Our first trip to El Aeropuerto Internacional La Aurora (GUA) was a confusing! Since then, we’ve been taking notes for fellow travelers. We hope this information helps you get through customs, find an ATM and get your cell phone working before you hit the kindly streets of Guatemala.
Location of La Aurora Airport
La Aurora Airport is located in a city neighborhood about four miles from downtown. There is a shopping center to the north of the runway, extensive city development close by on either side, and a giant ravine at the south end of the runway. Sure, a DC-10 crashed into that ravine in 1999, but that was then, and today is your day. You’re off to great places. You’re off and away!
But maybe you’ve got some time to kill. The airport is not far from the Aurora Zoo, Museo Nacional de Historia (National History Museum), el Palacio Nacional de Cultura, and el Museo de Ferrocarril (Railroad Museum), among others. It’s not a bad neighborhood.
History of La Aurora Airport
La Aurora Airport, like much of Guatemala, has a history steeped in mid-20th century American geopolitics. What was previously a modest airfield was modernized and expanded into the “Guatemala City Airbase” serving the US Army Air Force with a mission to protect the Central American coastline from an attack by Axis power submarines.
The US military closed the base after the Guatemalan Revolution in 1949. You can still see some military aircraft in the airplane boneyard at the north end of the runway. Since then it has been renovated a few times, but is still limited to one relatively short runway since it is located inside the city.
As you exit the airport, you will pass under a large brick archway– El Acueducto de Pinula. This towering Romanesque aqueduct was built in 1776 to deliver water ~5 miles from the Pinula River to the then new capital– Guatemala City. The old capital, Antigua, was largely destroyed by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and months of aftershocks in 1773.
Bring a Pen
Before you land, flight attendants will distribute a one page customs form. It is also available upon arrival. You've got plenty of time to fill it out. The form itself is easy, but most airlines don’t give out pens. Bring a pen! Or better yet, bring two, and be a hero to a fellow traveler.
Usually the air conditioning works at La Aurora Airport; sometimes it doesn’t. Things can get sweaty. There is a drinking fountain in the arrival area– we don’t recommend using it. We've never heard of potable tap water anywhere in Guatemala. There is only one place to buy water and snacks on the arrival side of the airport– Cafe Baretto, outside of security, near ground transportation.
Use The Bathroom
If you missed the airplane bathroom, you’ve got three more options before you leave the airport. The first is on the right, before customs. The second is near the baggage claim. The third, final and dirtiest bathroom is outside of security, near Cafe Baretto.
Expect that you will soon be in a customs line, then a traffic jam, then 2-4+ hours of ground transportation before your final destination. Bathroom quality will decrease the closer you get to the street. Bring your own wad of toilet paper, don’t expect a toilet seat and be prepared to pay for a roadside bathroom.
Landing in Guatemala City
As you approach, you’ll see dense neighborhoods perched on mountainsides. Chances are it will be a quick and bumpy descent through the clouds to land. We usually pass customs in about 25 minutes.
Deplaning is the standard experience a retro twist: vintage mid-century institutional blue jet bridges. Your herd of passengers will ascend a ramp to an elevated walkway above the departure terminal, then back down escalators to the custom area located in the basement.
COVID-19 Entry Requirements for Guatemala
Once upon a time there were COVID entry requirements for Guatemala. Not any more. iViva la libertad!
Customs at La Aurora Airport
Expect to walk about ¼ mile as you pass through customs checkpoints at La Aurora Airport. First you will climb stairs to an elevated walkway above the departure gates. Next you drop down some escalators to arrive at the main checkpoint- it comes after the escalators. That agent will stamp your passport. The third and final agent is after baggage claim. He or she will review your entry form one last time, and keep it. After that, you are mere seconds from the street.
Baggage Claim at Guatemala City Airport
The baggage claim is located just before the third customs checkpoint. It is staffed by friendly folks who will ask to see your baggage ticket or passport.
Contraband, Contraband, Contraband (contraband)
Recreational drugs are illegal in Guatemela-- numerous signs tell you this upon arrival. There is a k-9 checkpoint between the baggage claim and the last checkpoint. We're not sure what the dogs are sniffing around for (drugs, bombs, plant specimens?). Stay safe.
Before You Exit the Airport
After the last customs checkpoint, you will walk a few strides and pass through one-way sliding doors to the unsecured exit foyer. This is a small area just before you go outside the building. It has a tourist information desk immediately to the left, next to the TukTuk statue. To the right is a glass-walled indoor waiting area for shuttle drivers. If you pre-arranged transportation you may find your driver in the indoor waiting area by Cafe Bareto, or on the sidewalk just outside the airport exit.
Along the walkway, you will find your rental car, with booths for Hertz, ACE and other companies. There is also a Taxi booth here. Expect some mild barking of services as you pass by the booths.
Exiting the Airport
After the long march through customs, the airport exit is abrupt. Stop and take a breath before you leave– it’s hectic outside! There is usually a really happy crowd with balloons and banners jammed up just past the exit door. Expect to get rushed by taxi drivers and shuttle services– but avoid arranging transportation on the street. If you need a ride from the Guatemala City Airport, go back inside and ask the information desk for help.
Cars pickup on the thoroughfare immediately outside the exit doors. To the right is Cafe Baretto and the taxi pickup. Cross the road to get to the parking garage. Inside the garage is a stairwell if you need to get upstairs to the departure level.
If possible, arrange your ground transportation prior to arrival at La Aurora airport in Guatemala City. Confused tourists are a target in any city. The best defense is to have a plan, and a backup plan for ground transportation.
We prefer a private driver recommended by a local. San Pedro Spanish School has a list of drivers that they trust and they have served our family well over the years. Private, one-way transportation to Lago Atitlan takes 3-4 hours and costs $80-$130. Departure is immediate. Your driver will be happy to stop for whatever small thing you need– the bathroom, ATM, lunch, etc.
If you prefer to arrange things online, then GuateGo is an easy website to pre-book safe, easy, affordable shuttles and private transportation. The advantage to pre-booking is that you won’t have to wait around for other riders to share your shuttle. Expect to wait 30-90 minutes for your shared shuttle service. Nearly all shuttles go first to Antigua. From there, you will transfer to another shuttle to reach your destination. We recently paid Q300 ($40) for a 4 hour trip from the airport to Panajachel.
If you must arrange transportation upon arrival, then we recommend that you ask the information desk by the TukTuk statue or the taxi booth located in the exit foyer, before you go outside. A taxi to Antigua is about $40. A taxi to Lago Atitlan is $130 or more. Go outside and turn right to find the pickup area.
Where to Wait for Your Ride
Cafe Baretto is the only comfortable place to wait for your driver. Exit the airport, turn right and walk a few steps to find the cafe entrance. They have decent espresso, pastries and sandwiches. They also have free (slow) wifi and a payphone. This is your last chance to use the bathroom and buy a bottle of water before you leave the airport.
Uber in Guatemala City
We do not recommend Uber in Guatemala. The prices can be terrible when traffic is bad. Traffic is usually bad. There are so many other good transportation options. In a foreign land, We prefer to trust a recommended driver, not an app. Then again, we’re old school.
Chicken Buses in Guatemala City
We do not recommend that you leave Guatemala City on public transportation, aka Chicken Buses. These repurposed old school buses are an extremely fun and safe way to get around the countryside. However, in the city, the bus companies are extorted by Mareros (cartels).
It’s also a lot more complicated to leave Guatemala City on a chicken bus. First, you will need a taxi to take you to the bus stop. Then you will likely take two or more buses to get to your destination.
The tourist shuttles are safer, faster and a great deal, by foreign standards. Save your chicken bus adventures for places outside of the city.
If you must ride the bus, then you ought to speak Spanish fluently. Just ask a taxi driver to take you to the bus stop in Guate that serves your destination. Or save the adventure for later. Antigua is a great place to depart by chicken bus. By the way, the locals call them camionetas or trambilla.
A local recommended Hotel Dos Lunas to us when we had an early flight. Dos Lunas is a small hostel/B&B in a gated community 2-3 minutes from the airport. We love this place because the couple who own it speak 4 languages and are enthusiastic hosts with an abundance of recommendations. Breakfast and concierge services are provided by Lorena, a very helpful Guatemalan Native. The airport shuttle is provided by her Dutch husband, Henk, in his vintage Volkswagen Microbus.
Fancy hotels are an order of magnitude cheaper in Guate than in the United States. We recommend Hotel Grand Tikal Futura for a bit of luxury at the start or end of your trip . You’ll have a chance to explore the neighborhood safely because it is attached to one shopping mall and across the street from another. There is also an atrium with a staffed pool club and spa. The hotel provides a private airport shuttle for a fee (Q200).
SIM Card Services at Guatemala City Airport
You have one chance to buy a SIM card at La Aurora Airport– the Tigo kiosk. It is located immediately after the metal detectors and before the main customs checkpoint. Plans start at $15. We usually buy the 4GB tourist plan for $20. The helpful agent will do all installation and setup work for you. It feels good your cell phone connected immediately.
You'll pay less and get more if you buy your SIM card in Anigua or whatever your final destination is. Outside of the airport, it is 100 quetzales for a 10gb plan and Q20 for the "Chip" ($13 for the service, $2.57 for the SIM card).
There are two cell phone companies in Guatemala: Tigo and Claro. Tigo works better at Lago Atitlán.
WIFI at La Aurora Airport
The Guatemala City airport has inconsistent and sometimes broken WIFI throughout the airport. There are two free networks in the departure area, and one free network that you can catch at arrivals, near Cafe Baretto. Chances are you won’t be able to use it for much, but it may help you contact your driver if you don’t have cell service.
ATMs at Guatemala City Airport
There are multiple ATMs in the arrival area of La Aurora Airport. There is only one “Banco 5B” ATM on the arrival side. Look for this ATM after the metal detectors, after the down escalator, on the left, just before the main customs queue. This ATM has a Q45 fee and a 6.5% markup– the same as all 5B locations in Guatemala.
If you miss the ATM during customs, you have one more chance. There is another “5B” ATM on the ground floor of the parking garage.
Money Exchange at La Aurora Airport
There are two places to exchange money upon arrival at the Guatemala City airport, though the second one is usually closed. The first money exchange is located next to the Tigo cell phone kiosk, immediately after the metal detectors and before the down escalators. The second is located near the 5B ATM, located on the left, after the down escalator and before the main customs checkpoint.
The airport is a terrible place to exchange money. Expect to pay 25% more than the market rate (6.08 vs 7.6 Quetzales per dollar). If possible, exchange your money further away from the airport. Exchange dollars at a bank for the best exchange rate(currently Q7.6 per dollar). Travel agencies and storefront exchanges will charge a significantly worse rate (currently Q7 per dollar).
Make sure your American dollars are crisp, clean, unripped and unstained. Most banks reject any dollars that are blemished. Many banks will only exchange $50 and $100 dollar bills.