To chicken bus or not to chicken bus

Chicken buses are arguably the most affordable mode of transportation in Guatemala. And I do love a bargain. Yet when people ask me about riding chicken buses, I caution ”It’s not worth the money you save. Don’t do it.” Now, after reading Ben Groundwater’s article– ”Nobody on board but us chickens“– I’m not so sure. Maybe riding chicken buses is fine outside of Guatemala City. Read Groundwater’s article and decide for yourself. He writes:

The first surprise about my chicken bus is that there aren’t any chickens on it. Guatemalan chicken buses don’t carry too many of their namesakes, apparently.


The second surprise about my chicken bus is it’s not really a bus. In the physical sense, it is; it was once an American school bus but has been resurrected with Guatemalan engineering and a glorious riot of red and green paint. But in the sense that it behaves how we Westerners know buses are supposed to behave, it definitely is not.

I’m forced onto it just beyond the Mexican border, told it is going in my general direction, if not where I really want to go. “Xela?” I ask.

“You change Reyu,” someone yells as they throw my backpack onto the roof.

Great. What’s Reyu?

From there, we make a tortuous journey to … nowhere. It soon becomes obvious we aren’t leaving until more passengers turn up. A lot more. Half an hour later, we hit half-capacity and it’s off to Reyu. Or something like that.

I loved this article. It made me realize that, when it comes to chicken buses, the perceived safety, or lack of it, could depend on who is doing the riding, and where. Admittedly, I’m more cautious than most. As a North American adoptive mother traveling with two English-speaking, yet obviously Guatemalan-born children, it’s hard for me to blend in anywhere in Guatemala. In general, we avoid large gatherings of people, which rules out riding a chicken bus. However, that doesn’t mean other folks don’t feel comfortable on board.

From now on, I’ll offer this modified position: If you feel safe riding a chicken bus, you should ride one. But I”ll stand by my advice not to ride a chicken bus in Guatemala City.


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4 Responses to “To chicken bus or not to chicken bus”

  1. Jenny says:

    Hi Jessica. I thoroughly enjoyed your book, and at the editorial board meeting for women’s dermatology society last night I suggested we include a description for the Reads and Recommends section. If Tim sends me your email address I can get you in touch with the doctor putting the article together. The newsletter goes to every Wds member in the country. Let me know. I hope all is well. Jenny

  2. Jessica says:

    Thanks, Jenny! Fabulous. Will ask Tim to do so today. We’re great here; hope things have settled down for you… Jessica

  3. Susan says:

    When I was a missionary in Guatemala and when I went back as a tourist travelling on a shoestring I road lots of chicken buses. However, now that I have my Guatemalan born daughter, I am with you and would be very hesitant to ride one. They are in general safe (except for the crazy drivers). The buses in Guteamala City definitely not safe to ride anymore due to all the gangs and extortion. Such a shame because the buses are so inexpensive.

  4. Jessica says:

    Thank you for that great insight, Susan. Excellent advice. Best wishes to you and your daughter!

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