Tight Turns and Slippery Seats – First Time on Guatemalan Chicken Buses

Published: October 23rd 2016
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San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico to Sololá, Guatemala Oct 13-15, 2012

San Cristobal, MX, Huehuetenango, GT, Sololá, GT

Three ex-US school busesThree ex-US school busesThree ex-US school buses

In their second life they are known as Guatemalan Chicken Buses
I snagged the middle seat in the front of the collectivo van and by 8:40 we were off, heading towards Comitan, and subsequently, the border with Guatemala. There was no blockade to stop me this time, unlike yesterday, when I was forced by unforeseen circumstances to stay one more night in San Cristobal due to a roadblock that wouldn't allow any buses past. The driver drove slowly over the numerous speed bumps and was careful and cautious throughout the entire journey.

Exactly one hour and forty minutes later we arrived to the collectivo stand in Comitan, the exact same one that housed the onward collectivo to the immigration office at Comalapa. A ten-minute wait for passengers and the full van left, arriving shortly at the border with Guatemala.

The one lazy, unfriendly immigration officer on duty behind the counter took ages to take out the two staples that was keeping my migration card affixed to my stamped passport page, taking care not to tear any pages. I had been in Mexico 180 days exactly, and the officer took his time counting each day I was in country. Once he was satisfied I hadn’t overstayed he tried to scan my passport into the machine, to no avail. The line behind me grew longer and longer as he tried over and over, not caring (or seeming to notice) about the growing line or the small immigration office filling up with travelers and backpacks. Eventually my passport scanned, the info transferred and I showed him the “special page” I had reserved for my exit stamp out of the country. Chu-chunk went the stamp.

It was 12:15pm when I walked into Guatemala.

I opted not to take transport at the border and relished the 15-minute walk to the bus terminal. Within a quarter of an hour after reaching the terminal the then filled-up bus left for parts yet unexplored, at least by me. It was 11:45 when my first chicken bus belched out of the dirt and rubbish-strewn bus terminal at La Mesilla, just over the border from Mexico. It cost 20 Qetzales, about $2.50, for the two-hour journey to Huehuetenango, my destination for the night.

The road was in good condition with easy curves meandering through picturesque landscape. Tall green cliffs jutted out and towered above the windy road; the scenery indicative of northern Laos, which is some of the most beautiful I have ever come across in all my travels. All in all it was a straightforward, non-complicated, albeit squishy, ride. I didn’t put my pack on the top of the bus, rather at my feet, which meant I had to sit slightly at an angle, facing to my right, although the window was to my left. My seatmate had plenty of legroom and indicated for me not to worry about my pack being in the way. We soon got a third seatmate, however, changing the dynamics of the sitting arrangement. My knee was uncomfortably – yet seemingly permanently – pressed up against a metal screw on the seatback in front of me, digging deeper every time we hit a bump or careened around a curve (which was often). I can’t say this was anywhere near the worst journey I had ever been on, but was certainly glad when the bus terminal in Huehue came into view.

The bus arrived at 2pm and as we got closer I saw a large sign beckoning travelers with rooms as low as 45Q, with common shower. I was sold, even before getting off the bus. The young boys who showed me to my room brought me a towel, as well as a roll of TP, a small hotel soap and a small “plastic tube” of shampoo. My room was equipped with a TV, a desk and a soft bed. In the hallway there was a 19-liter water dispenser for all guests to use, so I filled up my personal water bottle for free. Free is good. I like free.

I ate a carne asada lunch across the street at a local joint, but unfortunately the meat was terribly tough and hard to cut, let alone chew. I had a new kind of tortilla with my lunch, perhaps one only made in Guatemala. The tortillas are smaller and thicker and seem to have a slightly different taste than the Mexican ones, although they are also made fresh on the comal. The lady at the comedor made me a cucumber and onion salad (as I had requested she omit the tomatoes) and I asked her to please grill the onions. She did so, happily.

After lunch I walked through the filthy bus terminal and out the other side where vendors lined both sides of the street selling all manners of stuff. One man wanted to sell me a massive bag of raw potatoes and as I passed him shaking my head, he roared with laughter.

The next morning I attempted a shower but there was no place for me to put my clothes, dirty or clean, in the tiny box of a shower room. In fact, I had to back in for the room was so small. Without so much as a shower curtain my clothes would have gotten soaked, so I gave up on being clean and instead went to find brekkie before venturing toward the bus terminal.

I ordered a “Desayuno Economico” (economic breakfast) for 20Q, which included scrambled eggs, beans, fried bananas, tortillas and a small quesadilla. There was nothing healthy about this breakfast at all! My meal came with a cup of coffee but for 6Q extra I was told I could get coffee with milk. This didn’t really make sense since the server poured a regular coffee and served it to me with my meal and then separately brought me another cup of coffee, this one with milk already in it. Huh? How about just giving me a small bit of milk on the side for my complimentary coffee, for which I would gladly pay a Quetzal or two? I guess it’s too much for some people to think outside the proverbial box.

After I finished my meal, I sauntered back to the accommodation, gathered my bags and took off for the bus station. A young local guy pointed to the bus I needed to take, and while walking to the far end of the terminal which housed the second-class chicken buses, another guy tried to intercept, pointing me towards Velasquez, the “fancy” looking first class bus. No thanks, I told him, I’m taking the second-class bus. He didn’t push his more expensive bus on me, thankfully, except to say that it is faster and “directo.” I tried my best in Spanish to assure him I was in no hurry, at which time he then surprisingly walked me over to the bus I was hoping to take. Perfect. I like no hassles. It cost 20Q to get to Cuatro Caminos, a place about 1.5 hours away, where four
Two tacos al pastor from the taco wagon next doorTwo tacos al pastor from the taco wagon next doorTwo tacos al pastor from the taco wagon next door

All the good stuff for make-your-own tacos generously put in plastic bags for take away
roads intersect. From there I would need to take another bus on to the town of Sololá, where I had decided I would be spending the next two nights.

My bus left the station in Huehue at 9am but had to crawl through the busy market next to the terminal so as not to hit the considerable number of bodies darting every which way. We then stopped on the road out of town, where we sat idling at the crossroads for quite some time, so it was actually a half an hour later when we officially left town.

On this first bus journey of the day, once my seat mate disembarked, a man immediately came and sat down next to me. He spoke a bit of English but it seemed I knew more Spanish and so we spoke in his language. He seemed determined to have a conversation. His name was Carlos Gomez and inevitably he asked for my email address. I took his instead. We both got off at Cuatro Caminos, but he was talking a different bus and left with a quick handshake goodbye. Nice chap.

Once I got to Cuatro Caminos I was shoved off the bus and whisked straight onto another, which was already waiting at the crossroads. The bus arrived at Cuatro Caminos at 11 and within two minutes I was already on onward transport, another full bus. No sooner had I settled into my seat on the left side of the bus behind the driver and next to two young gals, we took off. The driver immediately got on his phone. The first driver of the day had spent an inordinate amount of time on his phone and seemed to pay more attention to the person on the other end than the traffic on the road barreling towards us.

Half an hour into this journey and I took notice, while zipping up and down the hilly picturesque terrain on Guatemala’s surprisingly good roads, Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69,” followed by Abba’s “SOS,” seemed to be on replay and the only two options on the driver’s playlist. These are certainly interesting choices in music but I must say after the fourth loop I was getting pretty tired of hearing these songs. The driver’s helper kept throwing out to me little one-word sayings in English, which I found delightful and amusing. It turned out he had spent some time in Boston, Massachusetts and knew a tiny bit of English. “Travel, good, Bryan Adams, Oooh California – velly nice” were about the only words he knew, however, and he was excited to try them out on me. He was much like the playlist, and repeated himself often.

There were so many curves on this stretch of road it made it quite difficult for me to get a hold of the rails and try not to slip off my seat. A time or two the entire right side of the bus slid into the seats on the left side. The man to my right was practically in my lap and the ladies next to him, who naturally also shifted on the slippy seats, were in hysterics. Despite concentrating on not ending up in a heap on the floor of the chicken bus, I did notice we passed lots of green mountainsides, corn was growing in abundance and a number of colorful villages were dotted here and there.

I noticed on the second chicken bus a metal tag above the driver’s seat on the left side of the bus. I could decipher the words “School bus” and the date “9/93,” clearly indicating this was a very old ex-American school bus. This confirmed what I had been told and what I had read about the chicken buses, that they are old school buses from the states, and once retired and replaced, sent to Central America to then be used for public transport.

We arrived at the crossroads with the road leading down to Sololá and Panajachel where I needed to debark. A guy in his early 20’s and his wife of one year (he later proudly exclaimed) got off the bus as well with two suitcases between the two of them. I asked about cheap accommodation in Sololá and he said that they do exist, unlike everyone else I asked who said in this town it was “muy caro,” very expensive. This guy was on a holiday for a few days and his English was darn near perfect. What a lucky moment for me. He proceeded to give me information on the cheap accommodation in town but couldn’t understand why I didn’t want a place with a bathroom and a TV in the room. Some things aren't that important for a budget traveler but it can be difficult to explain to someone who finds them indispensable.

A few blocks after we parted I stopped a random local on the street to confirm the location of the cheap hospedaje I had just been told about. This prompted another guy to stop at which time these two put their heads together and tried to ascertain where this place was located. They finally figured it out and also came up with another place nearby called Hospedaje Solola. The second guy left and the first said he’d walk me to the hospedajes. We continued down the hill together and soon he pointed up another road leading to Hospedaje Flor de Paisaje. We shook hands and parted ways. I settled on Flor de Paisaje and started up the front steps to find the reception desk.

The front steps from the sidewalk led directly up into the courtyard, a center garden full of beautiful and colorful flowers, a lovely haven, surrounded on two sides by rooms and the far end by an attached restaurant. Reds, pinks, yellows, oranges, calla lillys, roses, potted plants, you name it, and it was there. It was a gorgeous setting. From the door of my room I had a view of the garden and inside my private quarters were two single beds, a multi- leveled rack and a desk. I found out later there was also wifi and I could get it in my room. Score! I settled in and soon was on a bit of an exploratory walk of the town.

I spent the next few hours exploring this little city on the hill and soon found myself sitting at a kid’s park admiring the lovely view of Lake Atitlan and the surrounding volcanoes spread out below me.

I noticed quite a number of indigenous people there in “ropa tipica,” their traditional clothing; it’s such a beautiful sight. Men, women and children – they are all dressed to the nines. A number of people thought I was the novelty, but since I received many smiles and holas I didn’t feel like just another tourist invading a traditional-valued town. There are two lovely churches on the square and many cobblestone streets. It felt good to be in a friendly, comfortable town and I vowed to come back another time.


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