It’s said that things in Central America are done on a unique time table known only to the locals. I usually cringe whenever I hear someone quoting a stereotype, but this one has merit.
Meeting times are more of a suggestion than they are commitment. Admittedly, there are exceptions to the rule. Some bus lines, and most airlines and trains do keep as close to their schedules as possible. Not so with collectivos (shuttle bus services), chicken buses (yes, even the locals call them that), or any mode of private transportation.
Sue and I booked a shuttle bus to Antigua through La Iguana Perdide hostel when we were leaving Santa Cruz, on Lake Atitlan. Arrangements made, and our fare paid through the hostel, we were to have met our transportation in Panajachel at noon. We boarded one of the water taxis that ply the lake well before we needed to. We wanted to be in Panajachel ahead of time so we would have time for a coffee at the famed Crossroads Cafe.
Making sure we were back at the dock by noon to be picked up as scheduled, we sat down to wait, and wait, and wait. Repeated calls to the shuttle service garnered the same assurance, “The driver was on his way and would pick us up in a few minutes.” Those few minutes added up to more than an hour sitting in the hot sun before a helpful local pointed to our bus as it crested a hill on the road from Guatemala City. The bus was packed full, with luggage tied to the roof and piled high in the cargo area at the rear of the bus. It was so full that it cascaded down over the rear seats, which of course were our rear seats.
We were off. Luggage was constantly shifting so that we had to be pushing backpacks and suitcases back into place or risk being crushed in an avalanche of personal belongings. Ironically, there was no room for my backpack inside the bus. It was tied to the roof. Of course it started to rain. Not just rain, but the heavens burst open in a torrential down pour that would have disheartened even Noah. Panicked passengers finally convinced the driver, who had no tarp on-board to protect the exposed bags, to pull over and load everything inside. Most luggage was piled in the rear of the bus, now high above mine and Sue’s head. Whatever would fit was stuffed into the tiny overhead luggage racks, surely over stressing whatever mechanism held them in place above passengers’ heads. Still inadequate to store all of the baggage, the floor of the bus entrance was littered with luggage as well. I made a note that if the bus were in an accident mine and Sue’s only escape route was over-top other passengers and out a window, provided we were not buried alive beneath a mountain of bags.
As it turned out, we could have simply taken the water taxi to the dock at Panajachel where local travel agencies were well represented. I know this because it was in the office of Travel Agency Xocomil that I found a savoir who kept calling the service supposed to be picking us up to ask where the shuttle was. Ironically, the office was directly across from where we were seated, waiting and waiting.
Would it have gotten us to Antiqua earlier? Yes it would have. Sue and I watched a shuttle clearly marked with the destination of Antiqua leave. We had assumed it was our ride and had tried to board it before being told our tickets were for another shuttle service.
Would it have saved us money? According to the travel agent it would have because there seemed to be a surcharge built into the price by the hostel. Probably because the shuttle bus service pays travel agents a commission, whereas hostels and resorts add something onto the price to make a profit.
Would we not have been riding in a bus full to capacity with passengers and overflowing with luggage. Probably not. Passenger comfort in collectivos, shuttle buses and chicken buses is not a priority. If another paying body can be wedged into a seat it will be. I have seen the driver’s helper forced to ride on the roof with the surplus luggage, cling to the ladded attached to the rear of the bus, or stand in the open doorway until departing passengers made room inside the cab.
The lesson learned is that there’s no substitute for handling your travel planning directly. The cost is less, and for sure the control you have over your own fate is greater. If you’re in Panajachel and destine for anywhere else, you will find knowledgeable, helpful assistance right on the docks…