The rides are bumpy, speeds are at times suicidal, there are no restrictions on what comes inside these old worn-out former school buses and the driver’s helper will give you Goosebumps whenever he crawls onto the vehicle’s back side ladder as the wheels keep on moving; just to jump back on this peculiar transportation mode through the back door to surprise you with his (despite it all) keen attitude.
But this is Central America, a land of many colours and smiles regardless of its complex history, society, environment, economy and overall tough existence. To make the most of the unique and unforgettable experiences that will overflow your trip across this little sub-continent; you need to come with an all-embracing attitude and an open yet ever cautious mind.
Chicken buses are certainly not the only way to travel through the region. There are shared and private shuttles, tuk-tuks, Pullman buses, taxis, Uber service in most cities, car rental companies and of course a pile of airlines that can take you for a fly from country to country. Nonetheless, chicken buses happen to be the cheapest way to move around. So if you happen to be a budget-traveller, these may present the best of options. You should however take into account the following advices before you go out on the adventure of a life time.
One of the major concerns in relation to chicken buses is safety. It is important to mention that in and around the cities belonging to the Northern Triangle; that is Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras you are better off using another mode of transport. Buses in these cities are often subject to assaults by thieves and sometimes even unrelenting gang members. In 2015 for example in Guatemala City only, 62 bus drivers were killed while 25 were injured. Unfortunately, violence and impunity keeps reigning over these urban areas and things are not likely to change any time soon.
When you leave the urban areas and their vicinities however things change substantially for the better when it comes to muggers; especially if you are visiting touristic areas. Yet, you should always ask around for recommended bus routes; plus, completely avoid traveling at night time.
If you look it up, you will probably find that the maximum capacity of a standard school bus ranges from 42 to 72 passengers. As expected, Central American chicken buses set out to defy this figures. Possibly, for the first time in your life you will get to know what it really feels to be swimming in a pool of human beings. Guatemala for instance, broke the Guinness World Record by fitting 221 people, 2 chickens and plenty of Gallo beers (the local beer) in one of its multi-coloured chicken buses. It is perhaps redundant to say that comfort is not a priority when hopping into one of these vehicles. You can add onto this, the fact that some of the shock absorbers in these buses are pretty spoiled and the seats are not in great shape either; given that they are recycled buses coming from the U.S. and Canada.
In other words you basically have to come into terms with the idea that you may feel suffocated at times and that your bum might be in pain for most of the ride. If this description does not match your experience then you are one-hell of a lucky person.
These buses travel to almost every destination you can think of and unlike most buses in industrialized countries; they generally don’t have fixed stops. So feel free to kindly ask the driver to stop at a specific location. Panama has a fairly organized bus line, most bus stations are decent and chances are that you won’t run into any trouble when trying to commute between places.
Once in Central America you will be able to find chicken buses everywhere, with the only exception of Costa Rica; which apparently replaced them with modern ones a few years back. In Belize they are not as vibrant on the outside and they are usually less crowded with passengers on the inside.
With these all said, go enjoy one of the most memorable rides of your life and don’t be surprised to run into a bag on the luggage rack that moves around all by itself as it makes a squeaky sound. After all, they are called chicken buses!
Maria André currently works as a freelance writer while taking on a personal environmental documentary project on the side.