A trip to Guatemala is not complete without at least one ride on a chicken bus.
Chicken buses are old (sometimes 50 years old) American school buses, used as public transport in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Each is decorated uniquely with colours, lights and stickers. People bring along all kinds of cargo which gets thrown on the roof as each passenger boards. The attended jumps out of the bus while it is still moving, ushers people on then jumps back on. The bus merely slows down for this (but nit much), it does not stop. Usually someone selling food and drinks will get on and offer their refreshments. All sounds fun right?
My first chicken bus experience in Guatemala was from from San Pedro de la Laguna, to Xela. Pleased (maybe a bit smug) about how cheap it was compared to a tourist shuttle, I didn’t know what I was in for.
The bus driver had the music absolutely blaring and sounded his obnoxious horn unnecessary all too regularly. This was really fun, especially because the San Pedro streets are tiny. The fun ended shortly after.
Climbing up from the lake, the roads were shocking! Easily the worst roads I’ve been on so far in Central America. More pot hole than road. Why even have a road? The corners so tight, the bus needed two tries to get around each one. Because it was so steep, the bus would roll back, flirting with the edge of the road and the mountain. To add to the experience, the power steering was stuffed. So turning a tight, steep corner, an ordinarily difficult task, was made A LOT harder.
It took two people to turn the steering wheel to get us around these steer corners. I was very seriously worried about having an accident. My mind kept picturing our bus falling off the side of the mountain! A couple of times I looked behind us and couldn’t believe how close we were to the edge.
It didn’t help that the American guy in front of me was like “Surprisingly, there aren’t many road accidents around here. I mean there are some”. Then he started listing all these horrible accidents he had heard of. How the drivers are trained to drive into the cliff if the brakes fail. How mechanically unsound the buses are…not helpful.
Just when we had almost finished our ascent, over an hour of stress, smoke started coming out of the engine. First just a little, then A LOT. The whole front of the bus was filled with smoke.
Twice the driver stopped, opened the hood, poured something into the engine and continued on. We did get to Xela safely, just.
I decided after that trip, that one chicken bus is enough for me, shuttles from now on. No matter the cost.
However, I was in for some more fun during a day hike to Tajumulco.
We took public transit to the trail head and back. The way there was no problem. On the way back, the first bus didn’t arrive so we had to get a taxi to San Marcos. Here we got on a bus which had blankets and only a few people. We thought we were in heaven. Having walked in the rain for three hours, wet, tired and hungry, we were stoked to have some space, snacks and warm blankets. HA! The bus drove five mins, stopped in a parking lot then we had to get off.
The bus in front (she was called Esmarelda 😂) was already full but we were told (enthusiastically) to get on. It was absolutely jam packed. The last person in our group was just in, standing on the step in the doorway!
Somehow even after this they managed to squeeze more people on. We were packed like sardines, completely pressed up against other people and seats. I had the seat corner pressing into my ribs. At least I was secure! Each seat had three people, I counted 70 people in total with a few babies. I practiced some (standing) meditation and it actually helped a lot. The trip was about 90mins and oh boy was I glad to get off and reclaim some person space.
Such a simple thing of getting from one place to the next can be such an adventure in a foreign country!
Stay safe out there and happy adventuring!