An Ode to the Chicken Bus

Ah yes, the chicken bus.  Aptly-named for the high number of chickens that utilize its services, whether in a cage, with a string tied around their legs or simply held tightly by their caretakers.  Chicken buses (or camionetas, at least here in Guatemala) are the primary form of inter-city transport throughout Central America.

Generally obsessed with public transportation both as a hobby and a necessity (Kiva Fellows really get around), I decided to write a follow-up to the post I published during my last Fellowship about public transportation in Santo Domingo.  While I dearly miss the carros publicos and guaguas of Santo Domingo, the adventure that is tomar una camioneta is unparalleled.  And while those of you who have spent time traveling in Central America know exactly what I’m talking about, now would be a good opportunity for the rest of you to prepare yourselves to be blown away.

Chicken Bus on its way to Mazatenango

There it is, our beloved camioneta chugging through Quetzaltenango (Xela) from the bus terminal.  Look familiar?  Ding ding ding, you got it, it’s a retired US school bus!  But looks can be deceiving – renovations are extensive and don’t stop at the sexy decorations you see here.  No chicken bus would be worth a Quetzal (Q7.83 = US$1) if it didn’t have a turbo engine installed.  And although it’s hard to see at first glance, this bus has actually been shortened significantly from what you rode in the third grade.  Why go through the trouble to shorten it and thus lower its capacity?  Well, sit in the back row of a chicken bus while it’s taking a sharp turn on a mountain road at 50 mph and you’ll know exactly why.

But let’s take a closer look at that picture:

A line of buses waiting to turn at 19 Avenida on their way out of Xela

Notice that each camioneta is unique?  Although the decorations appear to be simply for looks, after some time riding chicken buses you realize that they are actually decorated by route.  For example, without seeing the sign I know that the blue and white bus that says “Xelaju” is heading to Coatepeque via San Juan Ostuncalco, San Martin and Colomba.  Since most chicken buses merely say “School Bus” in the back, this knowledge is really useful when you find yourself running after the last bus of the day.  But not to be outdone, of course, are the old school (literally) chicken buses, which stay truer to their roots:

Relatively unchanged…

But enough of the outside, let’s check out the inside of a chicken bus!

The inside of a relatively tranquil chicken bus

As you can see, the buses are decked out with baggage racks and handles for standing passengers to steady themselves.  But as the caption implies, this photo makes chicken buses look like first-class luxury transportation.  Let’s take a look at something a bit more realistic:

A more typical camioneta experience

There’s a lot going on in this picture so let’s examine it piece by piece.  First off, the most commanding element we see here is the vendor.  If I remember clearly, this guy was selling face lotion, and he gave a really good pitch considering the fact that it was face lotion he was selling on an extremely hot, uncomfortable bus.  I suppose in the end, whether or not we liked it, the audience was indeed “captive,” and the guy actually sold quite a bit of lotion.  Secondly, take a look at the upturned hand maneuver both by the lady in front of me and the gentleman in front of her.  This is a necessary measure when you are the third person squeezing into a seat that’s made for two children – without the upturned hand the third person ends up in the walkway.  Yes, that’s right, you thought three-to-a-seat was uncomfortable when you were ten years old; trust me, it’s much more uncomfortable when you’re all adults.  And it’s the norm on chicken buses.  Another element of this photo I’d like to point out will require closer examination:

Blessings – and policies – in the front of the bus

Don’t worry about the bus schedule; it’s not followed.  What I want to point out is the sign that says, “With God I left, if I don’t return I went with Him. Only God knows if I’ll return.”  While I appreciate blessings as much as the next guy, this sounds to me more like a disclaimer.  I am a relatively religious man, and I do believe that God has the final say in our fates, but I also believe that when on a bus the driver has a much more direct, tangible say in my fate.  Frankly, I’d appreciate a bit more ownership of his performance on his part.  Just my two cents.

And as you probably could have expected, unlike the buses we rode as children these have two entrances/exits:

Finally getting some use out of that emergency exit!

Very resourceful.  My only question is whether or not the the roof emergency exit will be used as a third exit once those newer buses make it down to Guatemala.

So there you have it folks, public (mostly inter-city) transportation in Guatemala in a nutshell.  I hope this blog gave you some insight, but I also strongly encourage you to make an effort to visit Central America and ride a chicken bus.  Every ride is a new adventure and they’re still exciting all the way up until your third ride!

David Gorgani is currently serving his second Fellowship in Guatemala, working with FAPEASDIR and ADICLA to help them maximize their relationships with Kiva. David’s previous Fellowship was in the Dominican Republic, helping ASPIRE get started as a Kiva Field Partner and helping Esperanza International with borrower verifications.

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