The Guatemalan Chicken Bus

Trip Start Mar 14, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Guatemala  , Western Highlands,
Sunday, May 22, 2011

I almost got run over three times in the parking lot but the effort was worth it. I have a pretty cool collection of photos now.  I spent a couple hours today meandering around Grand Central Chicken; my given name for the Antigua Guatemala Bus Terminal. 

The workhorse of Guatemala is the famous "chicken bus"; retired yellow school buses sent down from the U.S.   After shuttling American kids back and forth from school for 10 years or about 150,000 miles, they are considered worn out and retired from active duty.  That's nothing.  Very light work.  This is only the beginning of their career.  The heavy lifting and abuse starts in Central America.  A chicken bus here will put on thousands of miles climbing and descending dusty mountain roads with up to 90 people smashed inside.  I’ve seen nine people in just one row; four in each bench seat and a fat Mayan woman bridging the aisle between …  nine people from window to window.  Chicken buses are never full.  It’s common to see a small herd of sheep or goats on the roof along with hundreds of pounds of rice, fruit, vegetables, furniture, bicycles, luggage, backpacks and other personal belongings.  Throw in a few terrified backpackers hanging on for their lives inside and you pretty much understand the chicken bus experience.  And just when you thought that absolutely no one else could fit on board, somebody selling something will be allowed to jump in the front door, climb through and over everyone stuck standing in the aisle, and jump out the back.  This is a great time to buy a Coca-Cola, toothbrush, or snake oil.

The chicken bus is the Ferrari of the bus world. Ridiculously overpowered, the drivers manage these things like a Formula One car.  “Bus stops” as we know them are more akin to a NASCAR pit stop where the crews compete to load and unload as quickly as possible.   The fastest bus is the first to arrive.  He who arrives first gets all the passengers and therefore the prize money.  The faster you run your route, the faster you make money.  It’s capitalism at its finest.  One should not be surprised if the bus never actually makes a complete stop.  Several times I have found myself somewhere between a quick walk and a slow run to just to keep up with the bus so I can jump in through the back door.  Often, you will see the new riders really crack their head climbing in the back.  Normal.

Once the buses arrive in Guatemala, they are sent to a shop to get their makeover.   Seriously, MTv could do a television show.  Pimp My Chicken Bus. They all get unique paint jobs, chrome grills, hood ornaments, interior lighting and sound systems.  The little 7.3 liter engine is replaced with a diesel guzzling 10 liter Caterpillar motor linked to 6 gears and a special rear axle providing 12 forward gears in total;  perfect for Guatemala’s diverse terrain.  These things are beasts and climb sinuous mountain roads better than a passenger car.  I’ve had the (dis)pleasure of sitting right behind the driver while he’s passing a wimpy Toyota 4x4 on a blind curve, uphill, with no idea what’s coming the other way.  It’s not even intelligent risk management… it is a race.  The suspension is rock solid and made for overloading.  Those unfortunate enough to sit right over the rear wheels will feel exactly what I am talking about.  The closer you sit to the driver, the smoother the ride.  He always goes over the speed bumps slowly with the front tires… nice and easy.  Then he gets going again and as the black plume of exhaust smoke rises into the air, so do the passengers in the back seats when the rear tires collide with the speed bump.  The driver is always a man.  This is not always a good thing.   As you can imagine, chicken buses do have accidents. 

Besides being concerned about the driver’s ability, sobriety, or both, there are a few internal dangers.  Pick-pockets and bagslashers work certain routes and even the Guatemalans are not immune.  I always travel with my pockets empty and a money belt well hidden under my clothes.  There is just no way to guard against this petty theft while a bus is careening around a corner at 50mph and you are hanging off the ceiling bars with both hands locked in a death grip just to remain standing.  This is assuming you didn’t get a seat.  If you are seated, be aware that the little old Mayan lady sitting next to you may be handy with a razor blade.    I’ve seen tourists lose cameras and wallets from a day bag that was on their lap the whole time thanks to a hole cut in the side and contents slyly removed. 

None of these crazy things are reasons to not take the chicken bus.  It is the cheapest and most reliable form of transportation I’ve ever seen.  Some say it’s actually fun.  With the right spirit of adventure, most people find them fascinating… at least for a day. 

And now, some Chicken bus photography…
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Sarah Cunningham Yerger on


You need to turn your posts into a book-very entertaining! I will help you write it and get it published! :-)


jeffsadventures on

Thanks Sarah, everyone keeps saying that. Are you looking for part time work or something? ;-)

julio on

me gusta el que tiene parrilla lone star pero hay otros en guatemala por carretera a el salvador hay que incluirlos,estan excelentes

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