Travels in Guatemala: a day on the chicken bus

The boxes of white pills were passed around by the curious passengers, who read the home-printed labels with varying levels of interest. Meanwhile, the salesman continued with his monologue. Back ache? Abdominal pains? Infertility? Pregnancy? Depression? Arthritis? Cancer? These pills would cure whatever it is that troubled you, and a packet could be yours for only 25 Quetzals ($3). A moment later, he collected the boxes and in a few cases he had a buyer and pocketed the hard earned cash. And then he was off, making way for the next smooth talker to take the stage. Welcome to another day on a Guatemalan chicken bus.

Soon after the pill seller came a young girl who sold us salvation. Her fervour and zeal in preaching the path of righteousness to the passengers on this cross-country bus was very impressive and the notes and coins she collected after her sermon suggested that many were moved by her fiery speech. If only a casting director had seen her perform, there would surely be a career in TV waiting for her.

The religious theme was matched by the slogans and pendants hanging from the front of the bus. “God bless this bus”; “Jesus is my shepherd”; and rather ominously “only God knows if we will arrive”.

By this time I’d finally got a seat, around three hours into our seven hour journey. As if we didn’t stand out enough being the only two foreigners on the bus, my 6ft 2in frame swaying uncomfortably in the aisle caused many a curious smile from the surrounding folks. As people shuffled up to make room for each other on the old American school bus, soon only two of us were left standing. The other guy stood passively with a machete hooked to his trousers; clearly I wasn’t going to fight him for the next available seat.

The bus stopped a couple of times to allow the driver to take a smoking break and to let the passengers attend to the call of nature. Thank goodness our days on the chicken bus did not coincide with our bouts of stomach trouble. I shudder to think of the discomfort we would have suffered.

All the while the rolling Guatemalan landscape flashed by through the big windows; always pleasant, never spectacular. It took a few hours before we were joined by the first livestock: two turkeys, their feet firmly held by two elderly women. It was a week before Christmas; the prospects of them seeing in the New Year were slim at best. Another set of small birds soon added to the menagerie, all disembarking at various small villages as we approached the Honduran border.

By the time the seven hour journey eventually came to an end at the frontier point of El Florido, there were only a few of us remaining on the old bus. We were of course, glad to say farewell to our hard seats and our now very tired driver. The ride had however given us a brief, superficial yet in its own way enlightening snapshot of everyday Guatemala.

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

7 Responses to “Travels in Guatemala: a day on the chicken bus”

  1. Did you try the white pills??? What are they really…

    I have never been on a chicken bus but I have heard of them and this makes them sound kinda fun but not so fun. I think I am excited to ride on because I speak spanish. Who knows though I know me and I may end up hating them.

    January 18, 2011 at 12:48 am
  2. Genie #

    I suspect the pills were some version of plain old l’aspirina.

    January 18, 2011 at 1:32 am
  3. Jaime, I’m sure you’ll enjoy your chicken bus experience – at least for the first one or two rides. Speaking Spanish is a big help, as you can sit (or stand) quietly and listen to the sellers and to the chatter around you. I know enough to get the gist of what’s going on but lost much of the detail…
    I suspect Genie is right and they are nothing more than aspirin – or worse still, just chalk!

    January 18, 2011 at 10:38 am
  4. Fun post! You’ve described the chicken bus experience so well. Love the dude with the machete. And glad there were some birds on board. That makes it even more authentic! 🙂

    October 30, 2011 at 6:22 pm
    • thanks Lisa! Yes, a chicken bus does need a bird or two doesn’t it. I sort of miss it when I read this post again – not the discomfort but all the sounds and sights of the bus… happy memories 🙂

      October 30, 2011 at 6:43 pm
  5. Joe #

    Enjoyed the post. I like traveling by bus its a chance to really experience how the other 99% travel in developing countries. My memorable experience with the bus was traveling into the interior of Viti Levu, Fiji and while listening to chickens on the bus was unaware of a sticky liquid covering my feet. The villager in back of me brought 2 hindquarters of a freshly killed cow and that was blood , and then flies covering all of us.

    October 30, 2011 at 6:47 pm
  6. You know even if you don’t speak Spanish it is still a great time. When I was in Guatemala I had very little Spanish as I had only been in Latin America a few weeks. But the drivers were so kind to me as I was traveling alone and basically could only communicate my destination. I have really fond memories of people who reached out to help me get where I needed to be.

    February 12, 2012 at 5:25 pm