Overland travel in Guatemala is in and of itself an adventure. Although the country is quite small, it is also extremely mountainous and infrastructure in many parts is lacking, because of this traveling to a destination that might be only 60 kilometers as the crow flies will end up lasting more than 2 hours. These overland jaunts are made even more colorful by the mode of transport known to locals as the colectivo, but more infamously dubbed by tourists as the “chicken bus”. The chicken bus is the way that most Guatemalans travel, it is the most economic, and is often the only option to reach many places in rural Guatemala.
The chicken buses are made from decommissioned U.S. Blue Bird public school buses whose ‘useful life’ in the states has come to an end, so they are resold, shipped, rebuilt and overhauled to Guatemala where transport collectives use them to zip throughout all sides of the country. The buses are pimped out; repainted with vivid colors and adorned by geometric shapes and designs, that give character and style points to attract the would-be passenger.
Customarily, the driver of the chicken bus, is a daredevil whom in another life was a Formula 1 pilot, and although in Guatemala he may not have the same technology, he won’t let that stop him from driving at the vehicle’s top speed, maneuvering back and forth over the double yellow line, and Tokyo drifting around hairpin mountain turns dangerously devoid of guardrails. The driver’s trusty seat is an improvised lawn chair and you can usually find near the cockpit a sticker that reads “Dios bendiga mi camino” (God protect my path). The pilot is always accompanied by a fearless assistant who amidst the stunt driving antics hangs out the open door with wind in his face and cigarette butt tightly clamped between his front teeth. The assistant juggles multiple tasks, from screaming the name of destination in a parrot-like cacophony, to climbing to the roof rack above to load large parcels, and walking back and forth throughout the crowded cabin to charge customers.
The PA system blares marimba hits at maximum volume, while the engine smell and the odor of the emergency brake waft through the floor boards, all of which add to the ambiance. Passengers are corralled onto the bus like farm animals, the seats are originally intended to carry two school-aged children in each row are overpacked, squeezing in three full grown adults each, with others standing in the aisle between. Often times women, with no choice but to stand, pawn off the chore of holding their babies to complete strangers who take on the responsibility without exception. The solidarity of Guatemalans traveling in situations like this is something to be admired, they don’t push or complain, but rather take on the attitude of ‘we’re all in this together, let’s make the best out of it’. And about the chickens, yes on occasion they are also brought aboard, but not as often as one might think. As the bus makes stops along the way street food vendors come aboard and hawk inexpensive and, at times, quite a delicious sampling of local cuisine.
Practical advice for riding in chicken busses:
The colectivos are often times the only way to reach far flung places, but that doesn’t mean that they go direct. Because of this it could be necessary to make as many as three different connections in a five hour travel, these exchanges could means getting off one bus grabbing backpacks and running directly to the other without either bus ever stopping. During these action packed combinations, keep in mind which destinations you will need to ask for and ask the driver’s assistant adamantly to be sure you heading in the right way. When choosing a seat, while there are no premium seats onboard, beware that there are seats that have their definite disadvantages. Try to avoid sitting on seats that have the bus’ wheel well below therefore seriously compromising leg room; as well as the last couple of rows in the back which with each bump along the way will catapult you off your rear and towards the ceiling. Finally, don’t forget to bring two things always helpful for Central American travel: your sense of adventure and sense of humor.