depth doing that journey by myself. Luckily I was travelling with a friend (we’re both female), and I felt much more comfortable that way.
The bus drivers do not speak English, or if they do, they don’t have the time or inclination to do so. If your Spanish is not so good, go armed with a few key phrases memorised including your chosen destination, “where do we get the next bus?” And “how much is it?”.
You can’t look up the bus routes online, but the locals and drivers know them very well. As you’ll read later, in my story, we were helped by drivers and friendly locals a bunch of times to make it to our final destination of San Pedro.
Read more about Guatemala
What happens to my luggage on the chicken bus?
Be prepared that they might strap your luggage to the roof. This is common both on chicken buses and tourist shuttles (and boats too!). It is generally safe, but I recommend keeping anything especially valuable in a smaller “hand luggage” that you can take on board with you.
Ellie and I were travelling with quite light luggage. She had a 40L rucksack, I have a 30L rucksack, and we each had a small tote bag of valuables and a bumbag. All four (4!!) of our chicken bus drivers let us take all of our luggage on board (although some offered to put it on the roof, if we wanted). When we got on boats in Lake Atitlán, putting our larger rucksacks on top of the small boats was mandatory.
Tip: it might seem obvious, but strap in your stuff! One boat driver tipped Ellie’s bag upside down and her water bottle fell into the lake. He went to great lengths to get it back for her, but we were grateful it wasn’t something more valuable.
How to take the chicken bus from Antigua to Lake Atitlan
Chicken Bus 1: Mercado Central to Chimaltenango
The easiest way to take a chicken bus from Antigua is to go from the bus station next to the market (mercado central). As soon as you arrive there will be drivers shouting and inviting you to hop onto their bus to various destinations. Your first stop will be Chimaltenango, as there are no direct chicken buses to Lake Atitlan. At the time of writing (January 2024) this should you cost 10 Guatemalan Quetzales (1.1€ / $1.2)
Remember to take Quetzales (the Guatemalan currency) with you in cash, preferably in small denominations. They will not accept dollars or cards!
You can also tell your bus driver your final destination, and if they’re nice they’ll help you to find your next bus when you get off at Chimaltenango. The bus driver we found was especially nice, told us to hold onto our stuff (because they’ll try and pull money straight from your pockets, he said) and helped us change buses at Chimaltenango.
Chicken Bus 2: Chimaltenango Onwards
When we got off in Chimaltenango, I was expecting another bus station. I was wrong. They dropped us off on the side of a main road (which felt a bit dodgy, if I’m honest) and within seconds another highly decorated chicken bus came up behind us asking where we were going. We told him we were headed for San Pedro La Laguna, and he said yes, hop on. He told us we’d go to San Pedro for 40 Quetzales. (This was not true, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)
It was on this bus that I almost fell victim to a pickpocket. Somebody beside us made a commotion and, before I even knew what was happening, the guy’s hand was in my pocket. It felt like a butterfly fluttering around my jacket, and it happened so quickly I didn’t have time to register what it was. But only seconds later I knew exactly what had happened.
This is the exact pocket where I always keep my phone, but luckily this ain’t my first rodeo and my phone was secured to my body in a bumbag (a must, if you’re going to put yourself in precarious situations like this, by the way). The guy got off the bus a few seconds later, and made off with only my lip balm. Sucks to be him: I had a MacBook, two phones and over 100$ on my person, but this guy went for the wrong gal!
Read more about Guatemala
Chicken Buses 3 & 4 (optional… or accidental)
There are several routes that you can take depending on where you have decided to stay in Lake Atitlan. You can take the road straight to your destination, or you can take the bus to Panajachel and take the public boat from there.
I’d recommend the latter, because it is safer, and quicker (which we learned the hard way). This driver who told us he could take us to San Pedro ended up dropping us off in the middle of nowhere in a place I’ve located on the map as Kilómetro 148 Carretera Interamericana. He told us to use a bridge to cross the road and wait for another bus. Ellie asked him: Will we have to take another bus after that? He said no. (Not true.)
A lot of people also changed buses at a bustling bus stop in Los Encuentros. If you take the long way round to Panajachel like we almost did, you may change buses a third time at Los Encuentros.
If you follow our advice and take the bus straight to Panajachel, you can take the boat across Lake Atitlán to practically any destination, including San Pedro La Laguna, Santa Cruz La Laguna, San Juan La Laguna, San Marcos La Laguna, San Antonio Palopó and Santa Catarina Palopó. (No, people usually don’t add “La Laguna” or “Palopó” every time they say it, but it’s worth saying when you’re talking to bus drivers. We almost went to the wrong San Pedro…)
Anyway, back to the story!
We crossed the road and asked another few lovely locals, and here’s another thing to note about taking the chicken bus in Guatemala: you ask a random guy on the side of the road? They almost certainly know where you’re going and how to get there. So, said lovely locals helpfully pointed us towards a bus stop a few metres down a side street where we spotted a guy from our previous chicken bus. We were pretty sure he was going in the same direction, so this gave us some confidence.
A bus was already waiting, and we asked them: can you take us to San Pedro? Their answer: no, we’ll take you to Santa Clara, where you’ll find another bus to San Pedro. I looked at a sign on the wall that said “buses to Santa Clara”, so I guessed that was about our only option. Ellie and I rolled our eyes at each other but continued with the motto that got us through these few weeks: It’s just another adventure.
This chicken bus was a minivan rather than a painted old school bus and the driver was more careful, but we still squealed at some of the precarious overtaking. Just twenty minutes and 10 Quetzales later, we arrived in Santa Clara. The bus driver told us to cross the road and wait there for the bus to San Pedro. We waited, but something didn’t feel right. Tuktuk drivers kept stopping to ask if we were okay. Eventually I asked one where we could get the bus to San Pedro, and he told us we were on the wrong side of the road.
We looked across and up a few metres to where he pointed and guess who it was: the same guy we’d followed from two buses earlier. We joined him and not a minute later another full-sized chicken bus turned up heading for San Pedro. (The good thing is that even if you have to take four chicken buses, you’ll never wait more than a minute or two for the next one.)
We hopped on and headed down into the valley of Lake Atitlán. The bus we got on had come all the way from Chimaltenango. So, lesson learned: when the second bus driver told us he’d take us to San Pedro, we should have asked: “Directly??”
They charged us another 10 Quetzales to get to San Pedro, bringing our total to 70 Quetzales. Now, whilst that’s not a bad price for a 4 hour ride, people generally pay 40-60Q, so we were definitely ripped off by the second bus driver. In comparison, shuttles vary from 130Q to 200Q depending on who you book with and when.
Now, this journey down into the valley of Lake Atitlán is not for the faint-headed. Think turns so tight the huge, rickety school bus has to make a three point turn. Visibility so bad the driver leans on his horn on every corner because it’s the only way to warn drivers coming in the other direction. A sheer drop so steep you feel like you’re staring imminent death in the face. We breathed an audible sigh of relief when we closed in on ground-level. But, beyond that, the views were breathtaking. Lake Atitlán is incredible.
We arrived exhausted in San Pedro and quickly found our hostel. As we walked, Ellie and I agreed on two things: 1) The chicken bus was great fun, and we had no regrets. 2) We were definitely booking a tourist shuttle back to Antigua.
Chicken Bus FAQs
How much does it cost?
Depending on which route you take and how far you go, it will cost you between 40-80 Quetzales (which, at the time of writing, is around 5-8 euros or 6-10 dollars). If you’re on a tight budget, this is the cheapest option, and is half the cost of taking a shuttle.
Do the buses take dollars or card?
No, chicken buses won’t take dollars or card, so make sure you have plenty of local currency on you.
Is there a direct chicken bus from Antigua to Lake Atitlan?
At the time of writing (January 2024), no. You will need to change at least once, probably in Chimaltenango
Is the chicken bus ride safe?
That depends on who you ask. I would never recommend doing this journey alone, but I like to err on the side of caution and the likelihood that serious harm will come to you is low. Set off early in the morning so there’s no chance of you getting stranded after sunset, keep your belongings close to you, and be confident. You won’t find things like seat belts or handles on the chicken bus, and some of them won’t stick to speed limits.
How do I get to X Town?
The best way to get to any destination in Lake Atitlan is to arrive in Panajachel and take the short boat trip from there. The boats from Panajachel will go to basically any destination in Lake Atitlan including the main towns visited by backpackers: Santa Cruz, San Juan, San Marcos and Santa Catarina.
Do the drivers speak English?
It’s very unlikely, and if they do, they probably won’t have the time or inclination to switch languages for you.
Will we be the only non-Guatemalans on the bus?
What are the buses like for motion sickness?
If you’re prone to motion sickness, travel with caution. The buses are a really bumpy ride, and on the way down into the valley of Lake Atitlan you take some precarious turns. The mountain roads (lots of twists and turns) are the same whether you take the chicken bus or whether you take a private shuttle, but it’s a much smoother ride with a private shuttle.
Which route did you take?
We took four buses: Antigua -> Chimaltenango -> A random interchange -> Santa Clara -> San Pedro La Laguna (but we wouldn’t recommend it)
Which route do you recommend?
We’d recommend this route: Antigua -> Chimaltenango -> Panajachel
Then take the boat from Panajachel to wherever you want to go!