Chicken buses, pinatas and speaking Mayan

Trip Start Dec 21, 2009
Trip End Jul 17, 2010

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Flag of Guatemala  , Sololá,
Thursday, January 21, 2010

After our stay at Rio Dulce, we made our way to Antigua via Guatemala City. I still contend that the best thing about Guatemala City is leaving it for Antigua. It's a little harsh but when you see what a convenience store looks like here, you can see what I mean. We did see some pretty cool pinatas though.

It’s been 3 years since we were last in Antigua for our honeymoon and we were really keen to see it again. I’ll write more about this wonderful city later. This time we were here for a quick stop before heading off to the area near Lake Atitlan to do our homestay, with a Guatemalan family.

If you want to travel around this part of Central America, you’re going to have to get used to using the "chicken bus". Just so there’s no confusion, I did just say a "chicken bus". Where Mexico has a good local provider of long journey busses that are pretty efficient, safe and have a bathroom in the back. Basically a Greyhound. The "chicken bus" is a fabled method of transport named as such because they are use by the locals to transport anything, live animals included. If you’re thinking of operating a "chicken bus" company of your own, the following criteria need to be met:

1)      It has to be an old American school bus (the yellow ones that we’ve all seen in the states or on TV. The one that Otto drives in the Simpsons).

2)      It has to be repainted into the colours of the company they belong to and be given a pretty cool name. We saw one named Nicole.

3)      There is absolutely NO room for anything larger than a small backpack or handbag in the bus itself. If you can’t run with it, then it’s going on top of the bus.

4)      Anything can be sent to the top of the bus. Chickens, bicycles, watermelons, bags, mattresses, furniture etc. If it can be flung on top by the bus conductor and it won’t take long to do so, then up it goes.

5)      Anything on top of the bus will NOT get tied down. Ropes are for Gringoes who don’t know how to pack a bus roof properly.

6)      The music has to be loud and you must to have Jesus on a crucifix on your dashboard. The only other exception is to have the Virgin Mary. Jury is still out on other deities.

7)      There is only one speed to drive and that is fast. Faster if you’re racing a driver of another "chicken bus" company. Faster yet if you’re flying around a blind corner.

8)      The walkway is only about 15cms wide (half foot) and seats are on both sides. They will sit 3 each side, 5 if you’re a small boned non-Gringo family.

9)      If you want to be the conductor on such a bus, you must be willing to hang out of the door and yell where the bus is heading to, you must help people get stuff up and down from the roof, you must be able to squeeze in between people who are completely sandwiched together.

I know there are plenty of rules to owning and running a "chicken bus" but the system works. They are regular, cheap and fast (which depending on where you live in Sydney, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that the chicken bus wins on all 3 counts).

We stopped at the markets of Chichicastenango where we had a wonderful lunch of fried chicken and we lit a candle for my grandmother, who is currently in hospital, at the local church then made our way to the little town of San Jorge la Laguna which is very close to Lake Atitlan. San Jorge la Laguna is a town of just under 3000 people a lot of the local women still wear the traditional dress as they go about their business and they still speak a Mayan dialect called Ketchequel. When we arrived and were assigned our families, the youngest daughter instantly took a liking to Nicole and we had 5 year Melanie in tow as we went on a tour around town. Ketchequel is an important part of life here while some of the locals are also learning Spanish.

The accommodation here was basic. Some of our group didn’t have a shower or hot water. Some of our group were sleeping on wood. Irrespective of the discomforts, the families were warm and very hospitable. Most of the group got by with sign language and smiles, nods and shakes of the head. Now we lucked out and the head of our family spoke English as well as Spanish and Ketchequel and was an accountant. We had to feel a little bad for the rest of our group because we seemed to have all the mod cons like a hot shower, a toilet that flushed, a bed and fresh fruit and vegetables for dinner. It was still an experience and the families were warm and very accepting. Nic got to make tortillas by hand and we got to spend time learning more about each other’s cultures. They even dressed Nic up in the local dress for dinner the final evening. These dresses are worn by the women in the town and each one costs quite a bit of money, over $100 USD each at least because of the careful embroidery work and time that it takes to make one. Irrespective of the cost, the ladies here wear them with pride and wear them everywhere, even while doing their chores like going to the markets of washing the clothes. It’s uncommon to see a young or middle aged male dressed with the embroidered clothes. That is usually reserved for the senior members of the community.

The town is governed by a group of older wise men and the mayor's post changes every year. They govern themselves for the most part and they even have their own jail which is mostly a holding place for people who have had too much to drink. Gossip and shame is usually what prevents people from doing bad stuff. If you get drunk, act like an idiot and break something or hurt someone, you'll get locked up but the whole town will be talking about it and these are generally shy and quiet people. The shame would be hard to live with. Another thing, if the church bell rings a certain way, then all the men have to come down because there might have been a robbery or a disturbance of some sort.

Lake Atitlan really is a very picturesque lake. The lake is massive with 3 volcanoes (Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro) standing guard around it. There really isn’t a bad view of this lake from any of the towns around it. We caught a boat over to San Pedro and went on a horse ride alongside the lake which was very fun. The horses were the best we’ve ever been on. Normally when you’re given horses for a day to ride, you’re given a horse that won’t respond to anyone except the local guide. No matter where you try to guide the horse, it just follows the horse in front and goes at a walk. The horses we had were ultra responsive and turned on a dime. They even broke into a gallop when given a nice kick. Not sure if galloping in a horse is wise when you’re not given a helmet though.

We had a great time with our homestay family and journeyed back to Antigua (by chicken bus of course). Our homestay mother Rosario even packed us a little snack of bananas and mandarins for the ride to the big city.

Join us for the next blog when we hit Antigua and climb up a volcano where we nearly see a guy plunge to his death and live to see the beautiful cobble stoned streets of Antigua.

Keep the comments coming everyone, we love hearing what you think and what you would like to see/hear more about or less about.
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Nic on

Maybe people have forgotten how to comment? Or maybe they have forgotten us already...

Janine on

I am enjoying your trip. I am there in spirit :)

Nic on

Thanks Janine! Wish we could meet up some how xoxoxo

rhys parsons on

hi,well im very new at this but your blog is the best ive seen yet.if you could help me find the cheapest accomodation around lake atitlan i would really appreciate it.i plan on hanging around down there for about a year.

travellingtans on

Hi Rhys. Thank you very much for your comment, we're glad you've enjoyed the blog and hope that it helps you with your travels. While we were at Lake Atitlan, our accommodation was a homestay and we really enjoyed staying with a local family and experiencing their lives. I found this link which should help you, I'm not sure if this is who we booked the experience through, but it sounds very similar.
Otherwise, while we were at Lake Atitlan, there were a lot of hostels and cheap accomodation around Panajachel, so I suggest you try there. Good luck and we hope you enjoy Guatemala!

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