It is a subject of much discussion among my teenagers as to why more travelers do not ride chicken buses.
We understand why most tourists don’t, they’ve been scared off of the idea by guidebooks and websites. The same advisors that swear one will die of street food or showering with one’s mouth open in the third world. Let me be the first to tell you that street food (which you have the advantage of watching be prepared) is safer than sit down food (with a hidden kitchen where god-knows-what is happening) and unless you’re gargling with the shower water, and gulping down gallons, you have nothing to worry about. I won’t even begin to tell you about the real live person we met who showers with rum in his mouth in the third world to be sure that any germs he’s ingesting through tiny droplets of water are killed before they get to his belly. Yes. Really. But, I digress.
I will admit, up front, that there are several folks who have visited us over the years in this country that I have, quite intentionally, not taken on the chicken buses for a variety of reasons. There are legit reasons to avoid them. If you’re claustrophobic, for instance. If you’re OCD about cleanliness or other people touching you. If you’ve got an irrational dislike for anyone not you. If you’ve got mobility issues, or a brain injury, you should pop for the comfy bus and do so with my blessing. If you’re traveling with expensive electronics, or six wheelie bags and a giant stroller, hire a driver and save everyone’s sanity.
If, however, none of the above apply to you, and you find yourself in Guatemala, you should ride the Chicken Bus. At least once. Preferably, until it becomes old hat and you quit taking pictures of the outside before you load up. Take them until you know what the costs on your regular routes are and the ayudante doesn’t even bother to try to jack the price. Take them until you stop noticing that you’re the only non-Guatemalan face in the crowd. Take them until it doesn’t seem weird to be handed someone else’s kid to balance on your lap smashed in four to a seat for a few hours. Take them until you learn to swear in Spanish at the loco driver along with the locals. Just take them.
1. They are cheap
There are many ways in which the economy of scale works in our favour. Transportation is not one of them.
We were sitting on the dock the other morning, headed across the lake to grab a chicken bus up to Chichicastenango’s big market with a friend. My friend Paul was incredulous. “You know the collectivo is only 80Q, right? Round trip? And the driver waits for you?” Yes. I know. Aside from the fact that I hate the collectivo and being held to the schedule of the driver and the other people in the van annoys me, and we all know darned well that the prices at the market in question drop precipitously at about 2 p.m. when all of said collectivos and tourist busses depart… 80Q is a little over $10 USD. We are, at our slimmest a family of six, that particular day, a family of ten. That’s $100 USD and change round trip.
The cost of the chicken bus:
- Panajachel to Solola: 3Q
- Solola to Encuentros: 2.5Q
- Encuentros to Chichi: 5Q
- Double that for return: 21Q
At 8Q to the 1USD, that’s about $2.62 to go both directions, times ten: $26.20, a savings of $73.74
Yeah. That’d be one good reason to ride the chicken bus. I bought some stunning antique fabrics and lunch for everyone with the difference. Everyone wins.
2. They are local
Let me put it bluntly: If you are traveling in this part of the world and traveling in the ubiquitous collectivo or big intercity buses: you are missing every damned thing.
You’re being shunted off to the “tourist” stops that the drivers are incentivized to stop at, making sure you purchase the appropriate and over priced souvenirs and meals. You are traveling only with other foreigners and assiduously avoiding encountering actual Guatemalans, you know, like the ones who actually live here and work at something other than serving the tourist trade. You are almost certainly listening to English music and speaking English with everyone inside the bus. You’re conveniently whisked from one hostel to another, where your peer group remains the trendy backpacker or the super cool hippie chick element. In between, you brush off the folks trying to sell you something with a slightly annoyed, “No gracias.”
This, my friends, is a bullshit way to travel.
Unless you have one of the above, valid, reasons, to avoid the chicken bus, then what you’re doing by insisting on collectivos is carefully padding yourself from the realities of the place you’re going to go home and claim to have visited. Sound harsh? Maybe it is. I’ll give long term expats a pass, they’ve “been there, done that and got the t-shirt.” If they want to travel in comfort, they should, they know the other side. It’s the people who don’t know the other side and don’t want to or are afraid to that I’m talking to here. Why, exactly, are you traveling if not to actually encounter something different, have your horizons and comfort zones stretched and challenge yourself to get a grip on how the rest of the world really lives?
- You’re missing the best street food at the stops and out of the baskets passed down the center aisle.
- You’re missing the opportunity to hear Ka’chi’kel and Quiche and a dozen other languages that aren’t Spanish spoken conversationally.
- You’re missing the opportunity to examine, up close and personal, the tribal differences in art, clothing, and custom.
- You’re missing the opportunity to rub shoulders with locals.
- And you’re missing the very best of your near death travel experience stories.
That’s a guarantee.
I will go out on a controversial limb here and assert that if you have not ridden a chicken bus, you have not, in fact, been to Guatemala; in spite of what your passport stamp may report.
3. They are an adventure
Every single chicken bus ride comes with it’s own story. That’s a promise! I once chased one down a street yelling that they still had my kids. We can’t ever pass through the exchange at Chimaltenango without someone bringing up Ezra’s unfortunate NTAF moment. If you want adventure stories, chicken busses are a reliable point of collection.
It is not unusual to have four or five people jammed into one old Blue Bird school bus seat and the folks on the outside edge with only one butt cheek on the seat, shoulders jammed together in the aisle for stability.
It’s not unusual to get off with sore arms and legs from the constant tension and exertion of hanging on for dear life as the driver whips around hairpin turns up and down the mountains in the highlands as you try not to slide too inappropriately into the lap of the person next to you.
It’s not unusual to see the ayudante run to leap onto the moving bus, make the long, snaky, squishy journey through the center of the over packed bus, ordering standing passengers to sit down in places where you swear to all things holy there is not room for one more person to sit, collecting money from each passenger (pay attention so you know what to pay, because god help you if you have to ask) only to exit the rear door of the moving bus in the middle of a wild down hill turn, climb the ladder, run the length of the roof of the moving bus, slip off of the side rail of the roof rack like a salamander and re-enter, feet first, through the front door of the still moving bus. True story.
It’s not unusual to have a man with pomade perfect hair and gold teeth hop on at one stop and sing the praises of some version of snake oil for a few miles, handing out samples to reluctant listeners. Do yourself a favour and do not take a sample unless you plan to buy the magic teeth powder or testosterone booster, or liquid vitamin supplement.
It’s not unusual for a preacher to stand up in the aisle and do his level best to save your heathen soul for half an hour, or until a particularly sharp stop knocks him back out the front door.
And yes, since I know you’re dying to ask, there often are chickens on them. Or big baskets full of turkeys tied to the roof. Or cardboard boxes full of bunnies in the seat behind you (Ezra’s personal favourite.) We once saw a sheep lifted into one through the back door. I wonder what the price for passage is for a sheep?
4. Your mother told you not to
Our intern, Jessica, arrived on Friday night. By Monday morning we’d ticked off the two big ticket items that her mother had admonished her, against all odds, NOT to do: Anything related to flying or hanging in the air (we went zip lining) and riding a chicken bus. Sorry Mom. Your little girl is alive, and she loved it.
Now, being a mother, I can’t very well violate the solemn code of all mothers to stick together and give good advice, now can I? After all, I don’t support drug use in my children and I give the safe sex talk with regularity that ensures all of my teens can recite it. This is what mothers do. We preach safety and good decision making.
The thing is, that mothers don’t always know best, especially when it’s a topic they know nothing about. Likely, your mother is afraid of you riding the chicken bus because she’s read the same ridiculous guidebooks and websites that everyone else has. If your mother has actually ridden a chicken bus herself and she still says you should do it, then ask her why and have a chat about that. My mother, the princess of all prudence, hops chicken buses like they’re old hat. I myself am a mother. I support my children riding chicken buses at every opportunity. Too much comfort isn’t good for teenagers. The chicken buses are, largely, populated by mothers and children. They’re a good, motherly choice to make with one’s children. Thousands of Guatemalan mothers would vouch for that.
Ride chicken buses. Take a selfie for your mom!
5. They are my favourite way to travel.
Shane and I were jammed in, shoulder to hip, in the center aisle of a particularly fast bus up out of Chimaltenango. Every muscle in our forearms was defined and my fingers were aching a bit as I hung on to the rail with one hand and pushed with my elbow to maintain my balance. I looked over at him and he was grinning. “This is my favourite way to travel,” I confessed. He smiled, “I can tell… thanks for bringing me!” he shouted above the din of the badly recorded marimba and the cry of the baby in the seat behind us. It might have been his first bus, but it wasn’t his first rodeo. He leapt up on to the roof and repossessed his own bag in the thirty seconds between bus swaps as we were swept, onward and upward, towards the lake.
I really do love to travel by chicken bus. It’s uncomfortable sometimes. The driver’s pry expletives from my lips at least once per journey. There’s no such thing as personal space or your own seat. The smells are breathtaking at times (not always in a good way) and it’s not like the word “fun” exactly applies after the shine of your first few rides wears off. But I still love it.
What I love is the aliveness of the experience. Packed in there with a random sampling of muddy-boots-on-the-ground Guatemala one can’t help but feel that this is the real world, unfolding around her. It’s not a contrived experience. I’m not being carefully protected from discomfort. I’m not using my money to buy myself privilege that the average Juan cannot. I’m not being toured, or padded, or served. For a time, I share the life and the breath and the moment with people I would not encounter in any other capacity. That’s a gift. That’s why I travel. That’s why I take chicken buses. In fact, I think that even if they cost more than the collectivos they’d be worth it, on that principle alone.
If you’re trying to avoid dirty, messy, stinky, crowded and risky, don’t come to Guatemala. Go to Germany. You’ll like it there. There are no chicken buses and everything runs on time. And it’s clean. And painfully safe. If you come to Guatemala, then for heaven’s sake get your butt off of the tourist bus and onto the chicken bus at least once. Be brave. Live in the real world while you’re here, and don’t forget to write to me and let me know how it went!
The children have two chicken bus jokes that they think you’d like to hear, in conclusion:
How many people can you fit on a chicken bus?
A priest and a chicken bus driver arrive in heaven at the same time. St.Peter takes a look at the book and says to the priest, “Hmmm, you can come in, but you’re over here, in the cheap seats.” Then he ushers the chicken bus driver in and seats him up front, first class, gold sandals and a free drink. When the priest questions St. Peter on this St. Peter responds, “Well, according to the book most of the time when you were working, and preaching, people were falling asleep. The chicken bus driver, that guy did a great job, every second that he was working, people were praying their heads off!”