A few days ago, I took my first “chicken bus” in Guatemala, the oft-referred nickname for colorful, converted school buses that serve as the primary mode of transportation for locals in Guatemala, and other Central American countries. Chicken buses are everywhere in Guatemala, and each one comes with a unique design and name. The names range from “Yolanda” to “American Express”, and everything in between. I needed to get from Lake Atitlan to Quetzaltenango (more commonly referred to as, “Xela”), and opted to take chicken buses to get there. After taking two relatively quick and uncrowded chicken buses from Lake Atitlan to a more central hub, I was lulled into the false belief that chicken buses were a breeze. Cheap, efficient, and far more comfortable than I had expected. Why had I heard so many crowded, chaotic chicken bus stories? I chalked it up to exaggeration and hyperbole. Everyone likes to tell a good story, after all. Well, it turns out that I was too quick to judge the authenticity of others’ stories, as I was about to embark on my own crazy chicken bus journey.
As we pulled into a busy chicken bus coop, we departed one bus in search of the connecting bus headed to Xela. I asked a few locals where the bus to Xela departs from. One responded, “I am from Honduras”. Another didn’t respond at all. Others looked at me with disinterest, or perhaps didn’t understand me. Finally, the star of the show came out of nowhere. The bus driver’s assistant – the money collector. “Xela! Xela! Xela!” He frantically ushered me towards the rear of the chicken bus, opened the back door, and directed me inside. I climbed the step towards the entrance, saw the mass of people waiting for me inside, and attempted to maneuver into the back of the bus. The plan, as always, was to enter in style. Prove to the locals that I’m a seasoned traveler and that this wasn’t my first chicken bus rodeo. Ha! Wishful thinking. My entrance was anything but grand. My backpack got stuck in the rear door of the bus as I tried to fit a square peg into a round hole. I had to switch gears and reverse to avoid further embarrassment. The money collector had to pull out a shoe horn to pry me from the rear door. Plan B went a bit smoother, as I handed my bag to another screaming bus assistant, who tossed my luggage on the roof of the bus.
The chaos only intensified as I boarded the chicken bus. There were three people crammed into two seats on every row, and many seemed to be levitating in the aisle. Either that or they were balancing on the knees of their neighbors to the left and right. For me, there was standing room only. I had already delayed the bus for a solid five minutes and thought it improper to introduce myself to my bus mates by sitting on a lap. It’s cool, I can stand, I’m young, scrappy, and hungry. I had nearly thrown away my chicken bus shot, and couldn’t afford any more missteps.
The chicken bus driver drove like a wild man. He sped throughout the trip, and seemed to increase speed at every turn. Much of the trip was on winding roads, tossing me to and fro. My friend, Phelan, and I looked at each other with consternation. “Is this guy serious? What is his deal”? Then I looked around, and it was a just a typical day on the chicken bus for the locals. Blank faces and no concern whatsoever from my bus mates, while I nearly wet my pants. Phelan spoke with one of the locals, saying, “This guy’s driving pretty fast, isn’t he? Pretty dangerous, eh?” The local didn’t bat an eyelash. It was the Guatemalan normal, and we were totally unaccustomed to it.
Phelan and I swapped stories of near death experiences in vehicles. He had endured a serious bus crash in Peru, while I had rolled my car a few years back. It’s safe to say we both have a little “PTCD” – post traumatic crash disorder. Regardless of the PTCD, I think that anyone from a fully developed country would have found the bus ride a little unsettling. Surely, this bus could tip over at any turn.
By far, the craziest, and most incredible moment of the chicken bus trip, came from…the one and only…the money collector. Half superhero. Half couch potato. The money collector would walk from the front of the bus to the back of the bus, collecting fares, forcing the standing room passengers to contort their bodies to 90 degree angles, in order to permit his passing. And then, he did the unimaginable. At full speed on the highway, he opened the rear door of the bus, climbed onto the roof, and in no more than five seconds, reappeared through the front door of the bus. He was Guatemalan Spiderman…with a beer belly.
Despite its precariousness, the trip was pretty exhilarating. Phelan said something along the lines of, “there’s something exciting about living life on the edge.” Knowing that any minute things could go terribly awry. Maybe that’s why people skydive, bungee jump, or even watch scary movies. The adrenaline rush and uncertainty simultaneously provide both discomfort and excitement, in one of life’s more mysterious balancing acts. After an hour and a half or so of twists and turns, we made it safely to Xela, relieved to be on solid, unmoving ground.
The private shuttles in Central America are often direct, more likely to have seatbelts, and offer substantially more space. But traveling by chicken bus is authentic, and makes you feel like you’re experiencing the true Guatemala. Living like the locals live. You can’t replace these experiences, and my trip to Guatemala would have been unfulfilled without them.