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Central America Chicken Buses – Short Clip 1

Culture and art is best represented in Central America by the old American school buses that have customized and painted in glaring colors. The art on these buses is taken seriously and those details are captured well in this short Travel Video from Jason and Aracely of 2Backpackers.com. Enjoy the show!

Photo Contributors: @travelvice & @ImPedrovski

Old American School Bus

Old American School Bus

Front Grill of Old American BlueBird School Bus from Antigua, Guatemala

As a kid growing up in the USA, I, like the majority of the student population, rode a big yellow bus to school every morning.  Back then, never did I imagine that later in life I would be making my way down Central America in that same type of transportation.  Only this time, the colors and creative modifications of the bus are kaleidoscopical.

Old American school buses, affectionately referred to as “Chicken Buses,” are the primary mode of transportation throughout all of Central America.  Depending on what kind of traveler you are, you either avoid them or take advantage of them whenever possible.  In our case, Jason and I have a love hate relationship with the chicken buses.  We love them because they are cheap, just as uncomfortable as a tourist shuttle, safe and we get to experience the culture of a country up close and personal.

Cheap Local Transportation

First, let’s talk numbers.  As a concrete example, we spent $33.70 between the two of us on transportation from the entrance of the Salvadorian boarder to the entrance of the Honduran border, which is approximately 228 miles.  In comparison, while in Guatemala, we often traveled in tourist shuttles, with the exception of getting from Monterrico Beach to the boarder of El Salvador.  Only focusing on our trip from Antigua to Panajachel to Semuc Champey, which is about 164 miles, we spent $69.22 in total.  That’s a $35.52 savings and an additional 64 miles distance for riding the local buses.  That’s the value of two nights in a hostel and a meal.  This is what budget travel is about, finding the cheapest alternative.

Little Comfort

Local Transportation

A Crowded Bus in Colon, Panama

Second, each time we hopped in a tourist shuttle we were just as cramped, if not more than on a chicken bus.   These transportation companies are definitely not concerned with the comfort level of their passengers.  They will squeeze 5 of us into a 3 seat row bench and most either don’t have or don’t use air conditioner during the 8 hour journey.  Furthermore, if the road conditions are bad, unless you’re in a Mercedes-Benz S-class, your ride will be bumpy on both a chicken bus and a shuttle.

Safety on Buses

Safe Transportation

Backpacks Stored on a Bus in Central America

Then there is safety.  I have read many chicken bus theft stories on multiple web forums and I am grateful that Jason and I have yet to experience anything like that.  But, I must say that thus far, we have felt extremely safe on the road.  We even prefer the buses over taxis; I guess we just feel more safe in numbers.  Our bags are usually right next to us, near us or in plain view of us.  We do practice precaution and try to be aware of our belongings and surroundings and we carry a money belt for cash, passports and credit cards.  I know that we can’t control every situation and the possibility exists of getting our things stolen, but if we allowed negative possibilities to dictate our life we wouldn’t be traveling in these foreign countries in the first place.

Local Culture on Buses

Finally, riding on a chicken bus is a unique way to experience the true culture.  As I mentioned, this is the primary and daily mode of transportation for locals.  These buses stop everywhere, and frequently, which adds additional time to your journey.  The system acts like veins in a body, connecting the tiniest isolated town to the rest of the country.  To get from one location to the next, depending on how far you want to go, you may have to make several transfers, but it could potentially be the same story with the tourist shuttles.  Everyone rides them including school children, farm workers, teachers, market and street vendors, all making their way to the populous cities.  From what I’ve seen, people transport just about everything on the buses, and I’m convinced they are essential to the economy of these countries. Without these old American school buses, I am guessing 90% of the population wouldn’t go anywhere, since owning a vehicle is a luxury only the wealthy enjoy.

Entertainment on Buses

There is also an entertainment value to the whole experience to be quite frank.  In each bus there is usually a driver and a conductor.  The conductor collects the fares,  helps passengers with their carry on baggage, and hangs off the side of the bus yelling the bus route to everyone passing by.  He also skillfully gets on and off at each stop while the bus is still in motion to help anyone that may need it.   The baggage brought on the buses is anything from a sack of coffee, fruits and vegetables, chickens and anything else that can be sold at a market.  Chicken buses are also habitually visited by street vendors who will ride the bus to the next stop or town while they push their merchandise onto a captive audience.  They are selling everything from beauty product to snacks and cold drinks, and even entire meals consisting of rice, chicken and tortillas, all of which are served in a small plastic bags. The vendors are of all ages from very young children to elder men and women; all are very persistent and persuasive.  When the bus is crammed with people standing in the aisle, the vendors will artfully weave their way down the aisle to offer their products to every person on board.

Love Them & Hate Them

As you might have guessed, I’m an advocate for the chicken buses, but I did mention that Jason and I have a love hate relationship with them.  Hate, because it can be hard work lugging our heavy bags on and off at each connection point.  It’s tiring, hot, uncomfortable and you will definitely feel a sense of culture shock. That said, be forewarned, it’s definitely not for everyone.  If you can spare the cash, you may opt for the tourist shuttles, but don’t expect space or comfort.  If you can spare a little more time, all you need is a little patience and an open mind and you will be guaranteed an adventure on every chicken bus ride.

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Rain says:

These buses remind me of the jeepneys in the Philippines, colorful vehicles adapted from the US jeeps of World War II Phiippines. Also used for public transport, it’s a great and affordable way to explore different places. For foreign travelers, figuring out how to pay, how to sit, what do to do with the kids offering to clean your shoes and how to get off is quite fun, too.

Jason says:

Yes, that sounds very familiar. It’s more than just the art of the bus, it’s also about all the stuff that takes place while trying to get on the bus, while riding the bus and while trying to get your luggage off the bus. Thanks for sharing your experience in Philippines with us!

Really liked your post and photos about the “chicken buses.” When traveling in foreign countries, this type of transportation is colorful, inexpensive, culturally informative and usually a great way to travel. The art displayed on and around the buses is also amazing and so interesting. You brought back many memories about these buses, including how they look like Christmas Trees rolling down roads at night when viewed from a distance. Very unique.

Jason says:

We loved them too! So colorful and creative. I hope you enjoyed the video.

Did you ever come across the clowns, or preachers that would get on? Both would collect money from passengers after their “performance”.

Jason says:

I have never seen a clown on the bus. We did have those that were sales people selling magical creams and things.

It’s always an adventure riding on the buses and as you said, you find out people are just people trying to get to where they are going. Love the video!

Jason says:

Thanks for checking it out Peter.

Oh wow, what a great write up! If you’re in CA you gotta at least ride the chicken bus once!!!

Jason says:

Yes, we should all try it at least once. Or if you are in Antigua, you can go to the Bus Terminal and just watch them drive in and out all day.

Andrea says:

Love how colourful they all are – such cool artwork! We love taking the bus and even though they can be dodgy (had some very memorable ones in Fiji, not for security of belongings reasons but just because of mud and rickity bridges), they always provide all the value you describe.

Jason says:

We had some moments too. I was helping street vendor women bring huge baskets onto the bus. Once we got them on, they practically rested them on my head. It was a bit uncomfortable and awkward. I don’t think they like me there so much.

mike says:

Ha! I love the chicken buses that ply the road between David Panama and Boquete, at 1.50 for an hour ride its a great deal, I live and work at bambu hostel http://www.bambuhostel.com in david and have been a big fan of them since coming here in panama city they are called the Los Diablos Rojos or red devils, amazing paint jobs that keep you smiling! Please come to david panama it is an amazing vibrant city with a lot to offer the backpacker, we have a pool here and a great place to meet folks and plan your next move!
.-= mike´s last blog ..Bambu Hostel :Come & stay with us in David, Panama =-.

lily says:

Same thing happens to Frenchmen backpacking in West Africa.

Fida says:

My mode of transportation where ever I go. Like you said – one can’t get any closer to an other culture. Or 3rd class trains – it’s like being in a marketplace in a small village ;-)
.-= Fida´s last blog ..Dec 17, Ariau Amazon Towers =-.

Jason says:

We haven’t had any trains in Latin America, but I am sure we will someday, thanks for the comparison.

Sheila Willison says:

I remember them well. When I was a little girl growing up in Panama I would search for the bus with my name on the window. Apparently Sheila was pretty popular back then though I haven’t seen a bus with names in the windows for a long time.

Great pictures and video!

Jason says:

Sheila, we did see a few names on the buses, but now the names represent a company, or collection of buses rather than one. At least that was the case in Guatemala. Glad you enjoyed the video!

Jeanne Castellani says:

I think this is a great way to experience the real life of the country you are in. Getting close to the people who live there (maybe not that close), will give you a more informative taste of their everyday life.
Enjoy!

Aracely says:

It’s amazing what we get to experience when traveling with the locals. It makes the adventure much more memorable and meaningful.

carole levinger says:

I love the buses of Central America and wish I was young and riding on chicken buses with you. What a great piece …thank -you for brightening my world. Have fun…..

Aracely says:

Thanks Carol, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. The chicken buses are an important part of the Central/South American culture. We have both enjoyed them and endured them all at the same time. :)

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