by Thane Gilliam s/v Heart of Gold
One of the lessons my wife, Tami, and I have learned while cruising aboard our 31 foot Island Packet “Heart of Gold” is that many of the most memorable and entertaining moments do not happen on the water. Often our adventures occur while traveling inland, visiting with the local people and learning their way of life.
We recently sat out hurricane season tied up to a dock at Mario’s Marina, a resort type marina with a pool, restaurant and a very comfortable bar that served to pass the time, on the Rio Dulce (Sweet River) in Guatemala.
Sadly, there are only so many hours you can spend lazing in a hammock, sunning by the pool or sipping cubre libres (rum and cokes) at the open air bar before experiencing that restless feeling that cruisers often get after spending too much time in any one place. When this happened to us, we locked up the boat and headed for the interior of Guatemala to explore one of the most visually stunning countries in Central America.
When traveling around a country we try to use the same transportation methods as the locals. In Guatemala the transportation options are very basic, sometimes uncomfortable, quite often terrifying but always interesting.
The most basic and economical mode is via pickup trucks. Enterprising Guatemalans have taken their trucks and added wooden benches in the beds along with a metal framework that offers a handhold and a tie down for a plastic tarp to protect the riders from rain. This is a very affordable but crowded way to travel, often costing less than 25 cents a trip, and in some places the only way to get from one village to the next. The trucks generally leave from the main square in the village when fully loaded but can be flagged down anywhere on their route. This method is only suggested for the very adventurous travelers.
The next step up is the minibus. The minibus is actually a van that is bigger than the common minivan but smaller than a standard van that you would see in the United States. These minibuses are designed to snuggly seat a maximum of 14 including driver. I have witnessed 27 on one minibus and have heard stories of up to 32 passengers packed into a single minibus. The minibus is becoming very popular and seems to be replacing the pickup truck as the primary transportation for short hops from one village to the next.
The third, and by far the most popular form of transportation, is by standard bus. There are three levels of bus service. First class, second class and what the gringos call the Chicken Bus.
Primera clase, first class service, is exactly as the name implies. A first class bus will have air conditioning, reserved seating and maybe even a movie during the trip. The bus will be in near new condition with very comfortable seats and plenty of legroom. There are even double-decker buses so you can better see the beautiful countryside in air-conditioned comfort. The first class bus leaves from a designated terminal very near the scheduled departure time, making few additional stops during the trip and most times arrives at the destination without mishap, mechanical or otherwise. The fare is comparable to the bus fares in the United States. When traveling by first class bus, you will enjoy the company of other well to do gringos and a few wealthy Guatemalans. The cost of the first class bus is prohibitively high for the average Guatemalan and it is for this reason I do not suggest it. To fully appreciate Guatemala you must travel like an average Guatemalan does.
Second class bus or segunda clase, is a crapshoot. Generally the buses are similar to first class but older and the cost is about 50% of the fare on a first class bus. Sometimes you get lucky and get a first class bus because it was the only one available. Sometimes you get a bus that should have been retired ten thousand miles ago and you question your decision to save money and go second-class. For the most part they are older buses retired from the Greyhound bus company in the US and purchased by the Guatemalan bus companies. If it has air conditioning they choose not to run it. Sometimes the seats are reserved but that seems to mean little to your average passenger in Guatemala. Almost always there are one or more small mechanical problems that they choose to repair after your trip. They almost always leave well after their scheduled departure time unless you are running a little late. In that case the driver will depart precisely on schedule but will leave the door open for you so that you can run after the bus and jump on. There is a good chance that you will experience some malfunction during your trip but the driver does his best to keep to his schedule by ignoring all traffic laws and displaying courage in action usually only observed in war heroes and professional football players. NEVER SIT IN THE FRONT OF THE BUS! Gringos do not have the fortitude to witness a Guatemalan bus driver ply his trade first hand. Always strive to find a seat in the middle of the bus but do not sit over the rear wheels. Shock absorbers are not considered a necessity in Guatemala. I am not sure if they can be obtained in Guatemala even if the bus companies were inclined to replace them.
The third method of transport and by far the most entertaining is via la camioneta, the Chicken Bus. The Chicken Bus was our main mode of transportation during our forays into the interior of Guatemala and I will attempt to effectively convey to you the full spectrum of emotions that a gringo is likely to experience while traveling via Chicken Bus.
It’s called a Chicken Bus because of the likelihood of encountering some type of animal while riding the bus. One man reported that he witnessed two goats on a Chicken Bus tethered to the roof rack. Your most common traveling livestock will be some form of poultry contained in a basket and carried upon the lap or in the overhead rack above it’s owner’s seat.
The bus itself is a retired school bus imported from the US. In many cases, the driver is also the owner of the bus. The driver decides what modifications and improvements to make so that the bus will be safer and more comfortable. They all do basically the same things to their buses. The first thing is the most important. They paint the outside of the bus in brilliant bright colors. They seem to spare no expense during the process and many buses are quite beautiful. There are so many colors and patterns that I cannot do them justice in my descriptions. They then add chrome accents such as intricate chrome grills, chrome window treatments and even chrome bumpers. Cost seems to be no concern when making their bus a virtual work of art. The last exterior improvement is the roof rack. This is a very important component and comes into play on a regular basis during any trip made via Chicken Bus.
The driver will then modify the interior of the bus by adding a sound system capable of producing decibels comparable to a Who concert in the early seventies and will most certainly install a cross, complete with a Jesus in agony, somewhere prominent in the front of the bus. He may recover the seats but will not change the placement of the seating, which was originally situated to accommodate eight-year-old children. The result is a designed seating capacity of around fifty eight-year old children. Fortunately the average Mayan (Guatemalan indigenous Indian) is about the same size as an eight year old North American so it seems to work out all right for them. The driver will decorate the area around his seat in whatever manner makes him feel at home. There seems to be little concern over safety or vision obstruction. A rail will be mounted the length of the bus from the ceiling for a handhold and a rack will be mounted over the seating to hold whatever luggage, livestock or produce the passengers feel is too important to ride in the rack on the roof.
It takes only two people to operate a Chicken Bus, the driver and the caller.
The driver's job is fairly simple. His responsibility is to get you to your destination as fast as possible. He accomplishes this with his amazing driving skills and nerves of steel. His driving technique is simple and effective. There is an accelerator and a brake. At all times one or both must be fully depressed. Any obstacle in the path of the bus must be passed regardless of road conditions or oncoming traffic. Full speed must be obtained and maintained until such time as a stop is required, which happens with puzzling frequency. When a stop is imminent the driver will wait to the last possible moment then slam on his brakes and come to a screeching stop. The door will open and the passenger will have a very small window of opportunity to either embark or disembark before the driver engages the clutch and puts the pedal to the metal. The driver has no time to wait for you to find a seat so most passengers are forced to sit three or four to a seat in the front while empty seats are in the back.
The driver will stop for anyone, anywhere that might look as though they are contemplating a trip on a bus now or in the near future. I have personally seen a driver that stops and tries to convince people to take a ride on his bus. The prospective passengers were all pretty young ladies but I am not sure if that had anything to do with it.
The second person required to effectively operate a Chicken Bus is the caller: The caller's job is the most interesting to observe. He will be your first contact with the bus and the last person you see as the bus is speeding off in the distance having dropped you at or near your destination.
When you are first looking for your bus the Caller will approach you. He will run up to you while chanting the destination of his bus. Guate, Guate, Guate for Guatemala City. Pana, Pana, Pana for Panajacel. If you display interest that might lead him to believe you could be a prospective passenger he will grab your bags and like a monkey scramble up to the top of the bus to put them into the roof rack. He will just as fast climb back down and lead you quickly into the bus. You then wait for the bus to depart. The wait is generally very short. As soon as the bus is full, it leaves with little warning. The driver enters and immediately sits down, starts the bus, puts it in gear and takes off. The caller will run alongside the bus and either jump in the front door or, unable to reach the door, jump onto the back bumper and enter through the rear emergency door.
The caller will then assume his primary position, which is standing in the open front door. Whenever the bus passes anyone on the side of the road the caller chants his destination, Pana, Pana, Pana while making a hand gesture that is supposed to entice you onto the bus. He will then throw in a Guatemalan phrase or two that means "seats available" regardless of how many people are standing in the aisles. If someone displays an interest in riding along the driver will slam on the brakes and the caller will jump out of the moving bus, grab the bags of the prospective passenger and scramble up the outside of the bus to stow the bags. The passenger will then grab the handrail on the outside of the bus signaling the driver that he intends to board. Seeing that signal, the driver violently accelerates while the passenger gracefully boards. A minute or so later, having stowed the bags, the caller will climb down the outside of the moving bus and swing into the open door while the driver is pushing the bus to obtain speeds that heretofore you considered an impossibility. As soon as the caller swings in and sometimes before he can get in, the driver will again slam on his brakes in an attempt to pick up another passenger. This process is repeated until an open stretch of road is reached.
When a stretch of road is reached where the possibility of additional passengers is slim the caller will then begin collecting fares. He begins at the front and works his way back collecting from every passenger and spending a few extra minutes with each young lady. With all the fares collected, he works his way back up front to assume his primary position at the front door.
When within a half-mile or so of a drop-off point, the Caller will climb out the front door and up the side of the bus onto the roof rack. This will be performed without the aid of a ladder and while the bus is traveling at harrowing speeds. The caller will have just enough time to untie the bags he somehow knows are going to be required at this stop before the driver slams his brakes on and skids to a stop. The passengers whose destination has been reached then quickly disembark while the caller begins throwing their bags in the general direction that he judges the people will be at in the near future. As the last passenger disembarks the driver again accelerates violently requiring the last passenger to jump from the bus as the caller throws the passenger’s bag at him. The caller then climbs back into the bus and assumes his primary position at the front door.
All of this goes on while music of many varieties blare from speakers all through the bus. The volume is such that normal conversation is impossible. We spent a very long three hours on one Chicken Bus that played nothing but "Back Street Boys" hits, over and over, the whole way.
There is no such thing as a full Chicken Bus. There is a popular joke that illustrates the attitude.
They sit in your lap, lean on you and stand on your feet all the time smiling and enjoying their day.
When traveling in Guatemala there is no better way to see the country and get to know the people than traveling via Chicken Bus.
Hope to see you on one soon.
Listen to the Chicken Bus Song by Barefoot Skinny .... click here