There is no way around a ride on a chicken bus in Guatemala. You might have heard of this transportation system before and have been wondering just like me: What on earth is a Chicken Bus? Well, they are part of the culture, part of Guatemala and yet another reason to fall in love with this vibrant country. They are fun, a bit crazy, but definitely worth an adventure and definitely worth a ride. It comes close to the Harry Potter Knight bus, where a three deck bus speeds through the narrow streets of London. Once you are on there, the best thing is to hold on for dear life
The Chicken Bus, a 'gringo' term for these converted school buses, is not to be missed on a trip to Guatemala and will undoubtedly add to a memorable, if unusual, part of the experience. Chicken buses, officially known as “camionetas;”, are the country’s local bus connecting all of Guatemala’s villages, towns, and cities. It is the main form of local transport usually the cheapest option for travelling for any distance. The term chicken bus originates from a long time ago, when the buses were commonly used by locals for the transport of stock (including live-stock such as chickens) from one place to another. What looks like an old school bus from the United States, but vividly painted in powerful colors and patterns, in fact turns out to be just that: a recycled school bus.
… And then: off you go! You can already hear them approaching from afar, when they announce themselves in an unsubtle way. The shouts come from all angles, along just about every street in Guatemala. They’re accompanied by the scream of exhausted brakes, each growl of the engine louder than the next and a thick curtain of smoke that wraps up every person that moves anywhere near the bus. And when you don’t hear them, then you can be sure to sight a colorful, yet beautiful bus that might look like it will fall apart once it completes another journey.
After the school bus in the US is doomed to be auctioned off after around 10 years or 150,000 miles, many of them are driven down to Guatemala to be stripped, refurbished, and pimped out. After several days of work, the bus appears at a new shining glance in a new colorful life. Usually, the buses’ are named after the owner’s daughter or girlfriend, which is then painted in large, glittery, gaudy font for everyone to see. The seats that were once meant to sit two little kids now sit four grown people. Maximum capacity here is only reached when no more bodies can be squeezed into the aisle or stairwell of the bus. Looking from the bright side, there is no need for a seat belt when you are wedged into position by the people sitting next to you, almost like sausages in a hotdog.
We learned in driving school to slow down before entering a curve, but chicken bus drivers must have been absent in that lesson. The driver and ayudante are expected to pay a daily flat fee for the route, so to make a profit they must drive the route as many times as possible per day. Maybe that’s why their train of thought is that if passengers endure to stand on their two feet they are taking the curve too slow. On the ride, there is no car, truck or bus they will not overtake with ease, even on narrow lanes with oncoming traffic. Speed limits are certainly not part of their agenda and only exist for every other vehicle except for the chicken buses (of course).
The Ayudantes, actually responsible for loading the cargo and ticketing the passengers, could probably open up a side business as a circus artist. It is incredible how they can deceptively maneuver through small spaces that you didn't know existed, to collect the money of the many passengers on board. Sometimes they even climb on the roof of the full speeding bus to collect money from passengers through the window or take off the suitcases that were piled up to enormous mountains on the top of the bus, held together by a rather precarious ropes. There is no passenger capacity, so even if the bus is full to the brim, the ayudantes keep filling it. There is certainly no such thing as a maximum capacity.
…After several entertaining hours of driving you arrive at your destination. As quick as you jumped on to the bus, as fast you have to jump off the bus with determination to not miss your stop. Within seconds, the bus disappears in the distance.
Ready to jump on a chicken bus? Safe travels.