“Make sure you don’t take a chicken bus!” screams Marco who is desperately trying to sell us a trip up a volcano and a shuttle ride in a touristic van. In the streets of the lovely city of Antigua, travel agencies compete to get business from the many tourists. This is precisely what we needed to hear to explore the local transport alternatives…
Past a lively market, dozens of colorful former US school buses are parked on a lot. In the USA, school buses are auctioned off once they reach 10 years of age or 150,000 miles. Often, they retire in Central or South American countries where after a colorful lifting to attract passengers, they go on for many more years and they don’t cease to amaze by their off-road abilities.
Ayudantes (or helpers) are screaming the destinations, trying to get their bus as full as possible while their driving partner is honking the loud horn to attract even more attention. We walk towards them and ask how we can get to Quetzaltenango, nicknamed Xela. After three consistent answers from three different guys, selling three different destinations, we feel confident in the way to go! Checking on the schedule, instead of three daily departures with the shuttles, chicken buses seem to go every 10 to 30 minutes. Price-wise: 230 quetzals (30USD) per person for the shuttles vs. 55 quetzals (7USD). It seems to be a no-brainer: let’s hop on!
Our bright red and green bus with a portrait of the virgin of Fatima glued on its back window is ready for departure. Backpacks on the roof, I take a couple of pictures and the bus is already on its way: I have to sprint and jump on its rear ladder, and have my favorite accomplice open the back door for me while it’s driving to get in! I am welcomed by shining Christmas decorations, a few praises to Jesus written above the windscreen and blasting Latino music.
The sound blasters are the most advanced and recent pieces of equipment aboard. Located above our heads, we are screaming to each other joyfully to communicate. Smiling locals join the conversation, happy to advise us on where to change and showing their pride when they hear how much we are enjoying Guatemala.
A few sellers jump on and off with ice-cold coconut water in plastic bags, some sweets, or pupusas (fried tortillas stuffed with beans, cheese or else) for the road. Less expected, a preacher tries to cover the music and bless passengers for about 10 minutes. We didn’t think taking the bus might be that unsafe!
When the heavy bus slows down, new passengers hop on, seating where they can, making of two 2-seater benches a unique 6-seater! Squeezing kids in, it quickly becomes a row of 10! The bus that seems to be designed for about 44 passengers carries 90, if not more! Plus luggage and chickens in baskets on its roof!
Despite the crowd, the ayudante still manages to make his way up and down the bus to collect fares, when he is not hanging out of the always open front door to get a few more customers standing by the side of the road or let a seller in with drinks and food. Even if he is driving at full speed overtaking cars, a whistle from the ayudante is enough for the driver to hit the brakes and stop by the side of the road before a competitive bus steals the passenger away!
Beyond the fun experience for travelers, locals don’t really have a choice as this is their main form of transportation. There are thousands of chicken buses through Guatemala and Central America, and they are far from being the safest vehicles as crashes with casualties are part of daily life. Riding them on good roads, by daylight and with your valuables by our side has proven to be convenient, efficient, cheap, thrilling and enjoyable with friendly and helpful Guatemalans.
Claire & Marcella
- We haven’t had any problems, but it is advised to stay close to your belongings at all times. If your heavy luggage don’t end up on the roof, the easiest way is to give it at the rear of the bus and hop in from the rear door to sit close to it.
- To know when and where chicken buses depart from, ask the locals as there are no printed schedules nor maps, but strongly rooted habits.
- Pay attention to the route as the destination might change! In our case, we took a direct bus to Antigua but were the only ones going there, so the driver decided to go straight to Guatemala City, dropping us off at the cross road to Antigua! With persistency and a decent Spanish, the ayudante realized he had to quickly arrange a smooth transfer at no additional cost. Maps.me is a fantastic tool to ensure you are on the correct road!
- Touristic shuttles are supposed to be safer. In reality, it is only one driver covering sometimes up to eleven hours of driving with only a few stops in heavily loaded vans. They are sold as being more comfortable, when in fact as many tourists as possible are piled up, and this is how we ended up spening eleven hours on the foldable mini-stool in the aisle. And yes, they are equipped with the A/C but it is hardly ever turned on. Still, it is a nice way to meet other travelers and exchange travel plans and tips in English. In our specific case, we enjoyed the local atmosphere of the chicken buses much better.