When you think of Guatemala, an image comes to mind, a colourful, messy, folky picture of old American school buses converted into the country’s backbone transport system: the “chicken” bus is an experience in itself. Often the cheapest way to travel, though not the safest, the chicken bus offers the unique opportunity to see inside Guatemalans’ daily life and to witness the truly creative and folkloric spirit of its owners. Like in Paul Theroux’s train travels, chicken bus can also be a great way to watch the local culture naturally unfold before your eyes.
Like most of the traditional textiles, the chicken bus is adorned with exotic paintings and patterns, nick knacks, noisy néon-like sound systems and religious sayings. Phrases like “Jesus es mi guia” or “Dios me protegerá” act like a spell, protecting the driver and the occupants from his reckless driving. It’s common watching a bus speeding up in tight curves in a mountain road, and as we experienced first hand, races more fearsome than F1 are disputed between two buses, despite the dozens of prickling souls aboard. It can be a scary experience but it can also open your eyes and your heart to the wonders of travel, which evidently demand some adrenaline and adventure to be worth.
When you go aboard a chicken bus, you need to be prepared for an array of situations, some of them funnier than others. From sharing your seat with three other people (when the maximum occupancy is two), sometimes even a chicken, to listening to dozens of salesmen raving the bus with their products and mambo jumbo talk, or to sit tight while the bus jumps on the road bumps.
The trip is dotted with several characters, some of them I must say very impressive, but for me the winner, due to his tenacity in standing when the bus’ tires are screeching in a crazy tight curve to collect the money from the customers, is the bus helper or ayudante. He’s a cornerstone piece of this transport system. Thanks to him, the array of volumous, heavy packages are lifted and stored on the bus rooftop, the stops are announced and the lost tourists get useful information of when and where to hop off. He’s a brave individual, conscious of his job and, at the minimum, a hero – exiting the bus through the back door and climbing the outside ladder to compose some luggage in the rooftop is a requirement (with the bus at more then 80km/hour).
The chicken bus should be considered when you want a readily available, fast and economic means of transportation between villages, although in the opinion of several travellers and locals, it shouldn’t be used to travel inside Guatemala City, specially at night, when gangsters usually board the buses to their own convenience.
Chicken buses are for Guatemala roads what corn is for the Mayas, a day-to-day essential, the way people with less means and budget travellers make their way through the rough, mountainous Guatemalan landscape.
Check some of these links if you want to have a fuller insight on chicken buses and tips to travel Guatemala using this service. And have fun watching the video with our experience!
– East Village Nomad first hand experience of an American traveller
– A step-by-step guide on riding the chicken buses in Guatemala a useful how-to guide
– World next door full of humour, this author gives her own perspective on the chicken buses
– Amusing planet beautiful images of the chicken bus and its lively crowd