I have “fond” memories from my months spent living in Costa Rica several years ago of overnight bus rides between countries, teeth chattering in the outrageously frigid air conditioning, back feeling broken from the cramped seats and, of course, unable to sleep so bored to the extreme with my hundredth viewing of the movie “Hancock,” which Central America seemed obsessed with that year.

So when I heard about an option to take an overnight bus from Guatemala City to Flores – 9 hours of bumpy roads rather than a 1-hour (but $100 pricier) flight – I was resistant. I decided to take the flight.

But then I remembered – wait. I live in a car. Why am I so loath to spend a night in a bus?

I then realized that because of flight/bus times, even though the travel time would be shorter, I would lose significantly more of a day if I flew to Flores rather than taking buses the entire way. Sure, I’d have a night of missed sleep, but fewer valuable daytime hours spent in busses or airports.

Besides, eight hours years had passed since my last overnight bus ride in Central America and it would be an adventure.

Lanchas are the most common form of transportation between the towns of Lake Atitlan

It all added up to 16 hours of travel time. At 11am, I took a lancha (boat) across Lake Atitlan from San Pedro to Panajachel, where I caught a bus to Guatemala City at 4pm, arriving at 9pm. My overnight bus left at 10pm, and I arrived in Flores at 6 the next morning, just in time to catch another bus the last two hours to Tikal. Phew.

It was a long, cold, and sleepless journey, but when I arrived in Tikal National Park at 8:30am I was wide awake and eager to spend the day exploring (…after a cup of extra strong coffee, of course.)

If you’re visiting Guatemala, Tikal National Park and the nearby island town of Flores should be on your “must see” list. They can, however, be a bit challenging to reach before of their distance from the areas that are more centrally located to Guatemala City and the airport (Antigua, Chichicastenango, Xhela, and the towns of Lake Atitlan.)

Isla de Flores is a colorful island in northern Guatemala that is a must-see in tandem with a visit to Tikal National Park

Renting a car in Guatemala is definitely not recommended, so the options are the ~$140, 1-hour flight from Guatemala City, or the ~$30-50 (depending on the type of bus and where you start from) bus trip. The bus from Guatemala City to Flores is 8-9 hours and you can choose to make the trip during the day or the night. I would suggest the overnight bus so that you don’t spend a day on a bus when you could be out doing so many other things, particularly if, unlike me, you’re able to sleep on buses, but if you are like me… well, then you just have to decide if you’d rather lose a day of exploring or lose a night of sleep.

If budget is no issue, it would probably make the most sense to fly – especially if you’re already in or near Guatemala City. Since I wasn’t (I was in the farthest-away town on Lake Atitlan) the time involved in getting back to Guatemala City and then waiting for a flight time that matched up would have left me with more lost daylight hours than the 16 hours of bus (and boat) travel.

So I took an overnight bus to Flores, and it definitely was an adventure.

If you’re visiting Guatemala and decide to bus rather than fly to Flores/Tikal, here are a few tips:

  1. Pack layers. The buses are cold. 
  2. Don’t try to get there on chicken busses.
  3. Pack snacks. If you can’t sleep, at least you’ll have something to eat…
  4. Take the Linea Dorada bus line (I didn’t do this, but heard that it is the best)

Sunset from Templo IV at Tikal National Park