When I write about travel, rarely do I write about the actual mode of transportation but traveling by chicken bus through Central America is a crucial and unavoidable part of the experience.
♫ “Juayua-Juayua-Juayua!” “Chiqui-Chiqui-Chiquimula!” ♪ I would hear the conductors yelling destinations in a singsongy way as they try to round up riders to fill their chicken bus, a typically old yellow school buses that has been redecorated with a ridiculous amount of lights, stickers, and shiny things. It is usually a two person operation, a self-explanatory driver and a conductor who collects the fare, loads luggage, and hustles people along. Passengers were herded like livestock and sometimes carried livestock of their own like chicken, hence the name.
It is not a pleasant experience. So why ride it? “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This is how is the locals travel. It is an experience in itself. It is sometimes the only way to get to places. Above all else, it is just plain cheap. Occasionally, there are better bus or private shuttles but at the cost of usually under one US dollar versus upwards of a whopping hundred dollars, it is hard to pass up. They usually achieve the low cost by waiting an eternity until the vehicle is completely full before hurling from one place to the next at reckless speeds.
In Punta Gorda (PG), Belize, I took the James Bus Line to get around town for fifty cents. For longer trip, it can cost up to twelve USD for a ride from PG to Belize City on their exotic Express Bus, which is a refurbished Greyhound. As dreadful as greyhounds are here in the United States, riding the Express Bus is a luxury compared to the alternatives. Cushier seats, bathroom on board, and the almighty air conditioning.
I didn’t realize how good I had it until my ride back on their regular bus. I got a window seat on the row with the wheel hump. It wasn’t bad at first. I actually like putting my leg up on the hump and the seat-and-a-half width of the wheel created a buffer between the person next to me. That is until the person left leaving a mother and two children looking for a place to sit. I moved my bag from the center of the seat to my lap allowing room for the mother OR the children, but instead they all squeezed in. I must point out these seat were originally design for fitting two school children, not the four of us. By the end of the eight hour bus ride, it felt like the wheel well grew two sizes and I wanted to strangle the fidgety nose-picking child sitting next to me that has no sense of boundaries.
I also had the misfortune of taking a private shuttle from Puerto Barrios, Guatemala to La Ceiba, Honduras. I had to pay about $100 USD, over doubled the advertised rate, because I was traveling solo. I paid it grudgingly in hope for a fast smooth journey through San Pedro Sula (SPS), once the murder capital of the world. However, the guide will only take me as far as the border, and then arranged drivers for the other legs of the trip. When I reached SPS, the driver that was supposed to take me the rest of the way refused to do it for the previously agreed upon rate. Turned off by his lack of trustworthiness, I ended up double backing to a bus stop and stuck with public transportation for the rest of my travels.
On the positive side of public buses, there are always an abundance for vendors selling you everything like food/beverages, miracle pills, and even power banks for your phone. Small snacks are sometimes handed to everyone first, and the vendor return to collect it from those who do no wish to buy it. At one point there was even a clown performing magic tricks. The best bus was the Hedman Alas, which for a pricey $13 from La Ceiba to SPS, gave me a complementary snack, drink, and roomy assigned seat all to myself. In El Salvador most buses were ran by only the driver with priced printed at the entry. This means no pushy conductors or overcharging gringos. Otherwise, I asked other riders how much they paid to ensure I did not get ripped off.
Although not a bus, another local means of transportation are Tuk Tuks. They are three-wheelering cabs for getting around town in the Latin America. I found some of the most pimped out Tuk Tuks in Copan with spoiler, fins, and other things in the spirit of the Chicken Bus.
People always talk about the bus system in Central America, perhaps more so than their destinations. Looking back, I am glad I did it but probably more times than I would like. I will be looking forward to the day there is a regulated transit system with a schedule. That or Uber.