All Aboard: Tips for Navigating the Guatemala Chicken Bus

Guest blogger Randy Kalp from the fun and quirky travel site beersandbeans.com has mastered the art of Guatemala’s humble chicken bus…

Like a distant cousin of the American lowrider, the chicken buses of Guatemala are a colorful tribute to the operators’ family and culture. Outfitted with religious trinkets and vibrant colors, these 11-ton machines have one purpose: get the load—people or animals—to its destination as quickly as possible.

Used as the main source of public transportation in Guatemala, 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 acting aggressive, then be prepared for the driver to be more brazen.

Navigating the chicken buses is really no different than commuting on your hometown’s public transportation—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. However, just like traveling on the Tube in England or the subways of New York, there are always helpful tips to know about before you head out; below are three that will ensure your journey is as smooth as the broken blacktop road will allow.

Slow Down

The fervor surrounding the transit area or bus stop can be intense. And 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. Trust your instincts, if you feel you are being hustled by a helper, move on to another.

Hold On

To your luggage that is. The helper will want to put your luggage on the roof rack, but politely decline. This is one instance when you don’t want to do what the locals do, unless you are prepared to lose your pack. Sure 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 take that chance?

Relax

If you get on the wrong bus, your best shot is to figure out where you are going and then ride it out. 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.

While certainly not the only way to travel in Guatemala – tour shuttles run throughout the country for a significantly higher fare – the chicken bus, which usually operates from 6am to 6pm, is by far the best way to experience Guatemala and, in my opinion, a right of passage for first-time visitors to the country. Do as the locals do and embrace this colourful and authentic experience for your Guatemala trip!

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