Arriving in a new country (or even a new city) can be a complete culture shock. It is incredible how seemingly insignificant differences can be truly mind-blowing. New plant life, different architectural styles, or a change in climate or topography are common differences to notice.
Sometimes, though, the first thing to truly stand out is very small, but unshakable. For me on my visit to Lyon, France, it was the doors. Here in Guatemala, it is the buses.
Guatemala (and other Central American countries) is known for its – infamous – chicken buses. These are retired yellow school buses given new life, meaning, and style. Want an example?
A “typical” chicken bus in Antigua Guatemala.
Basically, imagine the school bus your child would paint, colors mixing all over, shiny and silvery chrome gleaming, people inside looking terrified. That’s a chicken bus!
Each of these buses is privately owned by two people, or as part of a collective and operated by two people. There is a driver who has a bus license, and a helper (ayudante in Spanish) who takes money, helps with luggage, announces stops, and recruits passengers. You’ll often see the helper hanging out the door as the bus drives past, calling for people to get on.
The helper hangs on as he tries to drum up business.
As each bus is an individual enterprise, they are all in competition. Many are given names, unique paint jobs, bigger (and louder) engines, or fancy tires. Some play music; some offer WiFi. Prices are set individually as well, though they tend to be fairly comparable. (They are cheap. A one-way ride from Guatemala City to Antigua is about Q10 or $1.25, compared to $15 for a shared shuttle or $30 for a private transfer.)
Paint jobs distinguish each chicken bus from the other.
These are not comfortable rides. Since fares are kept by the driver and helper, there is incentive to pack as many people as possible into each bus. Luggage is thrown on top. The buses also drive quickly, many easily passing my shuttle, black smoke belching out the rear. (Smog checks are not a thing here.)
Looking more like Mack trucks, these beasts belch smoke as they zoom past. Here they are parked at the Antigua depot.
Chicken buses operate as the primary intercity public transport in Guatemala, a place with little in the way of other options outside the capital. However, they have a reputation for not being especially safe for tourists. (Locals assure me I will have no issues, but I remain hesitant.)
Regardless of whether or not you take them, chicken buses are an unmistakable and essential part of the culture here, where the poor are not able to own cars or afford other options. For tourists, they are a source of amusement, fun photos to share with friends, and for the brave, hair-raising adventures defying death at every turn. (There is a reason there are grab bars at every seat on most buses.)
The variety is endless!
And for me, the chicken buses have been a constant reminder that I am in a new place!
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