A Beginners Guide To Catching Chicken Buses

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You can’t visit Central America without noticing the fleet of brightly-painted retired American school buses barreling down the streets every few minutes. These are the chicken buses, named because of their ability to pack people in like chickens, there are no actual chickens on board.

If you’re a budget-conscious traveller chicken buses are a great way to move within and between countries in Central America, but they can also be a little daunting the first time you decide to take a ride on one.

Here are some tips and observations that will get you catching chicken buses like a pro in no time.

Getting On

The chicken bus terminal is usually attached to the main local market. These terminals are loud, bustling and a good spot for tourists to be pick-pocketed so keep one eye on your belongings while your other eye locates the bus you’re after.

The buses will have their origin and destination written on the front windscreen. There will also be a guy (the Ayudante or helper) assigned to each bus standing outside near the back shouting the destination, so keep an ear out for that too.

There is no set schedule for chicken buses, there will be numerous buses parked at the terminal that are going to the same destination and they will only leave when they feel the bus has enough people on board. Try to pick a bus that is already half full if you’re after a quick departure, otherwise you may be in for a wait of half an hour or more before the bus actually leaves.

• If you see the bus you want pulling away, don’t worry you haven’t missed it. Just run after it waving and the Ayudante will signal the driver to stop for you. You’ll often see people still getting on the buses around the corner from the terminal as the bus is leaving on it’s route. It’s very hard to miss your bus in Central America.

• If you’re waiting for a bus to arrive along with a hoard of other people and are worried about getting a seat, be aware that you can enter the bus through the back door too. It’s not uncommon for locals to rush the back door if they’re in danger of not getting a spot on the bus.

If you have a large backpack or suitcase you should be entering with it through the back door. The Ayudante will help get your bag on board and stowed behind the back row of seats. Try to then get a seat close to where your bag is stored in the back so you can make sure it doesn’t wander off by itself.

On The Bus

Always keep your valuables in a smaller bag and keep this bag on your lap. Bags have a tendency to disappear from the overhead racks and like to be slashed if they are on the floor.

Don’t worry about paying when you first get on the bus. After you’ve been going for awhile the Ayudante will come around to collect payment from everyone. Some buses will have a sign at the front indicating the fare, but a good way to ensure you don’t get charged the ‘gringo fee’ is to ask another local on the bus how much the fare is before the Ayudante gets to you or simply pay attention to how much everyone else is paying. I don’t believe we’ve ever been charged more than the locals though even without this precaution.

• It is possible the Ayudante will ask you to pay more if you have a luggage item taking up more than the usual amount of space. For example if you’re travelling with a surfboard you may have to pay extra. This is fair enough as the space being taken up could be used for an extra paying passenger. However, you should not be paying extra for just one item of luggage.

• Chicken buses in Central America generally cost less than US$1 per hour of travel. At this price they are an absolute steal compared to any other form of transport, except hitchhiking.

If it’s a long trip make sure to bring snacks with you as there will be no rest stops to purchase any. Although at certain stops to drop people off, people selling snacks and drinks will come aboard. But I suggest not drinking too many fluids as one thing that still eludes me is how people go to the bathroom when riding a chicken bus.

Be prepared to share your seat. These buses live up to their names by packing people in like chickens. A two person seat can quickly become a 4 person seat with another leaning over you all from the aisle.

• The bus rides can be long and bumpy. If you’re prone to motion sickness be sure to take motion-sickness tablets or anything ginger-flavoured to settle your stomach. A paper or plastic bag with no holes is also a good idea just in case.

Don’t fall asleep if travelling by yourself. This is the ideal moment for a less than friendly person to slash your bag and steal your valuables. People are often working together on the bus too so don’t assume that just because there’s lots of people that no one will try anything.

Getting Off

• If you’re unsure of where to get off the bus you can ask the Ayudante to let you know when your stop is coming up and he’ll be happy to do so.

• If your bag has been stowed above the bus in the roof racks make sure you remind the Ayudante to retrieve it when you get off the bus. If not, the bus may very well drop you off and be on it’s way again before you’ve taken two steps.

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