Not sure if you should catch a chicken bus in Central America? You should.
Are chicken buses safe? In my experience, yes.
Having ridden plenty of chicken buses across Guatemala and El Salvador thus far, I can’t say anything negative about them. Apparently, they have a bad reputation. I haven’t heard/read what exactly this is referring to. My biggest annoyance about them is the small seats on some that fit 1.5 adults…if you’re the .5 sitting on the edge your legs get a good work out as you try not to fall off.
On one of my recent rides I opened up my notes app and jotted down 10 reasons to catch a chicken bus.
The post that follows is the 10 reasons I came up with along with a few notes explaining each one. I then add a few tips at the bottom of the post on how to catch a chicken bus.
1. They’ll Save You Money
Time to start with an easy one. Chicken buses are affordable! After all, they’re a form of public transport. In El Salvador, I’ve hardly paid more than a dollar for a ride. To get from Antigua, Guatemala to Santa Ana, El Salvador I paid $7.50 for the five different forms of transport. To get a shuttle between the two places would cost a minimum of $25.
2. Experience In Person Infomercials.
Throughout your journey on a chicken bus, people will jump on board with a black satchel (sometimes it’s a backpack). They stand at the front of the bus and begin a monologue about the most random of things. These monologues are sales pitches.
These people are selling a product and they can be super random, but I’m always surprised how many people buy the random stuff being sold. When the person has finished their spiel, they’ll usually hand out whatever it is they’re selling to everyone on the bus. When they come back through, you can give it back to them, or buy it in cash for however much they state the price is.
Shortly after, they’ll be off the bus, and another usually jumps on with a new spiel. You’ll get to see the benefits, how cheap the product is, a demonstration, and of course get to touch the product. All the things you’ll see in a perfect infomercial, just not at 2 am on some random TV channel.
Some of the things I’ve seen for sale: garden lights, sponges, vitamins, and ID protectors. Brilliant stuff.
3. Try New Local Food
Whenever your chicken bus arrives into a town to drop people off/collect new people, you’ll usually see a few people coming on board with a bunch of food for sale. Often they’ll be snacks (peanuts etc) and drinks, but sometimes you’ll find hot food and other strange things you’ve never seen before. If your stomach is half-decent, buy something you’ve never tried before. No better time too?
4. Practice Your Spanish
If you’re one of the first people to jump on the bus, then you’ll likely have a seat to yourself until someone has no choice but to sit next to you because all the other seats are taken (maybe that’s just me). Anyhow, you’ll likely be the only foreigner onboard which means you’re in the perfect place to practice your Spanish.
Often I just chill out and don’t speak to my seatmate(s) beyond a short “Hola”. But every time I’ve wanted to practice my Spanish we’ve mananged to fumble along with a conversation. They are always patient and we both come away smiling (maybe they were bluffing). Talk about immersing yourself!
5. Create A Chicken Bus Playlist.
I can’t take credit for this one. @Cats_and_rocks was the inspiration for this, as she told us about her chicken bus playlist on the way up Acatenango. While riding a chicken bus, you’ll usually hear music blasting away (not every driver likes music though). The tunes vary massively, so make sure to Shazam every song and create your playlist. If you do, let me know!
What a great way to store your memories!
6. Get Comfortable With Being Uncomorforable
This is one of the quotes I’ve been using throughout 2019 (not sure where I read it). Riding a chicken bus is certainly not like a 1st class bus.
If you’re only going a short distance, you’ll have no worries being on them. But beyond 30 minutes, your body will start to get a bit sore from the seats. And the seats aren’t big! If it’s relatively empty you’ll be okay as you’ve got the freedom to move around in the seat. But if you’ve got people next to you, you’ll be very restricted with your movement and you’ll start hurting. But you’ll survive. That’s if you get a seat…sometimes you’ll have no choice but to stand up.
Standing up on a chicken bus isn’t easy with the stop-starts, hard braking, judder bars, and regularly swerving. You’ll quickly figure out if you have any core muscles.
I spent four hours against the window and above the back wheel (avoid this seat) with two others in a seat on the way to the Mexican border from Xela. That was brutal!
7. Travel Like A Local
This is one of the cool kid travel trends. You’ll see people from all walks of life travelling on chicken buses. Get amongst it!
8. Experience Them From The Inside
In most blog posts you’ll often see photos of chicken buses from the outside. They’re beautiful on the outside, that’s true. But it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
9. You Get To See Random Small Towns
If you’re like me and most other tourists, you’ll stick to a tourist path (more or less). But by taking chicken buses from place to place you’ll bus through smaller towns you’d never consider stopping in at. It can take quite some time to get through some of these towns while you pick people up. Look out the window and who knows what you’ll spot. I’m always interested in the different playgrounds you’ll see. And of course the central squares you normally see in Central American towns, they’re always a hive of activity.
Tips for catching Chicken Buses
- Don’t sit above the wheels. I made this mistake on my first journey and was super cramped…now I know why those two seats were still empty.
- If you can, figure out what side the sun will be on for your journey. Sit on the opposite side.
- If people are asking you where you’re going at a chicken bus station, they’re probably just helping you. Everyone is super helpful at these bus stations, even if they seem way over-enthusiastic (they’re not touts!).
- Bring small change. It’s just easier for the ticket people that way.
- Most of the time, the first and last stop will be displayed in large letters on the front of the bus. This will help you figure out whether you’re on the right bus.
I’m not going to lie, I was a bit nervous about getting on chicken buses for the first couple of trips. But now I love them (it can be love-hate at times) and get some good reading done if the route isn’t too busy. Stay aware, and you’ll have a great time.