A Chicken Bus at Quatro Caminos in Guatemala (Source: Flickr/Laurent de Walick)
A Chicken Bus at Quatro Caminos in Guatemala (Source: Flickr/Laurent de Walick)

The chicken bus experience is fast becoming synonymous with a visit to Guatemala. If you ever thought that traveling by bus is boring, monotonous, and uncomfortable, you’ve never ridden a chicken bus – known to locals as camionetas. What on earth is a chicken bus we hear you cry? Let us explain.

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Traveling in customized Bluebirds that have come from Canada or the USA can not be described as dull or monotonous. Is it uncomfortable, though? Well, that’s a whole new story.

Repurposed school buses

We all know how North American school buses look – they’re big, yellow (obviously), and smell of routine. However, once they move to the lower parts of the Americas, it’s a different story. Sold at auction upon reaching ten years of age (or after traveling 150,000 miles), they’re decked out with “go faster” stripes. Windshields get decorated with stickers with religious mantras. Putting a “go faster” sticker on a bus that’s designed to be safe and is supposed to be driven slowly could already be a red flag, but wait until you see the interior. Bus companies tend to cram in more seats than the bus is meant to take. Seat overcrowding drastically shortens the legroom, which gets so narrow that you won’t have to wait long before you start saying those religious mantras written on the windows. So much for routine.

Chicken buses are repurposed school buses bought at auction when a bus is typically 10 years old or has clocked up 150,000 miles (Photo: Pixabay/nil2hoff)
Chicken buses are repurposed school buses bought at auction when a bus is typically 10 years old or has clocked up 150,000 miles (Photo: Pixabay/nil2hoff)

If you were wondering how to take a chicken bus, unfortunately, there’s no definite answer. You’re basically on your own. The Guatemalan serendipity that makes these buses so appealing in the first place, also make the schedules almost impossible to figure out—planning on getting in and out of Guatemala City on a chicken bus? Don’t even try. The city is too chaotic, and you can quickly end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Even though the name suggests, camionetas are just another means of transportation. Riding a chicken bus is not your go-to option if you’re planning on getting somewhere on time. On the other hand, you might get there faster than expected. And by faster, we mean faster.

Not for the faint-hearted

The drivers tend to be untraditional, where passenger safety is concerned. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself on the steep mountain roads of Guatemala enduring hairpin corners, honking horns, panicked expletives, and violently braking rocking the bus back and forth.

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Road safety, however, isn’t the only issue here. Most tourists (and probably the locals too) tend to be more concerned about their possessions than personal safety. Why? Chicken buses are jam-packed; it’s easy to get your luggage, “misplaced.” There have also been some stories of slashed bags and possessions stolen. The secret is not to get too comfortable (how can you?) and never let your belongings out of your sight.

Still, this is an experience you won’t want to skip if you find yourself in Guatemala – the noise, the smell, and the astounding mass of color are what Guatemala is all about. Besides, you will leave with a story you won’t stop telling for years to come.