The Longest Chicken Bus Ride of My Life. Part 1: Guatemala

The view of Lago Atitlan and La Nariz del Indio from the roof of my house.

Adios Atitlan! This was the view of Lago Atitlan and La Nariz del Indio from the roof of my house.

I left San Pedro, Lago Atitlan, Guatemala with no idea that I had accidentally overstayed my Central American visa, and I was about to be turned away at the border. The plan was to meet some friends at the beach in El Tunco, El Salvado for a couple of days, before heading down to Costa Rica to meet another friend from the States who was flying in for a week vacation. It would be a long journey, about 1,120 miles (over 1,800 kilometers) but simple enough for a seasoned traveler like myself, right?

When I can, I always take Chicken Buses because they are cheaper and take you through more interesting small towns and the journey is generally more adventurous. If you don’t know what a Chicken Bus is, I’ve written about my love of Chicken Buses here, so check that out for a primer.

Considering I had plenty of time on my hands, I figured I’d Chicken Bus it down to Playa el Tunco. From San Pedro, I took an early morning lancha across the lake to Panajachel, where I could catch a series of Chicken Buses to Guatemala City. I remember looking back at San Pedro as it faded into the morning fog, the volcano disappearing with the colorful buildings of the small town.  I remember thinking how sad I was to be leaving. I’d been there for two and a half months. I had an apartment, a home office where I could work on World Travel Buzz and the Radical Travel Podcast, and I also had a job at a hostel (Mr Mullet’s) that I really enjoyed, and some good friends who I was leaving behind. It felt like home, and it was weird to watch it disappear as the lancha zipped across the water. Adios, I thought, on to the next adventure.

A half full chicken bus leaving Panajachel - comfortably and quiet. The calm before the storm.

A half full chicken bus leaving Panajachel – comfortably and quiet. The calm before the storm.

I hopped on a half-full Chicken Bus from Panajachel to Solola, where I was able to catch a direct Chicken Bus to Guatemala City. This second bus was one of the wilder Chicken Bus rides of my life.  I was the third person to squeeze into a sate made for 2, which meant I only had enough room for about half of one cheek on the seat. The road winds through the volcanic foothills with sharp hairpin turns, and the bus made no effort to slow down as it rounded them. I had to clutch the railing of the seat in front of me as hard as I could to prevent myself from ending up sprawled out in the isle. Every right-hand turn sent me groping for the railing, every left-hand turn made me slam into the poor old Guatemalan man next to me. He clutched the bar in front of him with feeble, wrinkled hands, his wrists so skinny in the loose the sleeves of his traditional Mayan coat.

In Guatemala city, we made a stop where most of the passengers got off, but a nice local kid told me I should stay on a couple more stops, and he would show me where I could get a direct Chicken Bus to Jutiapa, near the El Salvador border. There were only about 6 of us left on the bus as we traversed Guatemala City, and at one point, the money-taker waved hurriedly for us all to get down. Everyone silently slouched down or lay across their seats, out of sight of the windows. I didn’t get it, and the man motioned angrily for me to get down. So I slunk down to the floor of the bus, crouching so as not to be seen. I didn’t know if we were going to be shot through the windows or what the hell was going on. I tried to ask a fellow passenger and he just shrugged and said, “Policia.” I still didn’t get it, and I tried to ask why the policia would care if we were on the bus, but he couldn’t explain it.  A few minutes later, we were at our destination, a bus stop somewhere in the middle of the city.

The nice local kid who I met on the bus offered to walk me the 3 blocks through the chaos of the city to show me where I could get that direct bus. We trudged through smoggy traffic, past vendors selling machetes and lengths of rope from ramshackle stalls, and men pulling carts that looked like they should have been hitched to oxen, piled high with melons. Eventually, my new friend pointed out the correct bus, which was parked in an unmarked, dirt lot. I asked the driver, and it was, indeed, the bus to Jutiapa. I stashed my bags on the bus, bought some fried plantain chips from a vendor on the corner, and soon we were on our way.

Another great Chicken Bus, outside Guatemala City. Photo via Wikimedia, by DavidDennisPhotos.com

This is a great example of a Chicken Bus. Photo via Wikimedia, by DavidDennisPhotos.com

We left the city and the bus rocketed down the highway at breakneck speeds. Through the window of the bus, I watch the dirty, bustling city disappear. Soon, the black volcanic hillsides and green vegetation I’d grown used to gave way to dry, golden hillsides. We passed little pueblos, many of them nothing more than a cluster of shacks built from cinder blocks, scavenged wood, and corogated metal roofs. Although the bus was supposed to be direct (there’s really no such thing as a “direct” Chicken Bus), it stopped constantly. In many of the pueblos, the driver would let old indigenous women and their children board the bus for a moment, to sell bags of water, sodas, empanadas, and candy.

Jutiapa is about an hour from the El Salvadorian border, and when I finally arrived, it was about 4PM. 2 hours before sunset.  As a rule, I don’t usually travel at night, at least not when I’m alone and going by local bus. I especially don’t recommend crossing a border at night because border towns are usually not the safest places to be, and you might find yourself stuck on the other side of the border with no transport options, and very few options for accommodation. So I opted to spend the night in Jutiapa, and booked myself into a cheap hotel near the bus stop.

The owner of the hotel was tall for a Guatemalan. He wore an immaculate cowboy hat, a gun on his hip and, a broad smile with several silver teeth. He was gracious and ceremonial as he showed me to my room, swinging the door wide open and gesturing that I enter, stretching his arm out wide as if to say, “Enter, sir, all this is yours for the evening!” And when he left, he bowed slightly, then reminded me that the gate is locked at 10PM and if I stayed out later than that, I wouldn’t be able to get back in. Strange. But I wasn’t planning on having a late night, so I didn’t argue. I looked around the room that he had been so proud to show me. There where two beds, both equally saggy and squeaky. There were headboards painted on the wall to give the illusion of fancy bed frames. There was a small TV mounted in a strange steel cage, but both the channel buttons were missing and there was no remote.

They had wifi in the lobby (which was barren room with a couple plastic chairs), so I sat there for an hour or so and got some work done. Then I went out to find dinner. I walked aimlessly through the dark streets of town, looking for somewhere to eat. Jutialpa isn’t on any traveler’s map. There’s no tourism in this town, and I didn’t see many people at all on the streets that night. Only a few locals walking briskly home from work, a few vagrants wandering the streets, and stray dogs, looking for scraps in the gutters. It really is a rush to be in a place like that. Terrifying. Invigorating. It’s rare that I feel lost, or in danger, but when you’re in a town that you know nothing about, walking alone at night, and you know you stand out like a gringo foreigner, you can’t help but feel a little bit scared. The streets are dark, with streetlights offering the illusion of illuminated safety every couple of blocks. As you walk, all your sense are on edge. Is there someone behind you? Is there someone waiting to mug you in that dark alley? Are you being followed? Every time I passed a local on those dark streets, my heart pounded a little faster, my neck hairs stood on end. I have to admit that I secretly love this feeling. As a jaded traveler, I think I appreciate these situations more than most.

It was only about 8PM, but strangely there were no restaurants open in that town. I eventually found a stand selling burgers, which were terrible, but at least I had some food in my belly. Now, all I wanted was to buy a couple beers and head back to my hotel. I went back to wandering the streets, but I couldn’t find any open stores – this certainly was a strange town.

I saw the lights of a gas station ahead, and I could see two men dumping buckets of water on the ground and sweeping the dirt and spilled gas into the street. These guys will know where to find a beer, I thought. I walked up to them and asked where I could find an open tienda. They both looked at each other and thought for a while, then one of them pointed back the way I came and started to mutter some convoluted directions. Suddenly he was interrupted by a man standing behind me in the middle of the street.

“Hey!” I heard him yell. And I ignored it. In my travels, I’ve learned that it’s almost always best to ignore crazy. If you engage, or even make eye contact, you’re just inviting them to start shit.

“Hey!” The yell came again, and i could hear him approaching. I turned to see what I was up against, and I was completely shocked to see my Guatemalan friend Alejandro standing in the street, smiling, holding his hands upturned in front of him as if to say, what the fuck are YOU doing here?

The story continues at Part 2: Alejandro and the Beer.

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