The Guatemalan Chicken Bus
Trip Start Mar 14, 2004
315Trip End Ongoing
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
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
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
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…