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!).
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!
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.
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.