All over Central America you’ll find locals get around on what the gringos call a chicken bus, though to be fair they are usually called La Camioneta by the locals.
These school busses start their lives in the USA and Canada, and when they are deemed to have reached the end of their serviceable lifespan (read: no longer safe, too expensive to maintain, or just too many kilometers) they are sold south of the boarder and become a chicken bus.
In Central America they are decked out with LED lights, chrome grills, elaborate paint jobs, more powerful engines, new transmissions with more gears, and a raft of other aesthetic modifications. They are often cut shorter than a regular school bus as well. Roof racks the length of the bus are installed to haul cargo. Long-haul busses suffer the same treatment, though they are often modified to have their 2 person seats widened to “fit” 3 people on either side and one more straddling both seats. The ones designated for shorter trips often have their double seats shortened to allow for more standing room in the aisle. If you’re taller than your average Central American and the bus is full, be prepared to be uncomfortable – you will have to wedge your knees in, and your legs will fall asleep.
And now a note on the chicken bus’ rear ‘emergency’ exit: it isn’t just for emergencies. It is most often used get off an overcrowded bus, and if you are really lucky the bus driver will actually come to a full stop to allow you to disembark. Even more disturbing is when, hurtling along at highway speeds, the driver’s assistant climbs out the rear door and crawls along the roof rack to get your bags ready for the next stop. This particular job does tend to incur severe injuries (as I was informed, by a driver’s assistant, as he opened the emergency door on a bus travelling 50km/h) but time is money, and apparently stopping to unload bags is an unreasonable expense.
Now one might ask if there really are chickens on a chicken bus. However did it get its name? Is it from the driver’s propensity to pass other vehicles around blind corners or in the face of oncoming traffic? Appropriate as this nomenclature would be, that is not the origin. There really are chickens on a chicken bus. It’s not unusual to see a basket of grown chickens on the roof rack, feel a box next to you rustle when you bump into it, or hear the cheeping of an open box full of chicks.
One might also ask how many people fit on a chicken bus? Surely they don’t exceed the manufacturer’s recommendations (still posted just about the driver’s seat)? Ah wishful thinking!
A friend told me she was on bus so crowded that the man collecting her money was crawling over the seats as there was no room left in the aisle. Your personal space is about to be invaded.
My most recent chicken bus had at least 3 people in every seat, about 3 in between the seats in the aisle, close to a dozen people crammed at the front almost falling out the door. I should mention that this doesn’t include the children sitting or standing anywhere they could. In this case one little girl of no more than 5 years passed out in my lap. In all, there was close to 100 bodies on this chicken bus designed for about 72 children (before it was cut shorter).
Apparently 100 really isn’t all that impressive either, I’ve spoken with a fellow traveler who was with 19 other people on the roof of the chicken bus, since the interior was already completely crammed.
But don’t let these stories deter you – once you get over the safety concerns, the live animals, and the overcrowding, riding the bus can be an excellent way to get around for cheap. But always be sure to ask a local passenger where the chicken bus is going – sometimes the driver or his helpers may not have heard/understood/cared when you asked where the bus was headed.
Also, talk to the locals on the bus. You will be met with a warm smile and friendly conversation. Not only will this take your mind off the road, it is fun and informative. I’ve spent the time on busses learning Spanish, teaching English, and learning about local culture.
Enjoy the ride!
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