What is the Chicken Bus?
For international backpackers, the term, “chicken bus” is synonymous with Central America. During six months of traveling through the region, I even heard a few locals use the term.
Structurally they are former yellow school buses from the United States. Their seats, interior frames, tires and engines are gutted and then outfitted to withstand the abuse of hauling an immense weight and pounding relentless routes all day every day.
I’ve been asked a number of times, “Why are they called chicken buses? Are there live chickens on the bus?” True, passengers may be transporting animals but I didn’t see this too often. The name may also come from the crowded nature of the buses. Locals ride the buses for various commutes, which could include running errands or traveling long distances to sell items at a market. Subsequently, the seats and aisles are usually crammed with people and their belongings.
Why Ride Chicken Buses?
I happily rode chicken buses throughout Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. I traveled long distances for just a few USD. As well, I found them safe. There’s more on the topic of safety below. Additionally, riding chicken buses allowed for meeting many locals. I practiced my Spanish while learning about locals, their lives and culture.
A fun aspect of riding the chicken bus is the carnival-like atmosphere from the aesthetic to people jumping on and off the various stops, like a stream of QVC hosts selling everything from sweets to hairbrushes to household appliance. In theory, you could do most of your weekly shopping riding the chicken buses.
The exteriors of the buses look like a fiesta of Crayola crayons, effortlessly blending in with the colorful buildings and markets, the lush, green landscapes and blue sky of Central America. Buses are often humanized with names or nicknames, such as Alejandro, Rey (king), Señor, Bumba, Rosa, Esmeralda, Florecita and Maria Jose. To further personalize the exteriors, religious quotes and symbols are visible on the front or back of the bus or both. A few of the religious quotes I spotted on chicken buses included: “Israel el pueblo de Dios” (Israel the town of God), “Jehová es mi gurdador” (The Lord is my guardian), “Jesús mi Salvador” (Jesus is my savior). An example of a more secular quote: “Somos 4 que no hacemos sino marcamos la diferencia” (We are four that do not do without making a difference).
The inside can be just as festive verging on ridiculous with references to Jesús and Dios yet displaying a silhouette of an exaggerated playboy bunny.
Riding Chicken Buses – Pro Tips
Safety – pickpocketing: The number one priority for most travelers is safety, certainly for me as a solo, female backpacker. As previously mentioned, I felt safe riding the chicken bus. The only crime I ever heard travelers speak of with regard to the chicken buses was pickpocketing. When I stayed at a hostel in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala for three weeks, laid up with a bad sinus infection and waiting on a stolen credit card replacement to arrive (the card number was stolen from an ATM, which has happened to me many times at home in the United States too), every day or so a new international traveler would arrive sharing their tale of having a wallet or phone or other item pinched on their chicken bus ride from Guatemala City, Antigua or Lake Atitlán to Xela. An Australian friend I met in Antigua told a story of someone cutting the bottom of a side pocket of her daypack to steal her camera. She was so impressed with the skill that she didn’t seem to mind losing some photos and the monetary value of the camera.
Safety – preventive tips: I was never a victim of pick pocketing but I was prepared and vigilant. I wore a money belt under my clothes and stored any other valuables in my bra. I didn’t keep anything in any pockets on me or in the outside pockets of my day bag. I traveled with a pacsafe cover for my backpack so even when my backpack was on the roof of the bus out of my sight no one could steal anything out of it. I also watched my pack until either we were just about to leave or it was buried by other luggage and then if possible I’d watch out the window to confirm it wasn’t taken off the bus. I never heard of anyone stealing a backpack from a chicken bus but I did hear of travelers having items stolen from the backpacks while they were stored on top of the bus. I do think speaking Spanish, being friendly and having my head on a swivel most days minimized my chances of being pick-pocketed.
Schedule: Ask locals at your hostel or hotel about departure times but even better take a walk to the bus station prior to your day of departure to ask.
Best time to ride: Leave in the morning to ensure you get on a bus and you have plenty of time to get to your destination. Anything can go wrong.
The staff: Be friendly to the driver and his partner, the man stacking luggage and goods on top of the bus. They’ll help you with your route and let you know when you’ve arrived.