A chicken what?!! Although this may sound very alien to you right now, when you reach Central America, ‘chicken buses’ will become your most loved form of transport. These colourfully decorated buses pepper the roads of Central America and are used to transport people and goods across the the region. Chicken Buses are predominantly found in Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
First things first: You can indeed get around the whole of Central America without using a chicken bus, but chicken buses are probably the most typical Central American experience you could try. Chicken buses in Central America are alot cheaper than taxis or minibuses and they will provide some of your most memorable moments whilst exploring Central America. They are old American yellow school buses that have been given a new lease of life as public transport, pretty groovy. You won’t find many chickens travelling on these buses, but do expect a lot of luggage, dogs, cats, food, household furniture and anything you can think of, including the kitchen sink.
Are Chicken Buses safe? These are high speed buses with no seat belts and they can get VERY cramped, and there is always a risk of losing your luggage. Chicken Buses are safe to a degree and I will always recommend them to other travellers, but like all transport in Central America, there is an aspect of risk.
The Chicken Bus experience is completely chaotic but that is exactly how it is supposed to be ~ expect the chaos and expect to be crammed in a bus with far more people than available seats. EVERY time I have taken a chicken bus, the entire aisle has been filled with people and all the seats have been overflowing. Expect to be separated from your luggage which will go against everything you have been told ~ but there just isn’t enough space for you and your bag. Remember to keep your valuables on you at all times including your passport, in a little bag across your front.
Here are a few top tips from Go Travel and Talk to help you with experiencing of the famous Chicken Buses and staying safe …
Planning is the key to a successful chicken bus journey.
Once you have worked out your route and the various stops and changes you will need to make, you can start your journey. I would suggest not starting your route until you know and understand the necessary changes and stop off points of the Chicken Buses ~ this is very important as you could find yourself stranded in the middle of a little local village with no one to ask for help. Finding this out requires a bit of asking around and is not as easy as simply finding a timetable online. Ask at your hostel or take a trip to the bus station and you’ll be able to find your route.
Chicken buses are reliable and frequent so no need to worry about that. The bus will always say the name of the final destination above the windscreen but make sure you check and double check your destination when you get on. Use maps.me (which can be downloaded from the app store) to follow your route whilst on board ~ if you download the area map before you leave your hostel's Wifi, you can track your live movements offline ~ it is a lifesaver if you don’t speak much Spanish and want to check you’re on course!
What could I possible have to tell you about getting on a Chicken Bus? This isn’t your usual bus journey remember. As the Chicken Bus slows next to your stop, you will notice there is the driver and one or two helpers onboard. You rarely get on at the front of the bus, it is almost always via the back and you will be aided on by the helper. The helper is brilliant ~ check with them where you are going and then they will take your bag and either put it on top of the bus or just inside. You cannot keep big bags with you, but keep your small one with all your valuables in it with you at all times. Please note that they like to get people on and off quickly, so no dawdling!
The seats are forward facing mini benches with no seat belts, but they are relatively comfortable. You might of guessed there’s no AC, but the buses always have a lot of air flowing through, keeping it cool. The buses were originally intended for 3 school children per bench, so don’t be alarmed if someone else squeezes on next to you whilst there is already another person and you on your bench! Equally, you can perch on the end of a bench that already has two small people on it if you wish. Once all the seats are taken, it is a case of standing in the aisle and holding onto the handrail above until someone vacates a seat. Prepare to get up close and personal to your fellow chicken bus riders ~ Chicken Buses get busy!
Sit back and relax! The windows are big so you can watch the world go by and take in the scenery. Chicken Buses are very friendly affairs, people will want to help with your journey and maybe have a chat. You will have some of your best experiences on Chicken Buses so EMBRACE IT! Also, there will almost always be people who jump onboard to sell sweets, nuts, crisps, cakes, water and drinks.
Don’t panic about paying your fare when you get on the bus. A short time into your journey, the helper will come up the aisle of the bus and take everyone's payment in cash. It is super cheap so make sure you have some change on you ~ there are no inflated tourist prices, but they rarely have change so be prepared. If the helper has no change for you, they will continue down the bus taking the remaining fares and return once they have your change.
The helper will usually shout the name of the location, and if there is not one major bus stop, you can choose where you would like to get off. There may be a lot of shouting at this point with different people wanting to get off a different points, but keep calm, this is totally normal. Don’t forget your bag if it was put on top of the bus ~ the helper will get this down for you using a lowering rope!
Hopefully this will make the madness of your first Chicken Bus experience a little bit easier. It does differ from country to country ever so slightly, and you may find some Chicken Bus journeys more relaxed than others. The main thing to remember is to keep checking your destination with helpers and ask for help if you need it.
Enjoy the experience and whilst it may be a longer and be a slightly more hectic journey, it is a great experience and perfect for the backpacker budget!