The Case for Hitch-hiking in Guatemala

by Jason Crawford

It may seem crazy to the uninitiated, but hitchhiking is by far my favorite way to get around Guatemala. It’s fast, it’s often free, and most importantly, it’s safer than the camionetas (chicken buses). This is where my readership collectively double takes. “Safer than chicken buses? But what about kidnapping and car crashes and lions and tigers and bears?” Well, the problems that don’t involve wild animals are far MORE likely to occur on the public transit system, plus hitching’s a much more comfortable experience.

For one, buses are basically giant rolling pinatas for thieves. If you were about to risk your life holding up strangers for valuables, do you pick the truck that has maybe three locals or the giant bus jam-packed with 50 people, many of them rich foreigners if you pick the right route. It’s basic risk versus reward, and humans generally act in self-interest.

With regard to vehicular safety, if you have doubts, you’ve probably never been on a camioneta. These guys feel they are the kings of the road and demonstrate this by swinging into the oncoming lane on tiny two-lane mountain roads, as if daring us all to challenge their almighty authority. They are the brazen peacocks of the Guatemalan driving world. I’ve been in more than one camioneta that came up on two wheels around such turns. Pickups, though, don’t have this cultural archetype to fulfill. About 80% of the rides I catch are considerably safer than camionetas, and the other 20% may approach chicken bus levels of crazy, but never quite make it. Furthermore the drivers of private vehicles have no profit incentive to go extremely fast all the time.

And it’s so much more comfortable to recline in the back of a truck watching the clouds pass lazily by than it is to be horribly compacted in a camioneta. The back of a pickup is the perfect place to take in the incredible landscapes of this beautiful country.

Head to the exit of whatever town or city you’re in. You can walk, tuk tuk, taxi, or even just hop a camioneta to the first stop outside of town. The best place to wait is next to one of the many giant speed bumps to be found in the satellite villages of most cities; people are much more likely to pick you up if they have to slow down or stop anyway. Smile! Really, it helps. Point in the direction you’re going. Don’t put your thumb out, half the time people will think you’re just giving them a thumbs up and return it enthusiastically. Point toward your destination and the driver will either pick you up, point down to signify they´re staying in town, or point in some other direction to show they’re not going your way. Let them know where you’re going, hop in the back of that truck and enjoy the ride.

Sometimes you’ll have to pay, and sometimes the driver will overcharge. The easy way to handle this is just to keep track of time; it’s 10Q an hour for chicken buses and trucks in Guatemala. (Or you can ask another passenger.) But typically it’s free and a good amount of the time they’ll actually try and buy you lunch or a drink.

In a year of consistently hitchhiking everywhere I’ve had not a single bad experience. Don’t shy away from those semis, they are some of the most fun to ride.

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