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Secrets To Travel: Guatemalan Public Buses AKA The Chicken Bus

So you have made plans to visit Guatemala for a week or more. Congratulations! You will be visiting one of the only Central American countries that still retains almost a 50% population of indigenous people, the Maya. At the same time, you don't like the prospect of spending $10-20 dollars for private shuttles to get from town to town. Here is your alternative option; The Chicken Bus.

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If only American school buses could be painted like this BEFORE they were sent to a foreign country. Maybe kids would like school then.

When NOT To Ride The Chicken Bus

There are multiple stories that float around Central America (if you travel long enough) indicating that people have taken chicken buses from Mexico to Panama. If they didn't travel from Mexico to Panama, they did a shorter version that included more than one country. Considering the charter buses throughout this area rival American bus prices ($15-80 for bus rides 3-16 hours long), this sounds like an awesome way to travel here and save money.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

1)

This author has not personally embarked on this journey but knows no less than 4 separate stories that all sound the same. They knew public “chicken” buses typically had $0.20-1.00 fares so they planned their journey through Central America on this buses expecting to save money. They end their journey multiple days later hating it all.

Point A To B To C To D To E...

The problem begins with the public buses being indirect for your long range destination. If you have to get from point A to point M, especially if these are tourist locations like Tikal, Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Semuc Champey, etc, there is a bus that goes from A to M. If there is no bus that carries dozens of people, there is a shuttle carrying 5-10 people that does A to M. But a typical public bus ride is between 30-120 minutes before it stops and likely turns around on its daily route. From there, you must get out and find the next bus…but not to your destination. No, if you take the public buses to a destination very far away (i.e. well more than 2 hours), you will have to go from point A to B to C to D…until you finally reach point M. That causes some problems.

Too Many Connection For The Bus Driver To Help You

Additionally, you may have to continually ask each bus driver where your next connection bus is. As we have stated before, the bus drivers are super helpful, so in that regard this is not a problem. It is a problem, however, if they don't know how to get where you are going. If all you can say is “vamos a Tikal” and you are 13 hours from Tikal, he may be guessing which town you should go to next. Probably north. So your path across Guatemala could be erratic and hard to plan. This could be a good source of adventure for those who want that. Just don't delude yourself into thinking you will be saving any money by taking chicken buses from Mexico To Panama.

Considering that the public buses are much safer for foreigners to ride during the day, that limits your bus riding ability from 7 a.m.-5 p.m. as you will need to find lodging when you are only 1/3 of the way there. And if you need lodging for multiple days, you are probably carrying your luggage that holds all of your stuff. This means *every time the bus route ends and you have to switch buses, you also have to get your bag off of the top of the bus*. There is no room on the bus for you to drag along your luggage, all big luggage is just thrown up on top. One, it has no protection from rain or a helping hand accidentally misplacing it. Two, that shit is annoying for the bus workers. Most of us who travel to a foreign country probably have luggage bags that weigh in excess of 20 pounds and push 40 pounds. They have to haul that up and down, up and down, all along your journey. Sure, its a different bus worker each time, but considering their buses aren't designed for the travelers, that shit gets annoying.

We don't know the specifics, but from each person who tells a story of travelling long distances on public buses lets us know that *it is no cheaper*. With the eating out of meals every day, unplanned hostal visits (and pricier hotel visits when you land in a town that has no hostels), and the non monetary cost of spending part of your vacation staring out of a bus window, we declare that this is the worst way to travel across the Central American countries.

When You ARE Supposed To Use The Public Buses

The ideal time to use the public buses are when you are going somewhere that you…

  • Know the exact route, even the mini stops inbetween
  • Going somewhere close enough that you can return the same day
  • Don't have to bring your luggage
  • Won't need to ride the bus during the night

We provide an example situation in another article, considering the traveler who stays at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala and wishes to visit one of the largest American open air markets at Chichicastenango 2).

In Guatemala specifically, the travel time between Guatemala City (where most people fly in and out of) and Antigua, a popular tourist destination, is less than an hour without traffic problems. This would be another example.

If you are considering travelling on the public buses and your trip breaks any of these four bullet points, seriously reconsider.

How To Ride The Public Buses Without Problems

A Public Bus consists of a “chicken” bus, i.e. a old, pimped out, American school bus with THREE locations listed on the top front, a bus driver, and a fee collector. None of these two wear uniforms so pay attention when the fee collector comes so you can recognize him. In Guatemala they have never asked this author for the bus fee BEFORE the ride starts. They always get started

Speak To Experienced Travelers/Locals

Covering the first bullet point, find out the route that you need to take. See if you can get as much information as possible. Perhaps there is a nitty gritty detail about transitioning from one bus to the next that could save you some stress (e.g. “the next bus at Solola is actually three blocks from where they drop you off. Walk towards the Pollo Campero…”)Once you hear multiple confirmations that you take, four example, 4 buses to 4 separate towns with the last bus being your end destination, you can be quite sure of how you are getting there.

Carry Only What You Need

In consideration of the third bullet point, try to bring as little as possible. Chances are you will be the only foreigner on the bus so you will already stick out like a sore thumb. Carrying your Deuter 80-10 travel bag only makes you look more out of place. These buses are designed for K-12th graders and they will pack them 3 to a seat if necessary. There simply isn't room for your bag. Decide what you need and try to bring a hand bag instead. Even a plastic bag if your things are light enough.

Dress Down

Locals who are in the travel business will tell you this as well. Don't wear flashy jewelry, your rolex (or folex as it probably is), or other things that exude wealth. You are drawing attention to yourself, which your accent and possibly your skin color is already doing. Playing with your $500 dollar phone is also not suggested, nor is playing with your ipad or computer on the bus.

Look, you probably can do all of these things without a problem. Crime does happen, however, and there are plenty of things you can do to limit the likelihood of crime happening to you. These are all within that umbrella, as is the next point.

Sit In The Front Of The Bus

When you are riding Guatemalan public buses, look around you and see who is all there. You should be seeing Mayan women in traditional garb going to or coming from work. Some of them will have babies and toddlers in tow with them. Some kids will be going to and coming from school on certain hours. Mayan men with their sombreros. All regular people. That should be comforting.

Also notice that people don't fill in the seats as you would expect. Front seats fill first, which makes some sense. But people will begin sitting 3 to a seat near the front even when there are a lot of 1 seaters available in the back. That is stupid, right? Except there is a legend that if theft happens at all on public buses, its on the back of the bus. This author has yet to meet anyone who this has happened to, but when in Rome…do as the Romans do. Follow the Mayan woman's lead and sit in the first 5-7 rows, even 3 to a seat if you have to, rather than fill in the back of the bus. There is no need to find out if this legend is true.

Pay Attention For Your Stop And Keep The Bus Driver Informed Of Where You Are Going

If you are not taking the public bus directly to its end destination, let the driver know where you intend to get off. Alternatively you can let the fee collector know as well. If you have never taken the bus there before, you will be comforted to know that more than one pair of eyes are looking out for where you need to go.

Sometimes at busy intersections where there are a slew of possible chicken buses, I ask the driver as I get off (and after I thank him!) where the next bus is for where I am going. They can point you directly to it.

Relax And Enjoy The Ride!

If are interested in some direct guidelines on popular public bus routes for Guatemalan tourists, check out these other posts here

  • Secrets Of Travel How To Get From Antigua To Guatemala City And Back For Under 3 Bucks 3)
  • Secrets Of Travel: Chichicastenango, Guatemala 4)

Travel

1) There is the exception of being near the border of one country and only having to take one or two local buses to cross into the other country.

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