How to ride a Chicken Bus

The chicken buses, named because chickens are occasionally among the passengers, are Guatemala’s cheapest form of public transportation and often the only way, outside of private taxis, to reach many destinations in Guatemala.

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Formerly school buses from the United States, chicken buses are often colorfully painted and may also feature flashing lights, crucifixes, prayers, pictures of sexy women and/or cartoon characters dangling at the front of the bus. While threats of robbery on certain routes can make it advisable to take a shuttle instead, riding a chicken bus can provide a memorable cultural experience, and the following tips should help to make your ride a bit smoother.

Chicken buses run based on occupancy, not on rigid time schedules. For this reason, you might find yourself comfortably seated but going nowhere as the driver waits for more passengers. The bus will eventually leave.

Tell the ayudante, the driver’s assistant, where you want to go and ask him to please tell you when to get off. Most ayudantes do not speak English or other foreign languages, but will try to help.

La-Camionetta016Even though the seats were originally designed to hold school kids, it is rare to have an entire bus ride with only two people to a seat. Bus etiquette requires that, as the bus fills, you press against your neighbor, leaving space for a third person on the aisle edge of the seat. If you are the third person, you will likely find yourself with one butt cheek on the seat and the other suspended over the aisle. If the seat across from yours also has a third person, the two of you can push into each other for better suspension across the aisle and more stability on the inevitable curves.

It’s possible that the bus will have six seated adults (plus a few small children) in each row and also people standing in the aisle. Complicating this will be the fact that the ayudante will pass down this aisle to collect money, even when the bus is careening around curves. If you are standing, bend your knees slightly for more stability, hook your foot around one of the metal bars which hold the seats in place and hold onto one of the upper handrails. Rising on your tiptoes may make it easier for the ayudante to pass. Never take a full cup of hot coffee with you onto a chicken bus (as I once did).

Your chances of having to share your seat sooner will increase the farther forward you sit in the bus. Guatemalans La-Camionetta013seems to prefer crowding in, three to a seat, in the front of the bus even when there are less-occupied seats farther back. Sitting in the front three rows of the chicken bus virtually guarantees you will have a lot of company.

Thinking of the experience as a group hug or as a contest to see how many people can fit in a phone booth are ways of making light of occasional moments of discomfort. Guatemala is a physical culture, from physical labor to affectionate physical contact in families and among friends. So relax.

One of my great pleasures in riding a crowded chicken bus is the ballet of the ayudantes: more flexible than Gumby, they weave through the wall of bodies; stronger than Superman, they throw loads to the top of the bus then climbing up to secure them. The ayudantes hang from the open bus doors singing their destination as the bus moves through city streets; they leap off and on the moving vehicle, pour gallons of water into steaming radiators, remember who has paid and who has not and, most importantly, they remember where I need to get off.

It’s best to have small bills for the bus, though ayudantes can make change. Do not worry if they seem to disappear with your Q100 note; they’re waiting until they have enough change to give it to you. Paying is a good moment to remind the ayudante of where you need to get off.

Occasionally vendors will board the bus and begin to distribute candy or medicinal ointments to everyone seated on the bus and then proclaim the wonders of their products. They are not actually giving you these items, but will want money if you keep them instead of giving them back.

Be ready to get off before the bus reaches your stop. Yes, this will involve standing and pushing your way to the front while the bus is in motion, but in fact the bus will not stop long unless it is at its final destination. One of my most memorable chicken bus experiences was watching my Spanish teacher, who had been right behind me, ride away after the door closed in her face.

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Chicken buses are great places to make cross-cultural contact. Simply smiling at the people around you can help replace your shyness and theirs with a feeling of warm human camaraderie. After all, you’re already touching.

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One Comment on “How to ride a Chicken Bus”

  • Ginny NiCarthy wrote on 2 August, 2013, 0:11

    This is a delightful mix of Guatemalan transportation, often portrayed as just quaint of amusing. I love seeing it as a guide for how to handle situations new to gringos and other newbe travelers. I was especially amused at your description of butt to butt aisles, which I once described in almost the same words.

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