The Chicken Buses Of Guatemala

By Douglas Bernon
September 7, 2001
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Photo of Guatemalan chicken bus Colorful and crowded, Guatemalan buses can get the adrenaline moving.

The "chicken buses" on which Bernadette and I have been risking mortality while backpacking through Guatemala are perfectly named, and not just because many of the passengers are hauling live lunch. (Chickens, which are not infrequent seatmates, need not purchase tickets when accompanied by their keepers.) The slick-haired pilotos who drive these busesare bantam roosters in mirrored Ray Bans who get their kicks from playing chicken with oncoming traffic — typical local machismo. But scrape the garish new paint off these rusty old U.S. school buses, and you'll see just how yellow they are underneath. When North Americans deem their school buses no longer safe for their children, they're shipped (the vehicles, not the kids) to Central America, reminding me, incidentally, of Mark Twain's comment: "In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made school boards." These buses may have festively repainted exteriors, but it's pretty clear they've seen better days. I was terrified to put myself into their hands, even before I read the Lonely Planet guide on Guatemala, which warns: "At least a couple of times a month, a bus plunges over a cliff or rounds a blind bend into a head-on collision. Newspapers are full of gory details and diagrams of the latest wreck, which does not foster endearing feelings toward Guatemalan public transportation."

Photo of pigs Chickens and pigs have been our typical Guatemalan bus companions.

That such accidents are not hourly events may be testimony to the religious iconography that graces every millimeter of wall, ceiling, and even window space inside these buses. We've seen life-size posters of Mary and Joseph with Tweety Bird, beaming benevolently at each other, and we've smiled at the popular Dios Nos Acompaña decals, grateful to be traveling in His circle. However, I was unnerved on the four-hour ride through the volcanic mountains from Huehuetenango to Quetzaltenango to see on the piloto's windshield, directly in his field of vision, a foot-tall opaque decal of Jesus and an equally large sign which read: "Jesu Cristo Viene Pronto. Prepare para su Encuentro." While He may indeed be on His way, I'm not yet ready to say my mucho gusto to the big guy. Blind faith is one thing, blind driving another.

The pollo buses are the only way to get to small villages in out-of-the-way places; they're dirt cheap, ubiquitous, and more or less on time. Plus, the local banditos are less likely to rob them than the highly visible tourist carriers. Would-be passengers congregate at the local estación terminal de bus — generally a rutted, muddy field — and search for a bus that's labeled with the name of a village reasonably close to where they want to go. Lots of Guatemalans can't read, so young men with shrill voices and large muscles mill about in the mud and scream out the name of the village their bus will attempt to reach. You hand the professional barker half a quetzal (about seven cents), along with your pack, or your bundle of wool, or your trussed goat, or your bale of shingles tied together with bamboo fibers, or your washing machine, and he climbs to the roof, manhandles it up there. After you're sure he's secured it for the ride, you and your chickens climb inside and take your place in the food chain.

Photo of women carrying her produce to market and a shoe-shinner at bus terminal
A women carrying her produce to market — onions and flowers — heads for a bus,
while one of the ubiquitous shoe-shiners grabs a young customer at the terminal.

Photo of scenes from Guatemalan bus terminal
A barker secures all the oversized bags and bikes on top of the bus, while a farmer
rolls his bale of newly shorn wool toward the bus for Quetzaltenango.

Photo of refreshment stands at bus terminal Refreshment stands can be found at every bus terminal. Here, a woman balances her canasta on top of her head, and gets ready to sell some food on the bus.

If you live in the hills, far from an estación terminal, you just stand on the side of the road and wave your hand. The bus will always stop, because chicken buses are never full. No matter how many people already are sardined inside, the driver and conductor, both of whom get a percentage of the gross take, will stop and squeeze you in, even if they've got to slather you in warm lard to squirt you down the aisle.

You may recall from elementary school, when you were much littler, that only you and one friend sat on a school bus seat, with an aisle separating you from the two kids across from you. Occasionally, you'd have to squeeze three to a seat. That was a long time ago, in America. In Guatemala, on the same midget seats, we've counted as many as 11 adults crammed across two seats, and we were part of the count. (Remember, the Commodore and I are not dainty people — if we're sitting next to each other, two to a seat, with our knees scrunched against the seat in front of us, it's already intimate. Add nine more people, and we know immediately the details of their contours.)

Photo of Guatemalan woman We get to know very well the contours of the Guatemalans with whom we are sardined on the chicken buses.

On the five-and-a-half-hour bus trip from Huehuetenango to Todos Santos, a remote and stunning mountain village, where two years ago villagers stoned a gringo to death in the market because they thought he was trying to steal a baby for organ harvesting, our capacities for enduring the joys of ethnic travel were heavily taxed. At several stops to pick up more people, heavy-set women with canastas (baskets) of food on their heads crow-barred their way down the isle selling tamales, plantain chips, chicken tacos, and dulces, only to reach the back of the moving bus, push open the emergency door, and leap out. On this excursion, we had seven folks in our row, and the toxic bus fumes blended with the bouquet of nine children vomiting, eight chickens crapping, and more than 100 huddled, unshowered people eating greasy food. On top of this, I felt the unmistakable, early-warning, stomach rumblings heralding the onset of my soon-to-be-experienced, third case of Giardia this season. (I now name them, like hurricanes.)

Photo of view from the bus windows of the Guatemalan countryside The views from the bus windows, as we wind our way up into the volcanic mountains and around the massive lakes, are always breathtaking.

The bus-company philosophy of "We-Make-Absolutely-No-Pit-Stops-Unless-We-Break-Down-or-Crash" led me to several mesmeric insights. First: Pity must be given to the fool who drinks a whole bottle of water before boarding a Guatemalan bus. Second: News reports of a single bus accident in Guatemala announcing the deaths of 1,387 people now make more sense to me. Third: Never sit over the wheel hump, or your bladder will burst, your muscles will knot, your knees will have to be extracted surgically from your chest, and your conversation with your spouse will be unpleasant. Your only consolation will be that this seat makes the V-berth on your boat seem palatial. Fourth: Guatemala's high birth rate has little to do with the Catholic orthodoxy. It's about small buses. There are so many people jammed together that men and women end up pressed face to face as the rickety old Blue Birds pound and bounce over potholes and partially cleared landslides. Unsuspecting young women are impregnated willy-nilly, their bus tickets predicting their due date. Savvier women know that bus-based birth control is best accomplished by sitting down.