Guatemala is nothing if not colorful! Here even the ever so mundane American school bus comes dressed like a Las Vegas show girl. Picture a mechanical pig decked out for carnival. They are simply fantastic ...as long as you don't care where you are going and it doesn't matter when you get there.
The bizarre blend of American functionality and Guatemalan serendipity is wonderful to behold.
One might think an old bus unsafe. Not so. This is a vehicle built to transport the youth of America. At some point in the middle of the last century there was a meeting of Blue Bird Bus Company engineers; a room full of short haircuts, polyester suits and master degrees from Cal Tech and MIT. "We are going to design a school bus" says one, "Price is no object" (this is a government contract, after all), "...but it absolutely, positively must be safe!"
It is. It's slow uphill. It's uncomfortable, but the vehicle itself is safe! The drivers can be a bit iffy. Truth be told, no American elementary school principle in his right mind would hire one in ten, but the brakes are good, the horn is loud, the suspension stiff, and the body solid ...extremely solid.
In my opinion, no trip to Guatemala is complete without experiencing travel in a chicken bus. Step on a bus and enter the real Guatemala. The noise, the smell and the overwhelming mass of color is Guatemala at its best. You will never forget it!
Once coming back from Guatemala City my driver and a competitor company's "piloto", as they are called, got it in their heads that while what they were driving may have looked and smelled like beat-up old American school buses, were in fact finely tuned Formula 1 race cars.
Now I consider myself to be a fairly game traveler. At least I didn't want the Guatemalans to think that I lacked the right stuff, so I played it cool.
However things were not improving. When the Guatemalans started gasping I felt a strange combination of relief that they too found all this well beyond the ilk and a swelling realization that this was every bit as precarious as I thought.
On steep mountain roads they passed each other on blind, hairpin corners. I vividly remember honking horns, smoking brakes and violently rocking back and forth. I vainly tried to console myself with the thought that an American school bus is an incredibly sturdy vehicle. Of course, this only made my relative frailty all the more obvious.
I don't remember who won this ludicrous race but in the end, excluding any psychological damage, we arrived none the worse for wear, not to mention well ahead of schedule.
So, you wonder, how does one take a chicken bus? Sorry, you're on your own. I can give you a few suggestions but the Guatemalan serendipity that make buses so exotic to look at, also make bus line schedules all but impossible to figure out.
Once you are in Guatemala, just ask locals and fellow travelers, and hope for the best. Getting in and out of Guatemala City on a chicken bus is not a good idea. Getting around the capital on city buses is an invitation to trouble. It's too easily to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once out of Guatemala City you can think about it.
Try to avoid what we call the gringo tax. Watch what locals pay and hand the guy exact change. Act as if you are an old hand.
Bus companies cram more seats in the bus by drastically shortening leg room. It's is not at all unusual to have double the posted maximum number of passengers allowed. I have been on bus trips on which it seemed like wasn't room for my arms, much less my legs.
The best I can do is say; give it a shot. If worst come to worst and you end up lost, take the same colored bus going back in the direction you just came from. Odds are good you'll end up where you started. You will have gone nowhere, but will have had a great time getting there!
The chicken buses are cheap; but then they can be dangerous, are certainly uncomfortable and, with any luck, slow. Yet I recommend them highly. For local color and character they can't be beat.
Besides, think of all the stories you can tell when you get home.