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Chicken Buses



Former U.S. school buses—sometimes still bright yellow and with the district name stenciled in black on the side—get to retire to Guatemala, where they are reincarnated as local transportation. Gringos call them “chicken buses,” because you may well find yourself sharing a seat with tonight’s dinner! Riding on one can be exciting, exhausting, exhilarating and a real Guatemalan experience.


Traveling various routes across the country, these colorful buses pick-up any roadside straggler. You can be assured no one will be left behind.


When planning a trip to Guatemala, travelers often debate journeying on a chicken buses or modern tourist buses. While perhaps more reliable and comfortable, tourist shuttle buses tend to be more pricey. Chicken buses are cheap, and sometimes safer because you are traveling with locals (and are therefore less likely to have the whole bus stopped and robbed by highwaymen).


But for many, the decision hinges on how much one wants to immerse themselves in Guatemalan life. If you want to see local cultures through the window of a fast-moving bus, go for the tourist transportation: but if you want to be surrounded by local culture on all sides, chickens and all, the Chicken Bus is the way to go.


Everyone finds his own seat at the departure location, putting smaller sacks on the rung bins overhead in the bus and larger items and baskets on the top of the bus. As the bus makes its way through its route, more and more people squeeze on. No one is ever left on the roadside. As a third person slides into the bench-like seat, reminiscent of grammar schools in the United States, you still feel quite comfortable.


As a fourth person slides in with a child or friend on her lap and an enormous sack of carrots in the aisle, you begin to realize what you’re really in for. Consider it part of an incredible adventure that will sharpen your perspective on the culture you’re visiting. Anyone rubbing shoulders or having full body contact in New York City would find themselves in a very different situation than in Guatemala.


Amazingly, the driver’s assistant (known as the ayudante, or helper) makes his way through the increasingly crowded bus to collect fares, and all the while merengue, ranchera, salsa, reggae and of course marimba is played at the highest decibel possible. With all of this activity inside the bus, the fact that you’re flying around windy roads with gorges thousands of feet just below the bus window goes unnoticed. All the better for some folks, but most will enjoy a window seat if it’s possible to get one, to be able to see the small villages and rolling countryside passing by. Don’t forget to strike-up a conversation, as people on these buses are good for chatting, especially for information about things to do that guides won’t offer.


As one can imagine, it’s important to know when your stop is coming up, so that you can start to make your way up to the front or the back of the bus. It is equally important to get the attention of the ayudante to retrieve any belongings on the top of the bus, (although somehow the assistant remembers everyone and all of their belongings most of the time). Several guidebooks give some idea of where chicken buses pick up and drop off, but it’s not always easy to know which is your stop, or where in the destination city/town the buses will end up. Most people will want to help you—they’ll stand at the side of the road with you to get you going in the right direction. Guatemalans are friendly and eager to offer help.


Sure, everyone but the most tightfisted of backpackers can afford the few extra quetzales to take the deluxe bus, leaving the chickens and pigs behind on the chicken bus. But they’re missing out. A chicken bus trip, with 90 people, 20 chickens, four goats, two pigs and a dog (not to mention the thirty sacks of potatoes) on a bus built for fifty school kids, listening to ranchera music (sort of like Mexican Country music) as the bus zooms around mountain passes is one of the truest and most authentic cultural experiences Guatemala has to offer. So grab a chicken and hop on the bus—you’ll be glad you did!

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