If you have read up on the chicken buses in Guatemala, you will have come across countless horror stories. Everything from drug cartels kidnapping the passengers, to pickpockets, to buses crashing down huge ravines. You will also know the reason they are called chicken buses is because of the way they cram everyone in. Being full doesn’t necessarily mean full. There is always room for more people even when there appears to be no room.
The only way we could get from Xela to Panajachel was by chicken bus, and despite all of the tales of woe, we weren’t really bothered about getting kidnapped or robbed. Dom was a bit apprehensive of the dangerous driving; unsurprising as we have witnessed a fair bit of it here, and I was dreading the over-crowding. The buses are ex-school buses from the USA, and so when they were originally designed, they were thinking of children, and not some lanky dude from the UK.
However, we still kept a sensible head when packing, and split our valuables between our five bags and body wallet things, (Would-be thieves reading this; Dom know’s Karate, so rob us at your own risk) and set off for the bus terminal. It was still quite early when we arrived but the place was already a hive of activity. Hundreds of people were waiting for buses or going about their daily business, and loads of multi coloured buses, no longer the dull yellow from their school run days, lined the street; full of passengers and with men on top hauling everyone’s belongings onto the roof.
We jumped out of the taxi and two men immediately grabbed our bags and loaded them onto the roof of the bus. Now that’s what I call service. Wouldn’t get that on the Megabus. Our journey was about three hours. The same journey time as the bus from Cardiff to London. This would be more crowded, more dangerous and more fun than that journey though. Whilst waiting to depart, people were coming onto the bus to sell food, drink and newspapers. One guy even got on and did a demonstration of a peeler and grater combi. His sales pitch was like a live version of the QVC channel, but it payed off and he sold a couple.
Finally we were off. My fears hadn’t been met as the bus was pretty empty. Dom kindly informed me that this just meant we would stop and pick everyone up along the way. The driver had his foot down and the conductor hung out of the door acting as a mirror, signalling to overtake, and less frequently, to slow down. Occasionally the conductor would disappear as we were flying down the road at full speed, but he hadn’t fallen off. He’d somehow reappear through the back door, or you’d hear him on the roof. Now that’s magic.
Most of the buses have some form of reference to Jesus, and so I think they rely heavily on faith when driving the buses. They certainly don’t seem to use common sense as they chat on the phone whilst going round endless hairpin corners on two wheels, like Nigel Mansel in his hey day.
Dom was right too. We stopped a few times along the way, picking up more and more passengers. Soon we were sharing a seat built for two children, with another lady. Thankfully she was pretty big, so there was no way we’d get five on our seat like I’d heard sometimes happens. Dom’s fears were almost met too as we pulled out onto the road after picking up passengers, and a massive lorry sped past with its horn blaring. Close shave and yet no one battered an eyelid.
Instead of sacking Clarkson, they should have done a Top Gear special, and have the three idiots race across Central America in one of the chicken buses. The look on their faces as they hurtle through a barrier and down a steep embankment, would be priceless.
We arrived at our destination in one pice, with luggage complete, and not feeling too bad on the cramp front. Success. It certainly was an experience. Crazy, excellent, and one I will have to repeat; but not one I fancy doing during rush hour.
Our destination is as beautiful as the multi-coloured death traps, but I’ll share our adventures here in the next update.