Travel Tips: A Survival Guide to Guatemalan Chicken Buses

kaapshljmurslis n. The feeling of being cramped while riding public transportation during rush hour.

Why are you slowing down?  Don’t let those people get on!  How can you possibly think another body is going to fit on this bus?  No, I don’t want any fucking lichichas, and stop waving them in my face! Holy shit, why are you taking that corner so fast? I am going to die.  Wait, are you letting more people on?  On second thought, please just let me die.

Those are some of the many thoughts that have ran through my head while riding on Guatemalan chicken buses. While spending hours with my arms squished down to my sides, wondering whether that stench of body odor was coming from me or the fat man smashed up against me, I had a lot of time to think.  And in that time, I devised a few rules to make your chicken bus experience maybe just a little bit less terrible.  So get cozy with the three other people sharing your two person seat and read on. 

If you don’t know, a chicken bus is simply a retired school bus, usually revamped with a very bright paint job and some gaudy chrome.  On the inside, you’ll find some sort of tribute to Jesus, like El Rey de los Reyes or Dios es Amor, above the driver’s seat and at least twice the amount of people than the bus should be able to hold. 

1. Always keep your bags where you can see them: We’ve never had any criminal experience on a chicken bus, but we have read that they are the perfect environments for bag slashers, pick pockets, and thieves.  We met a British traveler who told us a story of one guy trying to steal her daypack right from between her legs as she slept on an overnight bus.  For the most part, the buses are too crowded for anyone to really try anything, but just be aware.  We always made sure we could see our packs in the overhead racks and never let them put our bags on the roof of the bus.  After one rainy ride where our stuff got soaked, we said, “Never again.”  Plus, I always had horrific visions of our stuff flying off on the highway or being carried away by some opportunistic robber at a stop.

2. Always put your bags in the overhead bins: If you try to keep your pack on the seat with you, they’ll charge you for an extra ticket.  Besides, on most chicken bus rides, there isn’t even enough room for all the people they try to cram on, let alone bags.

3. Keep anything you need in a bag on you: If you think you can just stash your stacks and cash in the top pocket on your pack and get it out when you need, think again.  Once you’re seated on a chicken bus, chances are you’ll be far too blocked in to even think about getting out until your stop.  Make sure you have everything you might possibly need for the ride on your person when you sit down.

4. Don’t believe the bus drivers and ticket takers: They’ll tell you a lot of things that aren’t true, even the destination of the bus.  That happens rarely though.  More often than not, they’ll simply tell you the bus is direct, or directo, when it’s actually not.

5. Check and double check everything: This goes hand in hand with the last one.  Whenever you get on a bus, double check with one of the passengers about he bus’ destination. They’re a lot less likely to lie to you than those who seek to gain profit from your business.

6. Know how much the ride should cost: Ticket takers will also lie to you about the price of a bus in effort to make a little extra cash off the ignorant gringo.  Try to find the price of a bus online first.  A lot of travel blogs, my own included, try to include the price of each bus ride on a journey.  If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know how much it should cost, ask one of the other passengers or watch how much they’re paying.  If the collector tries to charge you more, simply say, “No.  El precio es [insert correct price here].”  They might try to argue with you a bit, but if you hold your ground, they’ll back down.  Just remember that these attempts to swindle you aren’t so much malicious as opportunistic. 

7. Sit toward an exit: The closer you are to an exit, the faster you can get off the bus.  More specifically, however, sit toward the back exit.  As the bus fills with people, the back will be the last place where they’ll smash three people together on a two person seat, so maybe you’ll luck out and get off before that happens.

8. Keep your things together and be ready to leave at any moment: You won’t always be lucky enough to know exactly when your stop or point of change is coming.  Sometimes, it’ll happen when you’re least prepared and suddenly the collector will be ushering for you to get off the bus.  You’ll frantically have to gather your bags and scramble off before the driver pulls away.  The readier you are for this moment, the less shocking it will be.

9. Don’t freak out about changing buses: Many travel blogs and forums will attempt to scare their readers by stating how dangerous many of the changeover towns are.  It’s scaremongering and nothing more.  The changeovers from bus to bus are quick and painless and if you have to walk at all, it’s hardly very far.  There’s no opportunity to find yourself in a dangerous situation and the collectors on each bus are very good about pointing you to the next bus you need.  The worst part about the changeover is their speed.  Sometimes you hardly get a foot on the bus before it starts to speed away.  One bus pulled out on us as Chris was still hanging on the back ladder.

10. Also don’t freak out about the insane driving: I’ve read so many different blogs about people who have taken these buses and complained about the driving.  Yes, the drivers are crazy, but all drivers in Central America are crazy, so it becomes a matter of conforming to survive.  And what a survival experience it is: The roads are narrow and filled with potholes, cars pass each other like middle school kids pass notes, and the buses themselves are crammed to such a degree of overcapacity that you can’t even imagine how the bus manages to chug uphill.  Despite all that, I never felt unsafe, per se.  The drivers really do know what they’re doing.  They know exactly what speed that can take that corner at without tipping the bus and they know exactly how much space they need to pas that car before smashing into the oncoming one.  It’s a thrilling ride, but really not a life-threatening one.

11. Dress coolly:  While some of the more mountainous chicken bus routes, like that from Antigua to Lake Atitlan, can be a little chilly, all in all, it’s best to dress in cool clothing because you’ll end up sweating your skin off anyway.  When the drivers pile 120 people on a bus designed to hold maybe 60, it gets hot in a hurry.  The worst I’ve ever felt on a chicken bus was not, in fact, when I was trying not to shit my brains out or even when I had so munch sinus pressure going over a mountain pass that I felt like my head was going to explode.  No, the worst I’ve ever felt on a chicken bus was when I was smashed against the unopened window because it was raining outside and felt like I couldn’t breathe because it was so hot and stuffy in the bus. 

12. Sit as far from the aisle as possible: Sure, that crams you against the window, but at least you aren’t right in the line of traffic when vendors hoisting around their various bags of fruit and liquid move up and down the aisle at every stop, screaming the names of their wares in your face a if you didn’t hear them one foot away.  Don’t think this will cease once the bus gets filled to overcapacity either.  They’ll just forced whatever poor soul is stuck straddling the aisle to get up as the move down the back, and once more when they go to exit.  Anything for that Q1 sale.

13. Say “No gracias,” right away to the vendors: People selling things in Guatemala are persistent at best and vicious at worst.  One time, a three-year-old kid called me “estupida” because I wouldn’t buy any of his candy.  As they pass down the aisle, they’ll hold their rack of wares in front of your face, repeating the name over and over until you verbally tell them, “No.”  Save yourself the headache and just say no before they even have the chance to ask.

14. If a vendor places something in your lap, it isn’t free: One trick the vendors like to use is placing some goody quickly in your lap as they pass down the aisle.  It’s usually candy or some other snack that can be rather tempting, but don’t be fooled.  It isn’t free, and if you eat it, the vendor will come back down the aisle and expect you to pay for whatever it was.  Your best option is to just ignore it and let him come collect the item on his way back through.

14. Bring headphones (or earplugs): Chicken buses are notoriously loud, not only because there are a hundred voices on them, but also because the drivers feel the need to play the music loud enough to drowned out those hundred voices.  If you hope to listen to a podcast or something relatively quiet, good luck.  Your best option is to either put in earplugs to save yourself a massive headache or put in earbuds and blast music loud enough to drowned out whatever Spanish rap is playing.  At least then your deafness will have come from something sort of pleasant.

15. Be prepared for anything: While you won’t actually find any chickens on chicken buses anymore, you will find a whole lot of surprising things.  You might see religious men standing at the front of the bus preaching to the bus as if it were a congregation.  You might see crackpot soothsayers selling balms and magic creams that heal everything from your head to your toes.  You’ll definitely see trains of vendors selling some of the weirdest looking foods.  And you might even be treated to the occasional rap song, performed live by some young, inspiring rapper.  In short, never be surprised.

This is an empty chicken bus looks like.  Take a good look because you'll never see it again.

This is an empty chicken bus looks like.  Take a good look because you'll never see it again.

Ready to jump on a chicken bus?  After reading all this, probably not, and I don’t blame you.  I won’t lie and say a chicken bus ride is anything close to pleasant, but it is uniquely Guatemalan.  Even in the rest of Central America, you won’t ever find a public bus quite as chaotic as the chicken buses, even if they look the same on the outside.  A Guatemalan chicken bus ride is probably one of the most important things you can experience in Guatemala, and low price fares is an added incentive. 

So don’t be a chicken.  Leave that to the bus.