Chicken buses in Guatemala: our most unforgettable rides so far

“At least a couple of times a month, a chicken bus plunges from a cliff.” A sentence from Lonely Planet drummed in my head louder than ever. Holding on to the seat in front of me, I stole a glance out of the window. The bus slowly ascended a dusty mountain road, its wheels no more than half a meter from the edge of the road. The view from the window resembled the ones from an aeroplane.

Beautiful, yes, but one mistake by the driver would send us into the abyss. I swallowed hard and decided to look in front of me instead. There was no road ahead of us – we were taking a curve on the edge of a cliff. I closed my eyes, realising that my life was in someone else’s hands, someone I’d met barely two hours ago. When I opened them again, I saw Tom in an uncomfortable twisted position because he couldn’t stand up properly. He opened his eyes and breathed out with relief. The bus hadn’t lost control.

Chicken buses in Guatemala, in the bus station in Antigua.

Guatemalan buses are loud and look crazy.

Along dusty Estonian countryside roads

We’ve always travelled by public transportation. The chicken buses in Guatemala were no exception. We already knew they would be packed with women and their groceries, sleeping children and, occasionally, chickens. But only the bus ride from swampy El Estor to touristic Lanquin made me realise what it really meant to take a chicken bus in Guatemala.

I admit that I was quite nervous. The route was infamous for highway robberies. When I read that word, highway, I thought about shiny and new highways in Germany. In Guatemala, the roads looked nothing like that. After two minutes in the bus, I learned that the thing they call highway looked worse than a dusty countryside road in Estonia. And since it seemed like there isn’t a single square centimetre of flat land in Guatemala, this dusty road was running up and down and from left to right on the sides of the mountain.

Strings of laundry in the middle of nowhere

Don’t get me wrong. Excluding the hair rising moments, the view from the windows made up for all the fear: cornfields, little houses, children sitting on the stairs, strings of laundry coming out of seemingly abandoned huts. And what about those fenced-off properties that seemed to go on kilometres? Which rich people owned that land? What happened behind the high walls of these fields?

It amazed me to see how red soil could be and how the farmers had planted corn even on the steepest slopes of the mountains. As we later learned, some of them actually climb half a volcano to get to work.

And then I said goodbye to the mountain views and noticed how the tops of the trees closed above the road and it felt like we drove through a green tunnel. I kept marvelling the beauty of this evergreen and wild country.

A moving bag

Bus boy connecting bags on top of one of the chicken buses in Guatemala.

Bags nicely tied on the roof.

A busboy usually threw and tied our bags on top of the bus or shovelled them in the back or front of wherever he miraculously discovered space. On our ride from Guastatoya (a town famous for its waterpark) to Guatemala City, we found seats in the very back of the bus- just next to a couple of bags. When I say bags, you shouldn’t imagine suitcases or back bags. The luggage looked more like weird packs and potato bags or whatever else locals needed to transport. Once, loud thumps woke me up from a dream. “Thump! Thump!” I looked out of the window and saw how a busboy threw tires from the roof of the bus. Our WorkAway host Daeli had to put his dog on top of the bus. You can literally transport everything with these buses.

But let’s go back to the trip to Guatemala City. The heat outside blasted and we rallied on the mountain roads, big and dusty thanks to ongoing construction works. Big machines rolled up and down the highway, which looked like it was just carved from the side of the mountain. All of a sudden I hear again the old “Thump! Thump!” Only this time much louder. Did the excavator just drop a rock? No. In fact, no Guatemalan on the bus looked out of the window. All the black-haired heads were aimed at the TV screen, where Godzilla trampled through New York.

Barely recovered from the Godzilla incident, I had a sudden sensation that a bag next to me was moving. I wasn’t alarmed at first. After all- when a driver had a crazy driving style, of course bags jumped around a bit. But something was still fishy. Did it just seem to me that the bag also moved when the driver didn’t make any crazy maneuvres? I was already convinced that I slowly started to go crazy when I noticed that the bag moved again. It was alive!

I never learned what exactly was in this white bag, but Tom remembers how its owner left the bus in front of a chicken restaurant…

Bus or a gym?

“Our bus!” shouted Tom and we ran. Both of us carried two backpacks and one more bag. The busboy shouted something and rushed us in. Usually, the busboy still grabbed our bags first and stored them away. This time, the bus couldn’t wait. It was packed. There was not a single free seat and most of the aisle was already full of standing people. Nothing to do but to hold on. Easier said than done with our bags, especially on the mountain roads. I held on for my life and probably looked like someone who just went on an amusement park attraction where you had to hold on while the machine tried to shake you off.

Fair attraction or chicken buses in Guatemala, what's the difference?

People who enjoy this ride have probably practised a lot on chicken buses.

The next day we had sore arms.

At one point I noticed how a man near me patted on a 15 cm2 space next to him. There were already two people sitting on the old school bus seat when I squeezed myself on it. Now, I worked on my right leg muscles- half sitting, half squatting on the tiny space. Guatemalans use all the space, I thought and wondered- what if someone wanted to get out? Soon, I got my answer. A fat lady with a bag squeezed herself past us. Nothing is impossible in these buses. All the passengers just held in their bellies and somehow the lady managed.

The bus seemed to be in a huge hurry. We were kicked out before we managed to ask where the last stop was. Unfortunately, Tom left a bag on the bus. A tuk-tuk driver noticed our plight and shouted out: “Taxi!” We jumped in the tuk-tuk and asked him to follow the chicken bus. He dropped us just seconds before the bus emerged before the corner. Tom and his bag were happily reunited.

2 Replies to “Chicken buses in Guatemala: our most unforgettable rides so far”

  1. Pingback: Semuc Champey, Guatemala: thanks to a murder in the village, we had this natural monument to ourselves – Volcano Love

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