Bus rides in Central America can be challenging. There is no end to how uncomfortable they can be. Although I must admit they can also be a lot of fun, as one gets to meet other backpackers, share tips and stories.
Getting to Copan Ruinas, Honduras, from Flores, Guatemala, was a really long trip that tested my spirit for adventure, my patience not to mention my physical and mental fitness! It started at 4:30 am, when a cab drove me to the bus station in Santa Elena, which is really just next to Flores. Then I boarded a Fuente del Norte Bus going to Chiquimula. It was predicted that the bus would take 8 hours. I think it easily took 10. Fuente del Norte is a national company, similar to Viazul in Cuba, with the difference that it is widely used by Guatemalans, so it really is cheap. Compared to it, Viazul buses are like first class. I was sitting in a tiny spot, it was loud, dirty, crowded, rotten, I am pretty sure the seats had fleas, and it was hot as hell, not to mention the fact that the driver would stop every now and then to let vendors in, so I got to see a lady selling “chicharrones”, a boy selling water, another candies, a man who predicated something and then tried to sell pamphlets and another who sold who knows what.
By 10 am the bus had a flat tire. It did not occur to the driver that since it was crazy hot he may let passengers out to go in the shade a bit, while he changed the tire. No. He left us on the bus, under the sun. I thought I would go crazy from that heat.
Traveling comfortably is not a thing in Latin America – photo courtesy of John Barie (flickr)
After many more stops, I finally made it to Chiquimula, where as soon as I got off the bus I boarded another one going to El Florido, which is the border with Honduras. The bus could fit some 20 person but I promise there were at least 15 more: they even had extra seats in the corridor. And it kept stopping to let people on and off. There is no proper stops, so when people need to get off, they just call the driver. The problem is that they kept wanting off, every 10 meters! So I was wondering how on earth it would not occur to them to just walk those 10 meters and it would have been much faster. Nevermind! I was just worried that I was not going to make to the border in time to cross (they close here!), and would be stuck who knows where. So at some point I started calling from the rear of the bus asking if it was actually going to El Florido/La Frontera, and they said it was, but it took forever.
I eventually made it there, crossed the border surrounded by people who wanted to change my Quetzales in Lempiras, had to pay a fee to leave Guatemala and one to enter Honduras (a total of 4 dollars) and that was it – although the border control in Honduras did not have change and had to go around ask for it. When I was finally done, I started my way towards the bus stop, but I guess by then I looked so tired as a guy from France stopped me and offered me a ride on his van, he was actually going to my same hostel. At least, I did not have to take another bus from hell!
I then left Copan Ruinas, thinking this time I would travel first class and pay a little extra cash. Apparently there is no such thing in Central America. I spent 18 hours on a tiny bus. It had air conditioning and free wifi, but in order to fit more people, the bus company removed the original seats and in their place put smaller ones, so instead of 15 passengers they could carry 20. It was crazy uncomfortable. But the best part is that to go from Honduras to Nicaragua we actually crossed into Guatemala, then El Salvador, then back to Honduras and finally Nicaragua.
You can surely imagine how happy I was when I made it to my hostel in Leon.
Backpackers travelling through Central America will hardly have any chance to skip a ride on a chicken bus. They are very common in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama – but not in the super-modern Costa Rica. Here are a few questions and answers that may help you make your mind on whether to hop on one of these crazy buses when having to move around the country.
What are chicken buses? Imagine an old US school bus, that has been sold for cheap and is now used to transport passengers other than students. But what is so special about them, aside from the fact that they are sometimes rotten old and terribly polluting? Despite being so impossibly old and falling to pieces, the average bus has a flat screen tv and a great stereo installation to entertain its passengers – loud and possibly louzy music is guaranteed. The bus is creatively decorated on the outside – from colours and graffiti to lights so bright that from afar, at night, you may think you are seeing a huge, running, Christmas tree.
Are chicken buses expensive? No, they are very cheap to ride, and they are extensively used by locals for this reason. Travellers on a tight budget will find them very convenient (not to mention that in some cases, they are the only means of transportation!).
Chicken buses in Guatemala – photo courtesy of J. Stephen Conn (Flickr)
Do many people ride them? Yes! They get packed with passengers. So impossibly packed that you easily figure out why they are called “chicken buses”.
What is their normal schedule? Buses only leave from the station when they are full. Really, REALLY full. You would think that if the bus sits 50 persons, it will leave when all seats are taken. Wrong! If the bus should comfortably sit 50 persons, you can bet that at least 70 or 80 will get on. Seats meant to be for 2, will accommodate 3. Plus there will be people standing, and chairs added in the central (walking row). Is this safe? Not really, but locals seem not to mind, and when this is the only way you have to reach a specific place, you will also not really mind. You may end up being squashed, fighting for some air, and finding it impossible to move. Or you may have to sit next to a cute child who stares at you with a lot of interest, wanting to hear where you are from. Here is your chance to practice your Spanish!
“Tastefully” decorated chicken bus in Antigua bus station – photo courtesy of roaming-the-planet (flickr)
What makes the ride superinteresting (aside from the cheesy and poorly dubbed movie you will get to see on longer rides, or the terribly lousy music that won’t give a break to your ears) is that in that mayhem of people, vendors will come on board trying to sell anything from ice-cream to candies, from fresh fruit to fried platains, from water to soft drinks (just in case you are hungry or thirsty), to the most incredible sales of books, pencils and pens, and even sleeping pills. The ticket man will find his way through all the people to collect money for the ride. Finally, top this off with the presence of ladies coming back from the market with their daily purchase of live chickens, which they will lovingly hold to themselves. This makes it an incredible cultural experience.
Are chicken buses fast? Well, considering the amount of people riding them, they are. But keep in mind there are no real bus stops. Passengers will stand on the route of the bus, wave at it to stop when they see it passing and jump on. This could mean that the bus stops every ten meters. Same thing happens for those getting off: call the driver to stop, and get off. Ten seconds later, another stop to let someone else off – the bus won’t really go above the first gear.
A child staring out of the bus – photo courtesy of a.rey (flickr)
Can passenger transport lugguage on the bus? You bet! I have seen anything go on those roof: heavy backpacks and bags, huge suitcases, and even a coffin. Sometimes people sit on it.
Riding a chicken bus is an incredible experience when in Central America. A must in Guatemala. A few cents will transport you to your destination (a bit uncomfortably and with a lot of changes, but who cares?!) and you will get to learn a lot about the local culture.
Go for it, and enjoy your ride!
Read more about my crazy bus rides.