Amongst travelers and expats, Guatamala is famous for its buses. They have almost become a symbol for the country to the backpackers who have visited. There is a good reason for this, after all, where else can a simple bus trip involve watching someone climb across the roof at 80 miles an hour while squashed between two elderly indigenous women with salsa blaring and chickens running down the aisle? Only on a Guatemalan chicken bus.
The chicken bus starts its life as an American school bus – like the one from the Simpsons or the Magic School Bus – when it is deemed to old to be safely used in the USA, it is sold to Guatemala where it is born again and starts its new life.
Mechanics strip out the seats and replace them with longer, closer together benches, so that more people can be crammed in. They add new speaker systems so that salsa music can be played and high volume. Finally they give the buses their trademark paint jobs – the louder the design, and the brighter the paint, the better.
A Guatemalan Chicken bus awaits painting at a workshop near the city of Antigua
So what is a trip on a chicken bus like? Their novelty doesn’t stop at their design. Your journey will likely start at a bus station. Entering one of these can be a bewildering experience as the bus workers shout out their destination in musical tones and try their best to gather you up onto their vehicle.
Luggage is strapped to the roof of the Guatemalan chicken bus, instead of under the seats like in modern buses. It can be quite alarming seeing your backpack attached to the roof with nothing more than rope, and even more so when the journey starts and you realise how fast the driver is going.
By the time you leave, the bus will most likely be filled with more people than you thought possible, and you will probably be getting a little more intimately acquainted with your neighbour than you expected. The space is further limited by the sacks of grain or vegetables that the locals are taking with them. You may even see a live chicken running around – this is how the buses got their nickname.
The inside of a chicken bus. It won’t leave until all the seats are full
Once the journey has started, the buses assistant or ‘assistante’ will jump into action. He stands at the open door, shouting the destination at passers by and telling the driver to slow down whenever anyone shows an interest in getting on. He also moves up and down the bus collecting the fares, often having to push his way through the people packed standing in the aisle. Somehow he always remembers exactly who has and hasn’t paid yet, despite the large number of passengers. Sometimes he decides that it is too much hassle to make his way up the aisle and climbs out the door onto the roof – while the driver continues at full speed and takes the corners like a racing driver. Moments later the assistant appears at the back door and climbs back in to take more fares. When someone gets off he again climbs onto the roof and unties their baggage, before throwing it down to the waiting passenger.
The back of a chicken bus
While some find the experience intimidating and prefer to use the tourist shuttles to travel around the country, no visit is complete without at least one trip on a Guatemalan chicken bus. They are the lifeblood of the country – one where many can’t afford cars – and they are how most Guatemalans get around. Their staff take their lives into their hands everyday – not just by clambering over the roof, but also by braving the streets of the capital where they are increasingly being targeted by gangs who want to rob their passengers (don’t let this put you off, it is a phenomenon limited to local buses in Guatemala City and away from anywhere you are likely to visit). They are, without a doubt, one of the most exciting ways of getting from A to B.