Chicken buses are the way of the people in Guatemala. No trip in this country is complete without at least one experience flying down the potholed roads on one of these refurbished school buses packed with white knuckled locals.
Thanks to the competitive system of the chicken bus world, even short ride between towns is destined to be a wild one. Bus drivers here pay a flat fee to the company per day and have an assigned route where passengers are picked up and dropped off at will. Any money that stands to be made depends on the drivers ability to pick up as many passengers as possible on every route. This only encourages the chauffeurs to drive faster and more dangerously as they battle to overtake fellow bus drivers, even on single lane cobblestone city roads.
Chicken Bus Tips #1
1. Greet the bus passengers and bus driver as you enter the bus. It is not common for locals to say hello or rather, ‘Hola’ to one another. Be a respectful and knowledgeable traveller by saying “Buenos dias” (Good morning) or “Buenas tardes” (Good afternoon).
Chicken Bus Tips #2
2. You are about to learn how a sardine feels trapped in a tin can. If near a terminal, get to your stop well in advance of your departure time (at least 10 minutes early) to grab a seat, otherwise you will end up standing the entire ride while holding someone’s chicken or puppy. True story. This actually happened to me. Babysitting the puppy was fun but I was not coordinated enough to successfully carry a live chicken with one arm as the driver went off-roading.
Our experience last night brought us within an inch of a T-bone collision when our eager driver decided to ignore the stop sign in order to purposely cut off a colleague in a brightly coloured chicken bus headed in the same direction. After a seemingly endless horn blaring confrontation which brought out neighbours from several homesteads, the other driver finally eased off the brakes to take the lead. The next 20 minutes involved a thrilling series of near misses as our driver made every maneuver possible to overtake between passenger stops. The whole ride resembled something out of the Fast and the Furious as a third bus joined the chase each driver going pedal to the metal, swerving all over the road and throwing on the brakes as hard as possible just for good measure.
Chicken Bus Tips #3
3. Locals have recommended to us that it is less safe to take the bus at night near big cities. Instead, after sundown, rely on taxis or the cheaper option, a ‘tuktuk’.
Chicken Bus Tips #4
4. While I regularly observed locals playing angry birds or texting friends on their cell phones, I always refrained from showing anything of value publicly. Petty theft is common on buses throughout Central America so always err on the side of caution and keep your valuables hidden.
In the end, we arrived safely and unharmed. We can look back at the experience as just that, an experience, but for millions of Guatemalans, this intimidating ride is their only option and they always seem to make the best of it. Every passenger on the bus is courteous and accommodating, even fitting 3 or 4 people per seat so that less people have to stand for the ride (or so that even more will fit inside).
Chicken Bus Tips #5
5. Know the name of the exact place and general area you are travelling to and have them written down so you can show the driver if you are unclear how to pronounce it correctly. Sometimes buses are rerouted on account of road construction and this information will not posted so it’s important to know general directions.