Have you ever wondered where school buses end up after they retire from the peaceful suburban streets of their American homeland? Many of them end up not in the local junkyard, as one may assume, but are sold off and driven down to Central America, where they undergo a radical transformation and begin new lives as striking, colorful chicken buses.
Chicken buses are the de facto mode of transportation in many Central American countries, such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, providing inexpensive and efficient public transportation to these less economically developed regions. These ubiquitous buses earned their monikers thanks to locals occasionally transporting live animals (such as chickens), and the fact that sometimes the buses can get very crowded, with passengers stuffed into the vehicles not unlike chickens in cages.
When I travelled to Guatemala, I was frustrated to only find transportation available in the form of shuttles, shared with other tourists. These shuttles are very prevalent, and although not expensive in U.S. terms, aren’t the dirt-cheap mode of transportation I expected upon arrival in Central America. I longed to find myself surrounded by locals, outsmarting the other tourists by finding the more economical method of transportation. Then I laid my eyes on my first chicken bus.
Chicken buses are more often than not painted in bright, extravagant colors from bumper to fender, without a trace of the school bus yellow of their past lives. Chicken buses are striking because they seem rather out of place in conservative Central America, looking as though they’d be more at home bumping along the hills of San Francisco, blaring Jefferson Airplane from rolled-down windows. Then again, the accoutrement of the indigenous people in Central America is famous for its bright colors, so perhaps it’s no surprise that this colorful inclination translates to public transportation, as well. It may also serve to make the sometimes uncomfortable accommodations of the chicken bus easier to stomach, knowing that while it may not be much on the inside, at least it’s a sight to behold on the outside.
Inside, the bus is often packed with riders, who squeeze in three per seat where they can, seats meant to hold two American schoolchildren. The driver’s corner is also often decorated to reflect his personality, with large, kitschy pictures of Jesus paired with sexy pin-ups, wonderfully encapsulating the irony of Latin America’s machista culture, which simultaneously idolizes females saints such as the la Virgen de Guadalupe and the Virgen del Carmen.
After several days of shuttling around in Guatemala, I vowed to take the chicken bus before leaving the country. In Antigua, the picturesque, colonial, volcano-surrounded crown jewel of the country, we were lucky enough to stay in the house of a Guatemalan friend of ours. And by house, I mean extravagant mansion in an exclusive gated community. Our accommodations were over-the-top luxurious, especially compared to the hostels we had been staying in up to that point. So it was with great dismay that the staff of the property (our hosts were out of the country and thus we had the house to ourselves) greeted our inquiry as to how to take the chicken bus back to Guatemala City on the last day of our trip to go to the airport for our flight home. Shocked that we would even contemplate the idea, they tried to dissuade us from boarding the chicken bus in every way possible, but we stood firm and in the end they relented, but made sure to send two helpers with us to assist with our luggage, take us to the correct stop, and make sure we got on the correct chicken bus.
And so the chicken bus pulled up, in all of its fiery, red blazing glory, and we got on board, and enjoyed the one-hour bumpy ride along the road to Guatemala City. To my great disappointment, I didn’t see any chickens.
HOT TIP: As when purchasing anything anywhere (but especially in countries where you stand out as a foreigner), inquire of the price before boarding. You won’t pay immediately, as the helper will eventually come around to your seat (should you be so lucky) to collect the fare.
HOT TIP: Keep your belongings in sight. Hopefully there should be an overhead rack where you can stash them, otherwise consider paying for an extra seat to put them next to you rather than having them thrown on the roof of the bus.