From the outside, Guatemala’s famous chicken buses are beautiful to behold. In a previous life, each camioneta (“closed van”), as Guatemalans call them, was a North American school bus. Upon retirement from school duties when they reach ten years’ service or fifty thousand miles on the clock these buses are driven south to Guatemala to begin a new life.
At the hands of the passionate and artistic Guatemalans each bus is transformed from a drab and dusty caterpillar into a polished-chrome and colourfully-decorated butterfly. A new chicken bus is born and ready to enter public service, transporting locals and budget-conscious travellers over some of the most demanding roads, dirt-tracks and hair-raising mountain passes that rugged Central America can throw at them.
As individual and delightful to look at as chicken buses might be from the outside, spending any length of time inside one is a different matter altogether. Chicken buses earned their nickname as a result of their use by locals who, often lacking a vehicle of their own, use them to transport livestock. Even if there are no animals on board, the cheapness and convenience of travelling on chicken buses means that they are nearly always crammed to bursting with passengers and cargo.
For backpackers, gap-year travellers and the generally adventurous overseas visitor there are many upsides to travelling Guatemala aboard a chicken bus. Firstly, as mentioned, they are an extremely inexpensive mode of transport. Secondly, they provide an unforgettable experience and an insight into daily life in the country. And thirdly, they tend to get from A to B extremely quickly; competition for fares is fierce and most chicken bus drivers wouldn’t look out of place on a Formula One circuit even when they’re negotiating some of the most hazardous routes.
Inevitably, there are downsides too. Chicken buses generally range from ‘uncomfortable’ to ‘downright uncomfortable’: think minimal legroom, hard seats (if you’re fortunate enough to get a seat), poor suspension/shock absorbers and conditions so cramped by other people, their animals and luggage that you may be pinned in position for your entire journey.
Nevertheless, everyone who visits Guatemala should experience a chicken bus ride at least once and, armed with an adventurous spirit and an open mind it is possible to survive to tell the tale. Here are some useful tips on how to survive the chicken buses in Guatemala.
By their very nature it would be impossible for a chicken bus to keep to any sort of timetable. In urban areas you’ll see them frequently, in more rural areas its best to politely enquire when and where the next one is likely to turn up and wait patiently.
Be sure to confirm the destination
When a chicken bus turns up, be sure to check that it stops at your intended destination. Ask either the driver, their assistant (an ayudante) or other passengers. Also ask to be informed when the bus is approaching your stop so that you don’t miss it.
Don’t hesitate to climb aboard
Chicken buses operate on a sit first, pay later basis. If you are carrying a large backpack the ayudante will take this from you and secure it on the roof rack. Chicken buses can normally be boarded from the front and the rear. The rear is a good bet for grabbing spare seats or, at least, more space.
Pay what the locals pay
It would be harsh to state that chicken bus drivers will blatantly rip you off, but they might exploit the opportunity to make a few extra dollars (‘Gringo Tax’!) from an unwary traveller. Find out from a local what they would pay to travel to your destination and ensure that you have the change to be able to give the driver this exact amount. Be polite and confident and you should avoid any potential hassle.
Hold on tight
Depending upon your driver and destination you may be in for a white-knuckle ride. Guatemala’s roads vary in condition and drivers have a tendency to fling buses around tight corners and hairpin bends. Whilst accidents are rare, journeys can occasionally be hair-raising.
Enjoy the experience
Guatemala is an outstandingly beautiful country, and travelling through it on a chicken bus is a unique experience. It might not be entirely comfortable or luxurious but it’s got to be more exciting than sitting behind a desk on a rainy afternoon waiting for five o’clock to slowly tick around…