Andrew Evans recaps his experience riding on a chicken bus along Guatemala’s precipitous mountain roads.
Riding a chicken bus is a kind of traveler’s right of passage. That people are carrying live chickens immediately defines the bus as local and authentic. It’s also kind of silly and crazy since chickens do not make good passengers, especially on chicken buses.
The first bus I saw in Guatemala was this one in the village of La Mesilla. It was so orange and so shiny, I immediately hopped on it. The ticket cost me 50 quetzales (about four dollars) to ride about two hundred miles into Guatemala. Upon sitting, I immediately heard the telltale squawk of a chicken and to my great delight, found a real live chicken stuffed in a bag beneath the seat in front of me.
So why do people carry chickens on buses? How many times do you carry dinner home with you? Be it in a shopping bag, in a pizza box, in little cardboard boxes with wire holders and Chinese characters printed on the side, people carry the food they eat. That’s why we have chicken buses.
So many Central American buses are in fact, American school buses that
have undergone an extreme makeover of bright paint, psychedelic designs
and lots of religious homage and requests to a higher power that will
guard the bus from some horrific accident (elaborate lettering spells
out such incantations as, “Guide Me Lord, Jesus Lives, Protect Us”).
Driving along the precipitous mountain roads of Guatemala is
extremely dangerous–the drivers make it even more dangerous by
slamming the gas and whipping around cliff corners so that all the
passengers slide from side to side. And yet I also found comfort in
knowing that these gaudy, pimped-out buses had made the same long voyage
from the United States that I just did, and that these were the same
buses that I used to ride on when I was a kid: Blue Bird USA.
As the main link between remote
mountain towns, Guatemala’s buses are like little moving towns,
stuffed to the brim with people and their belongings all engaged in a
constant exchange of money, goods, and life. In the back of my second
chicken bus, I met Danilo (above), a 12-year-old boy who works nine hours a day
selling drinks and pineapple slices on the many buses that pass through
everyday. He hops on in one village, often through the rear emergency
exit at the back of the bus, then makes his way through the bus holding
a metal hook from which hang bags of fruit. When he’s sold what he can
sell, he hops off and waits for another bus in the opposite direction,
then hops on again.
Passengers themselves are also a hot
commodity, as every bus has a kind of scout that collects money from
passengers, handles the luggage strapped to the top, and is responsible
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for scurrying up new passengers. The bus driver will wait until nearly
every seat is full before departing to the next destination and if
you’re not going to the same place, he’ll still take you and your money
until he meets up with another bus driver who is going where you want
to go. On four different occasions I was whisked off the bus with my
bag and made to jump on another bus, while a portion of money from my
original ticket was doled out to the next driver for his section of
transit. Yes, it’s a confusing system, but it seems to work for them.
It’s also how I got across half of Guatemala in less than a day.
Andrew is currently onboard the National Geographic Sea Lion, which is traveling from Costa Rica to Panama. Follow his Twitter feed here @Bus2Antarctica, bookmark all of his blog posts here, and get the full story on the project here. Photos: Andrew Evans.
Photo and video: Andrew Evans