Chicken buses are a fun and inexpensive way to travel across most of Central America, if only a bit slow and for the most part rather uncomfortable.
If you are backpacking across Central America, you will hardly be able to avoid riding on a chicken bus. In fact, it will be an essential part of your experience – to the point that some say you can’t say you’ve really been to Central America if you don’t ride a chicken bus!
These are common throughout the region. You will see them in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama. The only place where chicken buses are virtually unseen is Costa Rica, where the public transportation system is more modern and efficient, and similar to that of Western countries.
Riding a chicken bus is certainly a very interesting experience. But if you are on your first trip to Central America you need to get acquainted to the system – and to do so ASAP – or you may be in for a real culture shock.
If you are wondering what chicken buses are really like, you have come to the right place. Here I will try to answer all your questions, so that you can hop on one fully prepared.
What You Must Know About Chicken Buses
Some background information on chicken buses
If you come from North America you will quickly realize that chicken buses (actually called camionetas, or camioneta if singular, in Spanish) are old US school buses. Sold for cheap (the average price is $2000 USD) at auctions after they have traveled more than 150000 miles or been on the road for more than 10 years, these buses are taken all the way to Central America where they are used to transport regular passengers.
More often than not, these buses are truly rotten and falling apart, and pollute more than you’d care to know. Yet, once they make it down to Central America, they are literally turned into something else. Gone is the bright yet plain yellow color, and on are a number of decorations – on the outside as well as on the inside.
Think bright colors, fancy design, Christian mottos and the like on the outside and a fancy flat screen TV, and expensive sound system on the inside – to play the most impossibly tacky music or B-class action movies, that is. Add a series of bright lights (if you see them at night you may think they are a massive Christmas tree) and you get the picture.
TIP: Headphones are a must on a chicken bus, unless you want to listen to the obnoxious music or watch the movie.
Chicken buses are usually privately owned and family run businesses – a family may own one or more. On the bus, you will find the driver – who has a taste for speeding and breaking in the space of 100 meters; and a ticket man – ayudante, in Spanish – who goes around the bus to collect fares (he’ll never miss anyone, despite how crowded the bus may be), open and close the doors, help place the luggage on the roof and so on.
Why are chicken buses called like that?
I am sure you can guess where the name chicken bus comes from! It was started in Guatemala, and it’s due to the fact that locals would typically be spot carrying chicken (among other animals) on the bus. I’ve seen it regularly myself – but if you don’t believe me, all it takes is a couple of trips to see it happen.
GOOD TO KNOW: Seeing chickens on the bus is more common in certain areas than others (definitely easier in rural areas) and definitely easier on market days. Visit Chichicastenango Market, in Guatemala, and you’re almost certain you will spot one!
How to stop chicken buses
Chicken buses follow a fixed route through cities and villages and usually on main roads. There are no fixed bus stops – just the bus station – but once you know the route just head over and stand by the roadside. Once you see the bus approaching, just wave your hand – the bus driver will understand you want to get on and will stop for you.
GOOD TO KNOW: Chicken buses have their final destination and / or route written at the front and at the back. If you are at the bus station, ayudantes will be calling the destination so that passengers can hop on the bus. If you are hopping on the bus from the road, the ayudante will usually start yelling the final destination as the bus is coming to a stop. In other words, getting on the wrong bus is almost impossible!
How to get on and off
Once you wave for the bus to stop, it will literally stop in front of you and the ayudante will open the door for you to get on. Most chicken buses only have a door at the front, right by the driver, but there are some that also have a door by the back. That’s the one you may want to use to get off.
To get off the bus you will need to warn the driver or the ayudante literally moments before you want to get off. As there are no bus stops and no bell to ring and call for your bus stop, and you may not be too confident with your communication skills (whether language or body language), you may want to make your life easier and get off when and where a local does too, if you feel that is close enough to your final destination.
If not, rest assured that the bus will stop again soon enough!
How to pay for chicken buses rides
Now, this is the super easy bit and you don’t have to worry about it at all. The fare for a ride will remain the same whether you travel 100 meters or 10 km. Though getting change is hardly ever an issue, it’s usually better to give the ayudante the exact fare you want to pay, or close to it!
Are chicken buses expensive?
Good news! Chicken buses are truly budget friendly – which is why locals use them too. If you are on a tight budget, this is your best means of transportation – and in some cases, the only one!
Do chicken buses have a fixed schedule?
In theory, chicken buses are meant to have a set schedule. In practice, they don’t. First of all, they only really leave from the bus station when full – by which I mean really fully, with not one seat available.
Secondly, the fact that they don’t have a set of bus stops but can stop anywhere along the route means that they will stop every 100 meters or so to let people on and off – and it really looks like locals can’t be bothered to walk a few extra steps to get to their final destination. This means that the trip will be terribly slow and delays are common.
Are chicken buses crowded?
Actually, that would be an understatement! Chicken buses are packed to the brim with passengers – so much so that after a few rides I actually ended up thinking that their name was due to the “chicken-in-a-cage” feeling you get when you ride them.
On average, a chicken bus has seats for 50 passengers. Each set would normally sit two, but most of the time you’d see three or even four passengers there. Add to that the chairs and stools that are often placed in the central (walking) row and the many people who are standing, and you get the picture.
In other words, don’t go in expecting a comfortable ride.
Are chicken buses safe?
To be fair, this question deserves many answers.
Chicken buses are usually safe in the sense that you won’t be attacked, molested or otherwise disturbed during the ride – in fact, quite the opposite: locals are usually very welcoming and helpful, and ready for a chat.
Keep in mind that – with the due exception – larger cities and capitals in Central America such as Guatemala City, San Salvador, Tegucicalpa and San Pedro Sula in Honduras, Managua etc. are fairly dangerous and gang and street violence is not uncommon. Buses are often demanded tolls to be able to drive through certain areas, and they are often victims of violence. Buses may get attacked and all passengers robbed.
SAFETY TIP: Never ride a bus at night when in Central America, and try to avoid large capital cities, with the due exception of Panama City. Though violence mostly occur among local communities rather than against tourists, you still may want to check out this list of the most dangerous cities in Central and South America.
Finally, carrying so many people in spite of any basic safety measure (forget about seat belts), speeding and breaking so much even on the windiest roads all come with an element of danger, and accidents are unfortunately not uncommon.
Does pickpocketing occur on chicken buses?
I can only speak about my experience and that of my friends – pickpocketing is not a common thing on a chicken bus, if anything because they are so crowded that, if someone gets caught in the act, he won’t be able to leave swiftly.
Having said that, keeping a low profile is key – much like any other time while traveling. Avoid going on the bus with any fancy jewelry or watch, and wiggling your expensive smartphone around.
Are chicken buses fast?
Not really. Keep in mind there are no real bus stops and with the bus stopping so often to let passengers on and off – even every 50 meters or so – a trip that would normally take 30 minutes in ideal conditions ends up taking more than twice that.
Can you carry your backpack on chicken buses?
Most backpackers try to jump on chicken buses with their backpack. That’s usually not an issue – except that with the bus being so crowded you will be in for a truly uncomfortable ride.
If you are taking a long-ish ride, you can definitely ask the driver or ayudante to help you place your bags on the roof – they will be safely tied. I once even saw a coffin being placed on the roof of a bus!
TIP: Make sure that, if you are traveling during the rainy season, your bags are covered!
What if you get hungry?
You don’t have to worry about ever going hungry on a chicken bus. Don’t expect a bar service similar to that of train rides in Europe, or planes, but a significantly more local scene!
On an average ride, women selling all sorts of snacks regularly get on the bus – to get off a few stops later, once they have gone through the bus to push sales. You can expect them to sell anything from candies to soft drinks; from fresh fruit to fried plantains; from ice-cream to donuts, peanuts and the like.
GOOD TO KNOW: Other things you can expect to see sold on chicken buses are books, booklets, pens and pencils, over-the-counter drugs (I am not kidding) and the like.
Final Thoughts On Riding Chicken Buses
Chicken buses are an integral part of a trip across Central America. Slow as they are, they definitely provide perspective into the local culture and way of life. The few cents you will pay for your ride will take you to your destination (if only a bit uncomfortably) and to a whole new world at the same time.
Care to know more? Check out the documentary La Camioneta on Amazon Prime.
Further readings about Central America
Are you planning a trip across Central America? You may want to read one or all of the following posts:
- 33 Awesome Things To Do In Nicaragua
- 15 Cool Things To Do In Granada Nicaragua
- A Complete Guide To Leon Nicaragua
- 33 Awesome Things To Do In Nicaragua
- What To Expect When Volcano Boarding Cerro Negro, Nicaragua
- 38 Absolutely Fabulous Things To Do In Costa Rica
- 16 Cool Things To Do In San Jose Costa Rica
- 7 Absolutely Incredible Things To Do In Panama
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