What is a Chicken Bus?

A beautiful example of a Chicken bus, with a load of goods on the roof. Photo via Wikimedia, by russavia.

A beautiful example of a Chicken bus, with a load of goods on the roof. Photo via Wikimedia, by russavia.

A good Chicken Bus is a beautiful thing. I used to be intimidated by them, but over the years, I’ve grown to really love this strange and unique form of transportation. They are usually decommissioned American school buses (often, the iconic BlueBird make), that have been brought down to Central America and are used by locals for transport between cities and pueblos. Guatemala is home to the world’s greatest Chicken Buses, often tricked out with flashy paint jobs, decals of Jesus on the cross, lights, and sound systems that blast reggaeton and Spanish ballads. But you can find Chicken Buses or similarly operated forms of transport throughout Central America. They are a cheap, lively, and always entertaining mode of transportation.

Me about to hop on the back of a Guatemalan Chicken Bus.

Me about to hop on the back of a Guatemalan Chicken Bus.

But why is it called a Chicken Bus? The answer is simple – there’s almost always a chicken or two on board. Some travelers speculate that the name stems from the fact that people are crammed in like chickens, which could certainly be the origin (although, in that case, I’d have gone with Sardine Bus), but either way, the colorful colloquial name certainly gets the point across, and works on multiple levels. Locals often use these buses to transport goods to and from the main markets. There might be a vendor with 10 large baskets strapped to the roof – sometimes with live chickens, eggs, rice, beans, soap, or just about anything. They just keep piling things on the roof and use a series of ropes to haphazardly hold it all together. Or there might be a woman coming back from market, with a live chicken rolled up like a burrito in an old newspaper, clutched under her arm, and clucking nervously. I’ve seen other animals too – a regal-looking goose tied up in a basket on the roof with it’s neck stretching towards the sky, and a family with a puppy in a cardboard box with holes poked in it, stashed in the luggage rack, whining. I’ve heard of pigs, hog-tied in the back of the bus, squealing all the way home.

But mostly, you’ll just find people on the Chicken Bus. Everyone from school children to the elderly, and pretty much all social classes ride the Chicken Bus. Depending on where you heading, and what time, you might hop on a bus full of hardened  field workers heading out to the sugar cane fields, or of women, overloaded with bags returning from the market. There are chicken buses primarily frequented by gringos too, going to and from some of the more touristed, backpacker destinations. But one thing you can count on, is that the Chicken Bus is always full. Incredibly, unbelievably, un-breathably full.

A lineup of Chicken Buses at the terminal behind the market in Antigua, Guatemala. Photo via Wikimedia, by Manfredwinslow.

A lineup of Chicken Buses at the terminal behind the market in Antigua, Guatemala. Photo via Wikimedia, by Manfredwinslow.

Remember, these are old American school buses — each seat is made for 2 school children. But here, you’ll almost always find 3 adults crammed into each seat, often with children (and chickens) on their laps. I once spent two hours with my left shoulder wedged inside a very sweaty man’s armpit. No joke. And when the seats are full, the isles begin to fill up. It’s hard to explain just how many people they will cram onto a Chicken Bus. No matter how full it gets, and no matter how much the patrons groan and protest, if they spot someone on the side of the road, they’re stopping and cramming even more people on the bus, throwing traveler’s backpacks on the roof with the other goods to make more space.

I feel like I always get on the bus when it’s empty, and then the next thing I know, i’m sandwiched between a  large, sweaty Guatemalan woman and an elderly cowboy, with a chicken clucking over my shoulder. This is life on the Chicken Bus.

There is no set schedule for these buses either – they may have a timetable, but really they just go when they are full, or when the driver decides it’s time. Usually, there are two people who run the bus. One is the driver, and the other is the barker / money taker / roof-walker. This guy has a hard job. First, he hangs out of the open door barking the name of the destination – they sort of sing it, and everyone has their own style. It might be slowly drawled out with syncopated syllables like, “Aaaaan-Tiiii-Guaaaa, Aaaaan-Tiiii-Guaaaa!” or might be a rapid-fire repetition like, “Xela,Xela,Xelaa! Xela,Xela,Xelaa!”  Sometimes you have to really listen to figure out what the hell they are actually saying.

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

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

The cruise the bus slowly through town, picking up passengers as they go, and once the bus in en-route to the final destination, the barker will go through the bus collecting the money. When it’s really full, he has to squeeze through and climb over people – all the while counting money and making change.  As people get on and off, he makes sure new people pay, and he’s forever hopping off the bus in the front, running around to the back, and climbing on the roof to tie down or untie cargo — all while the bus is moving. I’ve seen these guys balancing heavy boxes on their heads, while climbing the ladder at the back of the bus, while the bus is barreling down the road at 50 miles per hour. Then they’ll swing the back door open and hurl themselves back inside, slamming and locking the door behind them. It’s insanity!

I always prefer taking chicken buses to taking shuttles full of gringos. Partly because it’s much cheaper — a shuttle might cost you $15 USD, while taking a couple chicken buses along the same route could cost as little as $3 or $4. But I also love Chicken Buses because they are way more fun, way more interesting, and yes, at times, way more difficult. I enjoy the challenge. It’s sweaty, sometimes smelly, sometimes dangerous, and it can be downright exhausting. I recently rode Chicken Buses from Guatemala to Costa Rica. I’ll write about it soon, but if you’re wondering, it took 4 days of spending about 10 hours a day on buses and it was the most difficult travel experience of my life.

If you’re traveling to a developing country, and you really want to experience the local culture and see how the locals live – take the Chicken Bus, or whatever local buses they have. It will surely be an experience you won’t forget.

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  • http://twitter.com/JustinHBoucher Justin Boucher

    Kinda sounds like the art cars at burning man

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=680201897 Sonja Everson

    That was a brilliant read. We just got home from Guatemala and the chicken bus is still my fave mode of travel! As it turned out, we actually stayed at the La Iguana Perdida which is owned by Dave Ratcliffe who sings the chicken bus song. Such a great place and even better people!

  • Kyi

    Interesting post! It looks like a fun and great ride. I’d love to visit Guatemala and ride the chicken bus one day.

  • ardun

    NIce post Justin! I’m in Colombia now and they have the same buses and even smaller minivans to get around in. It is by far the best place to practice spanish and get a feel for the local culture.

  • Chelsea

    Chicken buses – hilarious! I took the Colectivo in Mexico once – but this one takes the cake! Sounds like quite the experience.

  • Dan McElroy

    Haha… this sounds like a nightmare man! I thought we had it bad catching busses in rural China, but I think you have us beat with the Chicken Bus experience. Sounds like an experience to say the least!