This is a handy guide I have put together for those who have never had the experience of catching public transport in Guatemala, known colloquially as the chicken bus. Locally however, they call them camionetas.
It is all tongue in cheek of course, and I recommend all visitors to Guatemala experience this for yourselves. It’s actually very intuitive, and despite the comedic nature of this post, it is actually not too far from the truth!
Chicken buses are a great way to meet local folks and travel as they do. And to boot, they are very cheap for short distances. Mere pennies compared to the expensive air-conditioned shuttles aimed at the tourist market.
I am not entirely sure how camionetas work on a business level. But due to the wide variety of varying qualities, styles, and colour schemes, I can only assume that the drivers or the companies they work for simply buy an old American school bus, paint it in garish colours and put it into service. It seems to be more akin to the private minicab companies we are familiar with. Each line, and indeed each bus, is privately owned and run.
(Note: The more chrome the bus has, and the louder the onboard music; the better ‘endowed’ the driver is.)
A Step by Step Guide to using the Service
Step One: Find your bus:
Your best bet is to find the towns bus terminal. Otherwise, you can simply stand on a road out of town that you know the bus travels down somewhere along its route, and simply flag it down. Unlike our notion of bus stops, in Guatemala all you need to do is flag one down like a taxi and it will stop for you. Often coming down from Mach 3 to fully stopped in less than 20 metres. You may believe that this is uncomfortable for the passengers inside who would all be thrown against the windshield as it comes to a halt, but you would be wrong. In fact, what happens due to effect that there are over 600 passengers on board at any one time, is the tightly-packed sardine effect serves to keep everyone in place rather effectively and safely.
If you choose instead to go to the main terminal, you will immediately be confronted by over 100 buses, each of which is a different colour, and none of which display any form of indication as to their destination. Do not be afraid at this point. Simply walk around in circles saying your desired destination to passers-by and eventually you will be shown a bus.
It is at this point that you get on an unmarked bus and completely trust that it is going where you want to go. Alternatively, you will see many people walking around, shouting the name of a town again and again in rapid succession. These folk are called Ayudantes, and they are usually the brother or cousin of the bus drivers. (Note: Even though you have studied the destinations name in great detail, including its pronunciation, it actually sounds nothing like this when repeated again and again in the thick local dialect.)
Step Two: Riding your bus:
If you have your own seat, enjoy it while it lasts. It won’t be only yours for long. As the bus begins its journey, it will start to fill up. You will soon find the two-person bench will become the home of four adults, two babies, three baskets of corn, a stray dog, and the arse of the religious fanatic who is stood in the aisle next to you reading pages of the bible in a loud voice to the attention of the whole bus. Or indeed, maybe instead the arse of the travelling snake oil salesman who has a new medicine that cures all ills!
Food is provided by street vendors who get on at every opportunity with a basket full of goods. Even though you will not recognise anything they offer, I suggest you take advantage of their wares. My personal favourite is the chicken coated in cornflour and wrapped in a vine leaf. (Tamale) A little hint though is to get your exact change ready before they reach your seat. Otherwise, you will look behind you to call for their attention once you have finished fumbling only to find they have already exited the bus through the back door or an open window. Don’t be alarmed by this, even considering the vehicle has not slowed nor stopped through-out this exchange. The vendors have a PHD in exiting buses travelling at 50kph while balancing a basket of maize-based products on their heads.
After your disappointment of losing out on the opportunity of local food due to your tardiness, you will now turn back to face the front only to find that an additional 10 people have got on the bus. Again, don’t be alarmed by the fact that the bus has again not stopped at any point. The trick passengers often use is when they see the approaching bus, is they simply extend a hand towards it and at just the right moment, they jump up in the air while simultaneously grabbing the upright handrail by the door. This initiates a swinging motion catapulting themselves through the door and into the bus.
At this point, you perhaps have realised that you still have not bought a ticket. Fear not! The conductor who is most likely a relative of the driver, and/or a small child, will soon be crowd surfing his way down the bus collecting money. These folks are officially trained in the art of crowd surfing, and there is nothing more impressive than watching a man hanging upside-down from the roof-mounted handrail by one foot while counting out bills in his hand. All of this, of course, while smoking a cigarette and balancing a cellphone against his ear too.
Now all you need to do is ride out the journey. Some people choose to sleep, although how anyone can do that on a bus travelling over 100kph down windy mountain roads is beyond me. However, your job in this situation is simply to provide a pillow for your fellow passengers, and also to provide a climbing frame for the countless children onboard. Chicken buses seem to deliver a Kabutz-like environment where no child belongs to any one person. If a child approaches you wanting a hug or to sleep on your lap, then you are to oblige. Otherwise, you will be met by frowns from the other passengers who will disapprove of the funny pale-skinned person who is in their country and won’t even play with the children.
Step Three: Exiting the bus:
There are two types of bus exit that the chicken-bus traveller needs to know:
At a terminal: Everyone exits the bus. It is a civil and enjoyable experience. Guatemalans by their very nature are a quiet, polite nation and exiting at a terminal is a simple experience.
Not at a terminal (roadside): Here is where I have the advantage. A small, wiry build is the advantage to effectively crowd surf towards the nearest exit whether that be a door or window. In this situation, you have a pre-decided time of 4.7 seconds when the bus is not in motion to climb on the roof to locate and take your bag which has been stored up there. Please do not be alarmed by the number of people riding the bus up here and the livestock too. Note that some people will be asleep on the roof, despite the twisty mountain roads and torrential rain.
More often, however, the ayudante will grab your bag for you, and with a smile and a wave, the bus will be on its way, leaving you to the comparatively quiet and calmness.
You have arrived! Now simply repeat the process to go home or on to your next destination!
Subscribe for more great stuff!