What’s ridiculously colorful, bone-rattlingly loud, and has a roller coaster-level of thrill? Why yes – none other than Guatemala’s main form of inter-city transportation: the chicken bus.
You may know these as an iconic symbol of the region, or you may have heard horror stories about gut-wrenching rides through the mountains, but whatever you’ve learned, these buses are definitely full of character and adventure. For those of you who have never taken this form of local transportation before, the thought of boarding one of these strange vehicles and riding it for several hours may be somewhat daunting.
During my time traveling through Guatemala, I took chicken buses almost everywhere I went, and they were my favorite form of transportation for a variety of reasons: they’re cheap, easy to use, and have a pretty flexible schedule, with many departures from major hubs each day. If you’ve ever been curious about taking these buses around Central America, or if you’re planning a trip to the region and are trying to figure out how to navigate, read on!
A Brief History of the Chicken Bus
Have you ever noticed that the chicken buses in Central America look a lot like school buses? Well, that’s because they are – retired US school buses, to be exact. Once these school buses have hit a certain number of miles, they’re auctioned off and sold to various entities, including private bus operators. Typically, these buses are painted all kinds of crazy colors and have the names of their routes plastered all over their front windows (almost so obnoxiously that you wonder whether the driver can see out of them, sometimes…).
Most sane people would probably be completely terrified by the prospect of riding a retired American school bus through the rough, gravel mountain roads of Guatemala. I know I was. The good news is that chicken buses are a very widely used form of transportation, and often these old buses are physically incapable of going as fast as normal vehicles.
So…why are they called “chicken” buses? The history of this name is unknown, but it’s thought to originate from the amount of livestock regularly brought onto these buses by local families. It could also be attributed to the tightly-packed interiors that these buses sometimes experience, especially during peak times of the week. For me, I think it’s because no “chicken” would actually ever ride these buses; they’re certainly not for the faint of heart…
Why Ride A Chicken Bus?
If these buses are old, crowded, and full of potential livestock, why ride them? Here are a few of the most common reasons why any tourist in their right mind would choose to ride a chicken bus:
Because you want a unique local experience: Chicken buses are actually extremely fascinating modes of transportation for tourists because they give direct immersion into the local lifestyle of these regions. The majority (if not all) of the other people on any given bus will be locals going about their daily lives.
Because you’re on a budget: Chicken buses are the cheapest form of inter-city transportation, at around 10 quetzales (~$1.30 USD) per ride, there’s no better option for budget travelers. If you’re wondering what the prices for other modes of transportation are, see the “Alternative Options” section below.
Because you like people watching: Even if you’re not on a budget, these buses give you the opportunity to see how locals live, and even meet a few of them along the way. You’ll be sitting in pretty close proximity of other people (the buses can get pretty crowded!) so be prepared for a very immersive people-watching experience.
Because you’re learning Spanish: No English spoken here! If you’re going to ride a chicken bus, it’s a really good idea to have at least a basic working knowledge of Spanish (and use it).
Because you’re an adventure junkie: Riding these buses through the narrow mountain passes of Guatemala is no easy feat. There will be times you might be hanging onto your seat for dear life, but that’s the fun part, isn’t it?
How to Navigate the Chicken Bus System
So you’ve decided you want to try the chicken buses for yourself. Kudos to you! They’re pretty easy to navigate, but you have to be alert throughout the ride and be able to ask others around you when you’re unsure of where you are.
There’s typically a bus terminal or stop in every city, and it’s often pretty centrally located. Ask a local police officer or bank guard if you’re unsure of where the terminal could be located. When you get to the terminal, there will be people standing around shouting the names of the final destinations of each chicken bus. Be careful with this, as your stop may be on a chicken bus en route to a different final destination. To be sure, always ask the driver or money collector whether that bus stops at a particular city or not.
Sometimes, you’ll have to take a bus to one final destination and transfer to a different bus. There are usually hubs between major cities. For example, when I went from Antigua to Nebaj via Chichicastenango in Guatemala, I had to take several separate chicken buses with stops at hubs such as Chimaltenango, Los Encuentros, and Santa Cruz del Quiche. The easiest way to find out the route from point A to point B is to ask the bus driver, the money collector, or your hotel staff.
Also, there are a few logistical and safety concerns that you should keep in mind. Sometimes, the drivers will request that you put large bags (such as backpacks or suitcases) on top of the bus. They usually secure these well onto the top of the bus, but it’s important that you keep all of your valuables (money, passport, electronics) on your person at all times. Another important thing to note is that often money collectors will not have change for large bills, so plan accordingly by breaking your large bills into smaller denominations of money. Rides typically cost 10-20 quetzales in Guatemala ($1.30-$3 USD or equivalent), so plan to try and have as many small bills as possible.
As you may have gathered, chicken buses are extremely bare-bones. There’s no air conditioning (but you can usually open the windows), no seat belts, and usually require sharing your seat with at least one other person. Needless to say, they won’t be the most comfortable rides of your life. However, while there have been safety concerns in the past with the chicken buses, they’re a decently safe option utilized by locals every single day.
Not feeling the chicken bus vibe? There are a few other options for you, including:
- Private tourist shuttles that run from $10-50 depending on the length and comfort of the ride
- Hiring a cab or driver, which varies in cost but is probably the most comfortable option
- Renting a car, which gives you the most control but can also be the most dangerous option if you’re not used to driving in Central America
There are pros and cons to all options, but for those who don’t want to blow a significant amount of money on transit, chicken buses are truly the best option for traveling in Guatemala. On a purely experience-based level, chicken buses also provide unique learning experiences and insight into local life that most tourists do not get a chance to experience. Next time you’re in Central America, try one for yourself!
Have you ridden on a chicken bus before? What did you think? Share your tips with us in the comments!