For first time visitors to Guatemala, chicken buses–the country’s main form of transportation—can be intimidating. But navigating these buses is really no different than commuting on your hometown’s public transportation system—the destination is posted on the front of the bus and the fare, which costs approximately 8 quetzal ($1) for a one-hour journey, is collected on the bus.
Guatemala’s chicken buses are a colorful tribute to the operator’s family and culture and are reminiscent of the American lowrider. Outfitted with religious trinkets and vibrant colors, these 11-ton machines have one purpose: get the load—people or animals—to its destination as fast as possible. The chicken bus (camioneta) is a decorated American school bus like the one driven by Neal Cassady in Ken Kesey’s The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test. It’s usually a two-man operation consisting of a licensed driver and his helper (ayudante) who gathers riders, shouts out destinations, and collects money and luggage. Like any good partnership, the duo feeds off one another—if the helper is aggressive, then it’s likely the driver will be more brazen. Just like taking the Tube in England or the subways of New York, there are always things to know about before your first trip. These three tips will ensure your journey is as smooth as the broken blacktop road will allow.
There’s a lot of action swirling the transit area so finding the right bus can be a little overwhelming. Like any good carnie worker, the helper’s job is to get paid fares, even if that means duping non-Spanish speaking tourists into the bus with a few head nods and hand gestures. Take a moment to ensure you are getting on the right bus for your destination; if you miss it, oh well, there will be another one coming. On my first trip to Guatemala, I put too much faith in the helper’s word and ended up two hours away from my final destination. The key is to trust your instincts. If you feel you are being hustled by a helper, move on to another.
Guatemala is a gorgeous country, so if you get on the wrong bus, your best shot is to figure out where you are going and soak up the scenery. Locals will get on and off along the route, often in very rural areas, but for the traveler it’s better to take the bus to the end of line or at least to a main thoroughfare where you’ll be able to easily and safely catch another bus back to your destination.
The helper will want to put your luggage on the buses’ roof rack, but you’ll be better off to politely decline his request. This is one instance when you don’t want to do what the locals do, unless you are prepared to lose your pack. The helper’s intentions are good, but when your bus is careening down the mountainside or passing other buses at 50 mph, do you really want to chance your bags staying on? While I didn’t see it personally, I have heard about travelers losing their packs, never to see them again.
There are other ways to travel around Guatemala. For example, tour shuttles carry passengers throughout the country for a higher fare than the chicken buses. However, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more authenticate way to see Guatemala, so sit back in your school bus seat and enjoy the colorful experience.