Are Chicken Buses in Guatemala Safe? (2020)

Camioneta aka "chicken bus"

Guatemalan chicken buses are gaining notoriety, and at the same time traveling for cheap is becoming more and more popular these days. That’s good news! Chicken buses are some of the easiest ways to save money on your trip to Guatemala. Try taking a chicken bus from Antigua to Guatemala City. It’s so much cheaper than any other transport mode! Or a chicken bus from Antigua to Panajachel. Even cheaper! Despite this, one question prevails. Are chicken buses safe? There is substantial contradictory information on the subject so we’ll aim to clear up some of that in this article.

What are chicken buses?

Chicken buses are retired school buses from the U.S. and Canada that are bought for cheap, driven down into Central America, and then taken to a factory to be repaired and restored. Though they generally follow a color scheme and pattern, no two chicken buses are alike and can be personalized with stickers, paintings, loud sound systems, and seasonal spirit.

Around Christmastime we rode several buses that had fake garlands strung around the luggage racks, Christmas ornaments hanging from the ceiling, and classic Christmas tunes blaring from the speakers. Just a fun little extra.

Dubbed “chicken buses” because they are sometimes used to transport livestock between cities and because passengers get so cramped, these buses are cheap, generally quick, and universally uncomfortable. They are manned by a driver and an assistant (ayudante) who collects money, calls out stops, and helps load luggage. They’re there to make the ride as efficient as possible, and generally, they do a great job.

Mostly honest

Here’s a little bonus we noticed right away: rarely do they try to cheat you on the price. We are in the habit of sitting in the middle of the bus, so we can watch what locals pay in order to catch the bus assistant if he tries to cheat us. But out of dozens of commutes, we’ve only caught a “tourist” price twice.

The first time, we simply declined and hopped off the bus. Most chicken bus roads are very active and it wasn’t long before we caught a new ride. Unsurprisingly, the price was much lower on the next bus we took. The second time, the ayudante refused to give us change despite us pointing out the obvious difference in price between us and locals. In this case we couldn’t get off the bus, but it was a learning experience. Always have exact change.

Another tip: if you are going only partway to a final destination, ask first the price of the final destination, because then you’ll know your cost should be lower. For example, we were going from Escuintla to Cruce, but we had to take the bus that went to Guatemala City. Had we asked the price to Guatemala first, we would have known Cruce should be much less than the cost to Guatemala. But, we naively asked the price to Cruce, which is less than 1/3 of the way to Guatemala City, and were charged the price of going to Guatemala. Frustrating, but we are wiser now as a result.

Suffice to say, if you are aware of your surroundings and have an idea of the prices you should get a fair price. But regardless of their reputation for being mostly honest, always keep exact change if at all possible, and always ask the price that people sitting around you are paying.

Are chicken buses safe for travelers?

Boarding a chicken bus
Boarding a chicken bus

Safety on chicken buses is an interesting subject. You’ve probably seen posts that vehemently oppose the notion of using these vehicles for safety reasons. In all fairness, they do have a point. There are no seat belts or airbags, and the drivers act like failed stock car pilots. Often the only thing keeping you from sliding off the slippery seat is the pack of people stuffed on either side of you.

There are all sorts of horror stories, and Guatemala does have a reputation for violent crime. Yet, its inhabitants put their faith in the colorful bus. Ask yourself. What do people in Guatemala do? They take the chicken buses.

While no ride can be perfectly safe, we’ve spent nine months using them almost every day and not once did we feel threatened. Read on for our tips on how to stay safe on what will be an epic cultural experience!

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Not your average commute

We once took a chicken bus that should have been a few hours long, but due to a traffic jam, the time stretched on and on. There must have been an accident, and we could see a long line of immobile cars, trucks, and buses ahead. Thank goodness we practice slow travel and didn’t have anywhere to be on time. We spotted several people in the distance get out of their car to get some food from a street cart, or walk up the line of cars to see what the trouble was.

Our driver was not exactly the patient sort. He looked forward, frowned, and deftly zoomed into the other lane, pushing the acceleration to its limits while trying to pass as many cars as possible. Ignoring the honking and yelling from indignant drivers, he simply swerved off onto the dirt shoulder when a vehicle came at us from the other direction.

He probably saved us over an hour of sitting in line, and he was clearly skilled at manipulating his huge machine. He knew how to skid around corners as fast as possible without quite tipping the bus onto two wheels. We personally was grateful for the time saved, but we understand where these naysayers are coming from. Additionally, these buses have the reputation of being stopped at night and raided by robbers. Certain areas of Guatemala are considered riskier than others for these hold-ups. In this case, we certainly recommend moving only during broad daylight.

Forget you personal bubble

The reputation for these buses being packed like sardines in a can is quite true. On simple city commutes, we have had to hang out of the door of a bus in order to ride along, which isn’t uncommon. Sometimes you’ll see a family of five sitting in a seat originally meant for the fannies of two children. These buses literally have no cap on the number of passengers. We’re in awe of the attendant who swims through the people collecting fares. How does he remember who gave what, and who is owed change? It’s an art.

Safety around the chicken bus

The suburb of El Trebol, for instance, is reputed to be a terrible place for tourists. It is on the outskirts of Guatemala City, and can be bypassed with some forethought. Stories from this place include threats and hold-ups. We’re guessing some of the horror stories are real, but those incidents don’t happen as often as the media would like you to believe. Plus, generally speaking, if you reach El Trebol it will be going to or from Antigua.

The drop off for this particular line is loaded with policemen. One day as we strolled around, we counted no less than 30 police trucks in the immediate vicinity. Given, there is a police station very close by. But there is literally nowhere in Guatemala where you can find such a high concentration of people paid to keep you safe.

Other parts of the country may boast more formal looking bus stations. They are always very active and colorful places. In these areas, pick-pockets are probably your main concern and zippered pockets are a must.

Doing some maintenance on a chicken bus outside of Antigua.
Doing some maintenance on a chicken bus outside of Antigua.

How to stay safe on a chicken bus

Sometimes bad things happen. To our knowledge, there are two main culprits for chicken bus issues.

The first one is bandits. Robbers or gangs may try to stop the bus and ask the driver for money. Sometimes these exchanges get pretty rough and the driver might get shot. To avoid any chance of being stuck in the crossfire, never sit towards the front on long commutes. The middle of the bus is the safest part to be as sometimes robbers may hop in from both front and back doors.

If this ever happens, sometimes they will ask for your ”collaboration”. This is, in layman’s term, their way of begging for your money. In this case, we’d suggest you collaborate and give them something.

Ideally, you’ve split your money. If you have rolls of Q100 bills and they see it, of course they’ll ask for it. That’s what Guatemalans do. They’re masters at concealing their money. We’ve seen some hiding money in their shoes, bras, pants, underwear, hat, phone cases and even in a bible.

This way, when it’s time to pay the driver they always pull out the exact change. Not a cent more. We figure that their body is filled with the right bills for the right situations and they just remember. In the end, that’s telltale. Guatemalans do take chicken buses but they remain careful and aware of their surroundings.

Keep your bag safe

The second culprit is the bag slasher. Their stories are very popular on the internet and quite frankly, it’s easy to see how it could happen when the bus is so cramped. In a 48 child-seating bus you can easily find over 100 people.

At the same time, bag slashing is kind of obvious. In such a restrained space, you’re only really at risk if you decide to take a nap. When we hop on a cramped bus, we always look out for each other. Stay awake, look around and make it obvious that we’re on the lookout.

Consider putting your luggage on the roof, oddly this is possibly safer. Otherwise you can bring it in but if it takes space away from having an extra passenger, you may have to pay for an extra seat.

Chicken buses are cheap

An hour ride shuttle from Antigua to Guatemala City can be upwards of $40 usd, and the exact same ride on a chicken bus can be less than $2. No joke. For us, it’s a no-brainer. Using chicken buses will significantly lower your cost of travel in Guatemala. Commuting within a city can be 15 cents or less. Now that’s some Dirt Cheap Travel.

In most cases, chicken buses will be your cheapest option by far. They also offer amazing flexibility. Shuttles leave on a schedule. Chicken buses leave when they have people. Still, they are not tailored to every location.

If you want to go from Antigua to Tikal for example, we wouldn’t recommend the chicken bus. It takes upwards of 10 hours on a charter bus and to our knowledge, there are no direct options. In this case, that means connecting countless times and wasting a long more time and money.

Stripped chicken bus engine.
Stripped chicken bus engine.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, whether to take a chicken bus in Guatemala is up to you. We can’t say with a straight face that this method is totally safe, but hey, there’s a risk in all things. There is a reason why locals use these iconic buses every day. They’re handy, efficient, and fairly priced. They help you get to all the best places in Guatemala on a budget. We can wholeheartedly recommend them for travel. Just be prepared to be uncomfortable, bring some water, and revel in the fact that you’ll be able to afford a flight home (someday) because of all the money you’re saving.

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