The Guatemalan chicken bus is the quintessential symbol of travel in Central America.
Images of gleaming, multicoloured 'camionetas' summon up romantic notions of carefree long-distance travel, fully immersed in the essence of a destination, invariably accompanied by colourful characters from rural Guatemala, who welcome the inquisitive traveller with a healthy mixture of hospitality and awe.
At least that's the way it's portrayed in most travel literature. It's a wildly idealised view, but an endearing and enduring one for anyone who is anywhere other than inside a Central American chicken bus.
Sure, their colourful exteriors, Jesus-praising slogans and elaborate chrome embellishments make these trundling monsters a pleasure to look at and a fundamental part of the Central American roadscape, but today, competition from more economical forms of transport and a growing threat from armed gangs means the days might be numbered for these smoke-belching behemoths.
All aboard the chicken bus
The term ‘chicken bus’ was coined by travellers in the 60s; the first ever wave of budget travellers, whose quest for freedom took them all over the globe in search of peace, love and good weed. For them, the chicken bus was the ultimate symbol of liberty: jump on, buy the ticket and enjoy the ride, wherever it takes you. Or something like that.
They called them chicken buses because as well as human passengers, cargo typically included live chickens and any other animal that could be persuaded to get onboard. Travelling by chicken bus invariably meant you would be cooped up (yep, I saw it) with a passenger manifest that included at least a few chickens, some small goats, boxes of exotic birds and, if you were very lucky, a piglet in a sack.
And that's just the live cargo. Any conceivable object that can be crammed inside the bus or hauled up onto the roof is fair game; drivers and their fare collectors will rarely refuse anyone a ride if they have coin to spend.
But bright colours and exotic cargo aside, the realities of travelling by chicken bus are not quite so idyllic.
Chicken buses start their lives as school buses in the United States, and spend years picking up the nation’s bright young things and delivering them safely to the school gates. When their lifespan is deemed over by the US health and safety people (usually after 8-12 years of service), they are shipped south, overland through Mexico, to Central America, where they are reincarnated as public transportation.
Somewhere in between, they are given a make-over, with colourful paint-jobs, catchy names and modern adornments, like lightening bolt-shaped windscreen wipers, gothic license plate holders and transfers of beautiful women on the wheel arches.
What they never do is install an air conditioning system, so chicken buses are hot. Very hot. Hot air comes in from open windows and when the bus is full, the temperature usually varies from moderately uncomfortable to a full-on drip-fest.
There are few more unpleasant travel experiences than being sandwiched in a heaving, jam-packed bus while a stranger’s sweat drips on you.
They are terribly uncomfortable too. The seats (designed for school children, remember) are tiny, and the ancient springs are long gone. Suspension is what happens to your body in mid-air for a few seconds when you go over a bump, not the thing beneath the bus that’s supposed to absorb the bumps in the road.
Although the drivers of chicken buses are some of the most brazen and confident on the planet, they don’t like to hedge their bets, so most buses are adorned with one or two slogans giving praise to a higher power and asking for safe passage.
And for good reason: as well as the catastrophic number of road accidents involving chicken buses throughout Central America, which claim lives on an almost daily basis, buses and their drivers are constantly at risk from criminal gangs, particularly in the big cities of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Violent attacks on buses are common in the big cities, where gangs run extortion rackets and tend to kill drivers when demands are not met. In 2010, 130 bus drivers were killed in Guatemala*.
For this reason, police checkpoints are common throughout Central America, and spot-checks by heavily armed policemen are not uncommon; neither for chicken buses nor the smaller shuttle buses which are gradually usurping the role of the chicken bus in Guatemala.
The prevalence of cheap, quicker and safer shuttle buses throughout much of Central America these days means that travelling by chicken bus is more of an experience than a necessity, but one that everyone should try.
In Guatemala the government is slowly replacing these ancient, colourful beasts of burden with newer, faster, nimbler shuttle buses that fill up quicker and take up less space on the busy roads, and it wont be long before the entire stock of buses are retired, marking the end of an era in the land of the Mayas.
These are some photos taken in and around the bus station in Antigua, Guatemala, where some of the most colourful buses in all of Central America can be found. Click on the photos to enlarge.
"There are few more unpleasant travel experiences than being sandwiched in a heaving, jam-packed bus while a stranger’s sweat drips on you."
*While fact-checking this article I stumbled upon this documentary called La Camioneta: The Journey of an American School Bus, which tells the story of the chicken bus much more eloquently than I could ever do.