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Getting around by chicken buses in Guatemala will provide travelers with moments that are never dull. These iconic rolling heaps of colorfully painted metal and blaring soundtracks keep things moving, and you will find yourself aboard them quite often. Riding chicken buses presents an experience just as unique as the individual flourishes that festoon these retired gringo school buses.
However, do not expect much in the way of comfort or decorum; people are herded on and congealed together in a fashion that leaves one feeling more like a commodity rather than a mere passenger. Pay no mind to the suggested legal capacity of the bus, which is a remnant of it’s former life as an operating school bus. You will see how 5 bums can easily squeeze into a seat meant for 2. In this post I will shed a light on ways to enjoy the ride, pointing out all the things that may make chicken buses one of your most memorable experiences in Guatemala.
1. They Are Cheap
Should you have more time on your side rather than money, chicken buses have you covered; as a rule of thumb you can figure on paying about $1 for every hour of travel time. Short jaunts, such as day trips from wherever you may be based, will cost pennies. Simply board the bus and the helper, or ayudante, will ask of your final destination and charge accordingly in most cases. It is a good idea to ask the locals what the going rate is, although the vast majority of ayudantes will play fair.
Considering how cheap chicken buses are, I do believe they represent an amazing value. As I explain the other reasons why you may just love being raced around the Guatemalan countryside packed into a shiny metal box, you will see exactly what it is you get in return for your cost of fare. Being aboard a chicken bus is a bit more than just getting on and getting from point A to point B.
2. They Are Entertaining
Often times your dare-devil driver has chosen some mood music to help pull the whole experience together. The interior of the buses are sometimes drenched in colorful, twinkling Christmas lights that just leave one longing for all sorts of musical genres blasted at head-splitting levels; norteño tunes, salsa, banda, reggae, hip-hop, trip-hop, smooth jazz, and almost any other type of audible entertainment you could want.
When that radio station or that mix-tape becomes too much for your ears, you can count on other diversions to keep you dazzled. At certain stops – oddly at times in the middle of nowhere – salesmen will hop on and belt out a long-winded spiel extolling the virtues of whatever it is they happen to be selling. Medicinal products seem to make up the bulk of these goods, and they seem to be tailor-made for the bulk of whatever may be ailing you at that moment.
These salesmen engage a very clever old sales-trick that has all but died out these days; they hand out their product for closer inspection. As he gives his pitch to the rapt audience, you are left actually holding this little tub of miracle cream or bottle of capsules. Simply hand it back if you have not been suffering from general malaise that morning or if you are not at all concerned with optimal liver function. These guys make a killing, believe it or not.
Some of the best entertainment may come from the ayudantes, and even from the drivers themselves. Although you may feel like you need some type of cursory knowledge of acrobatics to to get on or off a chicken bus, the real stars are the helpers who stow cargo on the roof of the bus. Operating a chicken bus route is full of competition, therefore it is required of the ayudante to sometimes stow that roof-top cargo while the bus is thundering down the road. If the bus stops for too long, that competitor passes, and as the saying goes, “The early chicken gets the worm”.
Whenever a passenger boards mid-route with a large amount of goods, they are thrown into the fray with the other passengers as their things are put on top of the bus as it speeds away! Their belongings are tied down and the helper suddenly appears back inside the bus after climbing down from the roof and getting back in through the widow or the front/back door. Quite a crazy sight to see!
Perhaps the most amazing thing we have seen involved a change of drivers, also while the bus was moving! As the bus trundled through town, the driver simply got up from the seat and scurried off the bus as his colleague scurried on and landed at the helm. Even though the bus was only coasting along at idle speed I would have to say it was in full suicide mode for about 5 seconds!
3. They Are Easy To Use
We seldom complain about something being easy, or user-friendly, and chicken buses have this wonderful quality down to a science. Too often we have all been on buses that either do not stop at all or only stop at designated places along the way. What if you need to get off the bus now or here? What if you need to get on the bus now or here? Who is looking out for you and what you need? What could be more simple than a bus that stops wherever you ask it, or picks you up wherever you happen to be on the side of the road?
The chicken bus operates along a fixed route, so they may not get you to your door. They will pull over to pick up and drop off anywhere along that route, which makes sense if you think about it. Even if you need a connecting bus and you tell the helper as much, you can rest easy knowing that they will inform you when to hop out at the junction where your connection bus will be waiting for you sometimes!
Chicken buses mostly start and end in one central area, or terminal. The route is spelled out clearly above the front window of the bus, e.g. HUEHUE-MOMO, or Huehuetenango to Momostenango. There is no need for a ticket or a reservation. Just find your bus, dig the far-out paint job and hop on. Chicken buses are simply perfect in my opinion.
4. They Are Frequent
You will most likely be hurried onto a chicken bus at the terminal once your destination is known to the helper. The level of urgency they display to get you on the bus is comical; this may just be the last bus to Chimaltenango and it is leaving right now as we speak! There will be another bus idling right behind it, so hop on whichever bus is the least packed so you can score a seat. There is always another bus right behind, either at the terminal or road-side. There is no schedule either, for they just seem to keep appearing.
Even though there are so many chicken buses going to your destination – as if to make it seem like they are falling from the sky – they do start winding down in the early evening. It would be great if they ran later, I must say. They do start early, around 5.00 AM or so. Being that these buses are so frequent, I do encourage you to be picky with which bus you choose. My belief is any bus that is clean and looking snazzy with a fresh and bold paint-job must have a kick-ass breaking system as well. Safety first!
5. They Are Authentic
Once you have decided to make your own transportation arrangements aboard a chicken bus, you will soon see how vital they are. Quite the slice of Guatemalan life is on display here. We all need to get from here to there and in this case we, as travelers, are right alongside everyone else. Some people are actually making a living off these routes, either selling seats or salves. Vendors also hop on selling soda and snacks, and the buyers are happy to have a moment to sit there and chow down in relative peace. Old friends bump into one another aboard chicken buses. Even chickens bump into one another aboard chicken buses.
Imagine our pleasant surprise when we one day boarded a chicken bus from Xela to Llanos del Pinal and saw that our bus was being driven by a Mayan woman. That was a rare sight indeed, for women rarely even drive cars here. We kindly asked her if we could take a photo. She seemed very proud. Along that same route another time, we witnessed our driver (a male driver) stop to settle a score. A rather brutal fist-fight broke out in front of our bus, and he soon got back on all bloodied and looking like he was dealt the lower hand. Life happens all around on a chicken bus.
I am convinced if you look hard enough around you on a chicken bus you will notice that you are part of a rolling little community that is dangerously hurtling down the highway together. The absurdness of it all leaves you, the traveler, feeling like you have realized what it is you are doing, and why you are doing it; you are here to experience, enjoy and learn. So, hop on the next chicken bus you can and dig the ride!