Chicken buses, known locally as camionetas, are one of the most ubiquitous sights in Guatemala. The brightly painted buses that rattle and roar their way along the narrow highways are just a part of life here, yet many tourists never experience this very unique part of travel. Local transport is often a mystery when you’re in a new place, but the seemingly unregulated schedules of the chicken buses can put off even the most intrepid backpacker . . . but it doesn’t have to be that way!
Where Do Chicken Buses Come From?
In the United States, school buses are often retired long before their useful life is up. It’s a safety measure and one that enables countries like Guatemala to invest in cheaper transportation. Buyers purchase the retired buses and drive them down through Mexico to Guatemala, where they are sold to bus companies.
The bus is then taken into a workshop, a loud, greasy warehouse in most cases, and taken apart. The seats are ripped out and replaces with longer, padded streets that feature metal bars for passengers to hold onto. This leaves a very narrow space down the middle for everyone to walk. In some buses, it’s only about six inches wide! The new seats allow for more passengers. Forget the “60 passenger limit” notice on the outside of the bus (often left there after repairs), it’s quite common to load 100-150 people into a bus.
The outside of the bus is painted in garish colors and often the name of the company is added. The windshield and back windows are covered in vinyl stickers and then the bus is ready to hit the road again, reborn as a funky chicken bus.
The Orderly Chaos of Chicken Bus Riding (aka, what you need to know before you ride)
Chicken buses are not like city buses in first world countries, but they do follow some sort of rule list. Despite the seemingly random lineup, they have schedules. They don’t always keep to those schedules, however, so if you want to make sure you get somewhere on time, head out earlier than you think you need to. There may be delays on the way.
There are three types of people you should be aware of on the bus.
Chofer or Driver: This guy is here to drive the bus and pretty much nothing more. He’s adept at shifting, swerving around people, animals and cars and can carry on a conversation at the same time.
Ayudante or Helper: A young guy who is in charge of helping people get on the bus and receiving the fare. He will scamper up the side of the bus in a split second to retrieve baskets and bags piled on top, lift heavy baskets onto women’s heads, swing small children off the bus into their parents’ arms, and cram people into the bus like it’s his own personal sardine tin. The ayudante will also help if you need to get off at a specific spot.
Passengers: Everyone around you. All 100+ of them. There is no such thing as personal space in a chicken bus, so expect people to squish you, sit on you and squeeze past you in the most intimate of ways. It’s nothing personal, they just have to get where they’re going. It’s not unusual to sit three to a seat and you will be considered very rude if you don’t scoot over when someone goes to sit in the third spot.
There are bus stops throughout Guatemala. You will see them marked as “Parada de bus,” but there’s no need to be all formal and wait there. You can grab a bus just about anywhere . . . unless they don’t feel like picking you up. If you’re on the bus route, just stand facing the direction the bus will come from and when you see it, put your arm out straight and flap your hand to signal that you want to get on. The bus will usually swerve and roar to a stop, so step back. Then jump on fast and don’t worry if the ayudante grabs you to lift you on faster. They have a schedule to keep, after all.
Buses will often stop several times in a single block stretch, but they don’t always stop completely. If you’re running down from a side road, they may slow and roll along, but you’ll be expected to jump onto the barely moving bus. Again, the ayudante will help you.
Carrying your backpack or a suitcase with you? Nearly all buses have an overhead rack for bags, but this is a semi-dangerous option. It’s very easy to forget your bag and if you are standing, you may be pushed further down in the bus and may come back to discover that your things have been taken by someone else. If you are sitting and cannot fit your items on your lap or at your feet, you’ll be asked to pay an extra fare. However, you can ask the ayudante to put your bags on top of the bus and he will get them when you get off again. You may also stash large items at the front of the bus to pick up when you get off.
Payment varies drastically and tends to change randomly, dependent on recent events and the season. It’s a good idea to watch what other people are paying, or, again, ask someone near you what the fare is. Have change on hand, since the ayudante doesn’t always have change for larger bills. You don’t pay when you get on the bus. The ayudante will come down the aisle partway through the ride to collect fare. He does this several times, as people get on throughout the trip . . . but don’t worry, if he holds his hand out to you a second time, just say, “ya.” He’ll know you already paid and move on.
Should you get off the bus before the ayudante gets to you, hand him the money as you get off, or, if the ayudante is otherwise occupied, you can give the money to the driver, but don’t expect change.
When you want to get off the bus, you have a few choices. If you’re in the middle or front section, you can yell, “AQUI, por favor!” or simple stand up before your stop and work your way to the nearest door. If you’re at the back, you can bang on the side of the bus twice to let them know you’re going out the back. It’s much simpler if you let the ayudante know when you get on the bus or when you pay that you want to get off at a specific place. He’ll let the driver know and will usually call out your destination as you near it.
How to Get Where You’re Going
So, you’ve decided to brave the bus and you want to visit a nearby town, but . . . how do you find the right bus and how do you get there?
Every town has a place where the buses leave from, so you just need to find “la estacion de buses?” Keep in mind that this is NOT always where the buses will drop you off.
If you’re in Antigua, head to the back of the market. There are dozens of buses there, parked in two rows behind the chicken and fries vendors. These will take you just about anywhere in Guatemala, or to a connection that will get you elsewhere in the country. The buses closest to the front of the market are the ones that go to the nearest towns, including San Pedro el Alto, San Juan del Obispo, etc. The buses have their destinations written on the front, but they often include confusing information, like a common stop on the way to their final destination.
Don’t hesitate to ask for your bus. Even with a lack of Spanish, you can find it by asking a vendor or ayudante, “San Juan del Obispo?” and they will point you in the right direction. Then you simply climb aboard and wait for the bus to leave.
Not all destinations are a final destination for a bus, so you may need to tell the ayudante where you have to get off. For example, if you’re going to the Valhalla Macadamia Farm, you would take the bus to San Miguel Dueñas, but let the ayudante know that you need off at “finca de macadamia.” The bus will pull over and drop you off there.
Safety on Chicken Buses
When I advocate riding on chicken buses, most people ask, “But is it safe?” That’s a good question. The answer depends on where you’re going. Buses to the capital are considered less secure than those heading to San Antonio Aguas Calientes, for example. In general, buses around Antigua are fairly safe, as are those heading to the lake.
The most common issues you will run into on the bus are fairly minor, such as pickpocketing. Keep your important items inside your clothing and preferably in front of you, where it is easier to prevent stealing. Your bags should be kept within reach, on your lap, etc. if possible. If you’re headed out for a day trip, leave everything essential at the hotel and just take a day pack with a little money for your explorations.
Buses do crash, but this is surprisingly less common than you might expect, considering the crazy way the drivers manage the roads. Buses to the capital are more likely to crash than ones heading to Jocotenango or similar pueblos. Avoid a bus if the driver appears to have been drinking or is otherwise out of it. There’s nothing wrong with getting off a bus if you don’t feel safe, either. You can always get another one. That being said, these are rare issues and again, on specific routes.
We recommend avoiding buses to the capital city, simply because they are more dangerous these days.
Getting Started: Where to Ride First
Since most tourists will be starting their adventures in Antigua, we’ll focus on this area for your first chicken bus ride. There are many picturesque pueblos in the area, so why not visit some of them?
Try San Juan del Obispo, San Felipe or San Antonio Aguas Calientes for your first ride. San Juan is nestled in the foothills of Volcan Agua to the south and takes roughly 15 minutes by chicken bus. San Felipe is closer, but since the buses go through town, they may take a little longer. These rides will cost you less than Q5.
San Antonio is a little further away, but has some lovely textiles and artisans around the park, so it’s worth a trip. Plan all your day trips for earlier in the day, so you can get back to Antigua before too late . . . it can be confusing to travel after dark.
Ready to jump on some chicken buses in Guatemala?