With beads of sweat dripping between our shoulder blades, we throw our 25-pound backpacks onto the side of the cracked road with gusto and sit huddled under the shade of a small tree until our ride comes. It’s not quite noon, yet all of us have adopted a sticky sheen in the Central American climate.
Although there are no posted stops or schedules, soon enough a vibrantly decorated bus comes rumbling down the dusty road. We flag it down and throw our bags in as the back door hurtles open. The attendant hauls us in as the bus barely comes to a stop before continuing its way into town.
On the outside, the bus is colourful and rickety. Inside its hot exterior there are no seatbelts or properly working doors or windows. These fleets of buses are known as “Chicken Buses,” and are the main means of transportation linking Mexico and South America.
The name arises from the stereotype of a little Guatemalan woman seating her chickens — caged or otherwise— in travellers’ laps for the entirety of the ride.
With very cheap fares for both long- and short-haul trips, these retired United States Blue Bird school buses do not follow the norms of transportation. There is no such thing as a maximum capacity, so many travellers find themselves up close and personal when the bus becomes a little less than standing room only.
Unlike express transportation, drivers will pull over and slow down whenever passengers need to get on or off, resigning others to the fact that their destination, only a short number of miles away, may take hours longer than thought.
The bus is swamped by a myriad of vendors and merchants as it pulls over to allow passengers to exit. Knocking on windows or expertly weaving their way through the hot, undulating mass of sweaty limbs, brusquely they call out, “Aqua! Tamales! Empanadas!”
Passengers hand over their lempiras or quetzals in exchange for whatever will ease the travel discomfort. Almost as soon as they’ve boarded, the vendors disappear just as the bus begins to jolt along and pick up speed, sounding very much as if it’s on its last journey.
While Chicken Buses are notoriously prone to overheating mid-voyage, stranding passengers on the side of the road until the next bus happens to pass by, this nuisance isn’t the main factor in driving foreign travellers towards the more expensive options.
As with any form of low-tier transport, there is always the risk of theft. Besides having stuff nicked by other passengers, highway bandits have accosted low-budget transport buses, specifically targeting tourists. Media has covered bus hijackings in Guatemala, where foreign nationals were robbed, kidnapped or killed, adding a heightened sense of fear to an area of the world already suffering from a loss of tourism.
In 2004, an express bus carrying a load of American tourists was attacked, leading to the death of one of the passengers. Expensive or otherwise, the threat of running into trouble on the road comes with any form of transportation and is a matter beyond a traveller’s control.
By following common sense travel procedures, a conscientious backpacker can avoid most of the transportation dangers plaguing the developing world. Keeping bags in sight and never having all valuables in the same place can alleviate some of the stress associated with travel. This can pave the way for enjoying an authentic experience of economical trekking.
With all the windows opened wide, the overcrowded bus remains muggy. The torn plastic seats stick to damp bodies. Backpacks remain piled at the rear of the bus. The door, which is decorated with stickers of the Virgin Mary and Mickey Mouse, is being held tightly closed by the ticket collector.
Despite how uncomfortable everyone appears, loud music plays, allowing commuters to combine the jarring of the bus and the musical beats into a form of swaying distraction from the sardine-like conditions.
As a gringo, recognizing a popular Spanish song and mumbling out a bit of the chorus gives you a connection to your neighbour, sitting only a couple inches from your face. In the midst of this cheap form of transportation, there exists a linking of humanity that travellers wouldn’t be able to experience on North American transport, making the cramped, potentially dangerous process worth it.
If riding in a crowded metal sauna face-to-face with strangers who don’t necessarily respect personal space or hygiene remains unappealing, at least the cost of bus fare is only $3, something even the most budget-conscious traveller can appreciate.