One of the joys of living in Guatemala is being able to travel between picturesque locations using Guatemala’s public transportation system. Oh, wait… Did I say “joy”? I meant to use the words “terrifying,” “hair-raising,” “nerve-wracking,” and any other scary word that ends with “-ing.” If you want starry-eyed romantic accounts of chicken bus rides, check your local library’s fiction section – I mean, the big name travel guides.
Yesterday was my turn to once again head to Guatemala City to extend my 90-day Guatemala Tourist Permit. Which is why I think this is an excellent opportunity to clue you in on what goes on with public transportation here. I’m not going to rehash what happened in Belize to my beloved Jeep and why I’m now routinely hanging out the door of overcrowded chicken buses. You can read all the gory details here.
In a way, not having a car has added another dimension to the overseas experience. When you think about it, our cars are just like space capsules, because that’s how we move through the landscape – detached from everything, insulated from the harsh realities outside our windows. Hot outside? Cold? Raining? It doesn’t matter. Because when I’m in a car, I have this little knob right in front of me that will make weather irrelevant and temperature bend to my will. Same goes for any smells, offensive or not, or the sounds of the street, which I can drown out with music that is as foreign to the landscape as I am.
Can’t lie, that’s not my style. I don’t have a spot on an expat seminar to sell you either – take what I say with a grain of salt anyway. Being “car-less” in a Central American country can be both a pleasant and a stressful experience. I say “pleasant” because just like most people in college, I’ve learned to master the art of how to lower my standards early on in life – which I recommend if you’re to enjoy a long-term stay here.
“Chicken buses” are light-years away from their air-conditioned, spacious, carbon-monoxide-free American counterparts. US’ public buses could stand in for a hospital waiting room in most cases. Just pipe in a little Barry Manilow through the speakers and feel free to take a nap. Just don’t be surprised if you wake up next to a naked man, something highly unlikely to happen here.
Quick recap: What is a “chicken bus”? Remember that big yellow school bus that used to take you to and from school when you were in public school? Well, I’m sorry to be the one that had to break it to you, but that bus didn’t turn into the “Magic School Bus” when it got older or retire to a bus farm somewhere in Idaho. That bus became a drag queen and moved to Guatemala.
If your home base is in Antigua, you won’t find a cheaper mode of transportation than the chicken bus. What’s that? What about walking, you say? Pffft! As if! Well, not if you come from Florida, where the longest walk of the day stretches from front door to a curbside mailbox. But to answer the question, yes, walking is a highly desirable mode of transportation in Antigua. I’ve found it to be **gasp!** even enjoyable. But back to chicken buses.
Cost of Chicken Bus Fares
If you live in any of the outlying communities around Antigua, a chicken bus ride is a way to go. At 2Q-4.5Q ($0.37-$0.43), riding the chicken bus is almost as cheap as an ObamaPhone (or a ReaganPhone, if you want to be “fair and balanced” about it). For the most part, chicken buses deliver if you think of them as cheap shuttles to get into and out-of-town.
The adventures start when you want to leave another bubble – Antigua proper. A chicken bus from Antigua to Guatemala City currently costs 10Q ($1.25) one way. Children ride free if you can carry them on your lap the entire way – a snag that has kept me from traveling to Guatemala on my wife’s lap so far.
You can go as far as a Panajachel (Lake Atitlan) for only 30Q ($4) from Antigua. Not everyone has the money to pay for the $10+ (80Q+) private shuttles to Lake Atitlan, so chicken buses are the only viable mode of transportation. Not much, you say? For some perspective, there are people here that attempt to survive on 2Q ($0.25) a day. For those shiny, government-subsidized, modern green buses that crisscross Guatemala City, the fare is only 1Q ($0.12).
Rollercoaster of Doom
Since Antigua lies in a valley surrounded by mountains, getting to Guatemala City means that everyone, including buses, has to negotiate the steep hill known as Las Cañas (check out a great picture of Las Cañas here). To make up time (more trips = more passengers = more $$$), chicken bus drivers treat this hill as their Formula 1 racetrack. Yes, accidents happen all the time here, to the surprise of exactly no one.
Trust me, you will be using those handlebars on the seat right in front of you. Whatever you do, hang on to that metal bar and don’t look out the window at the steep drop-off a few feet away. The abyss won’t just stare back at you; it will at the same time taunt you and ask you to bring some tortillas with you. You’ve been warned.
Into the City
Once the bus has made it up the hill to San Lucas, it’s time for the same bus to go downhill into the city. The threat here is not the drop-offs, but the occasional gang members that board buses to relieve passengers of their possessions – this usually happens whenever a bus passes through a lonely stretch of road. Thankfully, the added Police presence has had the effect of both making hold-ups go away and drivers to slow down. A win all around.
Once you’ve made it past the lonely stretch of road, past San Lucas, at the start of the downhill slope, you can relax – slightly. Our bus drove us merrily along Roosevelt Avenue, home of WalMart, Cemaco (the Guatemalan version of Target in the US), and Miraflores, the nicest mall/movie theater closest to Antigua. Roosevelt Avenue was also the playground of a band of carjackers and rapists that terrorized women at night for well over a year, a couple of years ago. Another good reason not to be in the city late at night, if you can help it.
We had to switch buses if we wanted to arrive at the Dirección General de Immigración (Immigration Building). Thankfully, my wife was guiding us the whole way. To me, streets in Guatemala City and its bus routes are as easy to navigate as trying to figure out the layout of a bowl of spaghetti. Eventually, we landed at “El Trebol,” which means “The Cloverleaf” (it’s a cloverleaf interchange – apparently an Engineering Department intern was tasked with naming it).
As soon as we got out of the Antigua chicken bus, I felt as if I was in the movie “Avatar.” Only instead of beautiful flowers that light up when you touch them, I saw trash of all colors, and instead of a fragrant jungle mist, we were enveloped by the smell of stale urine.
The truth is, El Trebol is one of the most dangerous places in Guatemala City to be caught wandering in. While OK during the day if you keep your wits about you and do your best imitation of an Olympic speed walker, don’t ever think about walking through here at night. Pickpockets and drugged-out aggressive people make this their favorite gathering place.
As we walked to the next bus stop, I noticed my wife had shifted her walking gears to one much faster than I’d ever seen her use in Antigua. She told me this was not a good place to be, so she advised we best get through it as soon as possible. I was inclined to disagree – people were walking about, seemingly unconcerned. But I knew we looked very out of place, so I kept my mouth shut and quickened the pace. My wife once saw someone shot in the face by motorcycle-riding hit-men here, so I understand her apprehension.
We ended up walking, uneventfully, roughly ten blocks from where the Antigua chicken bus dropped us off at the El Trebol bus terminal/street market. If you ask the driver, they will drop you off right at El Trebol, though on the other side of the street, underneath an underpass. You’ll have to double back for a couple of blocks to use the walkway and go up the hill to reach the Transmetro Station at El Trebol.
Alternatively, you can catch a Red Bus (1Q) with the sign “El Trebol” on its windshield. Step off at the last stop, right before it enters the cloverleaf – or ask the driver to be let off at “El Trebol/Metro” stop. Red buses don’t make a change, so make sure to have the exact currency.
In the hierarchy of public buses, the Transmetro is king. These lime-green buses are the safest, cleanest, cheapest, and fastest mode of transportation inside the city. They have dedicated travel lanes and Police Officers stationed at every stop. Occasionally, Police Officers will also ride along.
Transmetro fare costs 1Q (they only accept 1Q coins). You can ride a TransMetro bus indefinitely and as long as you don’t “exit” the system because bus transfers are free at designated transfer stops. For purposes of travel to immigration, Plaza Barrios is the transfer stop you want. A transfer is as simple as exiting one bus and jumping on the bus that’s heading in the opposite direction at the other side of the station.
Another type of bus is the blue Transurbano bus, which goes further than Transmetro buses. To ride a Transurbano, you need a plastic card, which is re-loadable with credit. Foreigners can apply for a card as long as you show your passport. Fares on the Transurbano are only 1Q, but unlike Transmetro, they won’t accept change on these buses.
As for our ride in the Transmetro, it was quick and pleasant. We took the orange line bus towards Plaza Barrios stop (El Calvario stop would also work) and there, switched to green line bus heading to Exposiciones stop (4 Grados Sur bus stop also works, just walk three blocks ahead), which dropped us off almost right in front of the Immigration Office. You’ll have to double back two blocks from Exposiciones to reach the Immigration building. If it makes it easier, look at the bus route map here (new window).
When TransMetro was first introduced, Red Bus owners and drivers were not pleased. At all. They suspected that cleaner, safer, cheaper buses were going to upset their business model, which mainly consisted of providing atrocious service and increasing rush-hour fares illegally from 1Q to 5Q.
In the end, TransMetro won out, and Red Buses lost, simply because Red Bus owners have more pressing things to worry about, namely having their drivers being routinely shot in the head.
As I mentioned, one of the things that make driving in Guatemala City so confusing is its street layout. Blame it on the smart people who decided to turn four-lane, median-divided streets into one-way streets. Even when you turn onto the right road, you can still end up on the “wrong” side, making it impossible to make a turn in the right direction. Of course, this plays havoc with trying to follow a logical bus route anywhere. Often, one is forced to take an entirely different route. The bus stop you may have to use on your return may be up to half a mile away. Fortunately, it’s not that hard if you’re returning from Immigration offices.
While a faster way to catch return to Antigua is to take a red bus (or Diablo Rojo – Red Devil, as they’re known), I don’t recommend it. I’ve done it – details are below.
It’s much easier – and safer – to walk two blocks over to 7a Avenida and board the green line bus at Plaza de la Republica stop. When you get to Plaza Barrios, just do the reverse and jump on the orange line bus on the other side, which is Trebol bound. Only this time, get off the bus one stop before you get to El Trebol, at Santa Cecilia stop. Cross the walkway to your right and walk a block towards El Trebol stop, always staying on your right. Antigua-bound buses will be waiting at the bottom of the hill before you get to the walkway that crosses over Roosevelt Avenue.
I avoid Red Buses whenever possible. My first experience was enough to make me steer clear. It so happened that two “shady” characters got on the bus to “solicit” donations. There was nothing to suggest either of the two young men had any disability that would prevent them from seeking work. It was very much implied that donations were best if they were “voluntary.” Alrighty then. Gave them a couple of coins and off they went. Even street sellers, who board buses to sell candy, chocolate, and other assorted items, make mention of this implied threat during their initial pitch:
“I could be like those other guys, who steal and take your belongings, but I’m not going to do that… today. Here’s some candy you should buy…”
Lately, there’s been a rash of attacks on Red bus drivers, which are due to extortions. Typically, a gang will demand that ever-escalating payments be made to them to guarantee the “safety” of the driver. If the extortion request is not paid, gangs will send out hit men on motorcycles to kill drivers and onboard fare collectors (ayudantes).
It’s gotten so bad that bus drivers have shut down certain routes until the government finds a way to make sure they’re safe, stranding thousands of commuters in the process. Some owners have taken matters into their hands and hired armed security guards to ride behind the driver.
I have a feeling that the driver of the particular bus we boarded was on edge. Every motorcycle that whizzed by the driver had him jumpier than a teenage girl watching a horror movie with the lights off.
The driver was determined not to be a sitting duck, and at the slightest of openings in the flow of traffic, he would floor the bus to make headway. Mind you that these buses are the size of a small mobile home. I would’ve thought the presence of an armed guard right behind him, carrying a sawed-off shotgun, would’ve put the driver at ease, but I guess not.
In retrospect, it wasn’t the brightest idea to take pictures of jumpy guys, one of whom is holding a shotgun. Especially when they’re are expecting to be shot at any minute from a random vehicle. Which is why the guy is intently watching my every move via the rear-view mirror, I later noticed. It’s never a good idea to sit behind – or near – a bus driver if in Guatemala City.
Skittish bus driver
Thankfully, we made it to the bus stop where we were to take the bus to Antigua. End of story, thanks for coming, right?
Not by a long shot.
Chicken Bus Races
We waited in front of Miraflores Mall for an Antigua-bound bus. One came by almost immediately. Once aboard, we looked for an empty seat. Everything seemed normal, except for that horrendous Mexican music drivers love playing at a higher-volume-than-usual. Whatever. We just wanted to get home.
What had been a relatively peaceful ride in the past turned into a dangerous game of chicken in a flash.
Chicken bus drivers often compete with one another to catch fares. There are rules, though. It’s seen as bad chicken bus driver etiquette for one driver to overtake another one on the same route. Some drivers don’t care, while others take this as an affront to their manhood.
We knew we were riding with the latter-type driver when we saw another bus overtake his. The offending bus driver might as well have had an enormous middle finger painted on the back of the bus along with an image of Calvin urinating on Real Madrid’s soccer club logo. (In Guatemala, one either cheers for Real Madrid or Barcelona. It doesn’t matter if you don’t give a hoot about soccer, you have to pick a side. I’m partial to Barcelona if you care to know.)
So off our bus driver went, mashing on the accelerator, determined not to let the offending chicken bus steal fares that were divinely appointed for him. A dangerous game of chicken ensued, each driver cutting off the other – at full speed, in the middle of rush-hour traffic.
This game of chicken lasted for a few minutes until everything came to a head after an ill-timed swerve by the offending bus. There was a loud **THUNK** and immediately both buses stopped in the middle of one of the busiest roads in Guatemala City. I was fully expecting a brawl to break out, maybe even witness shots being fired.
I took my iPod out to record what would happen, never mind that if shots did fly, the window I was pressing my nose against to catch the action would do nothing to protect me. Relatively few angry words were exchanged between the drivers, who proceeded to gesticulate wildly. The whole “fight” lasted less than 15 seconds. Not even worth uploading to YouTube.
It seemed like the offending bus driver got the message because he never attempted to overtake our bus again.
Our troubles were far from over, as now our chofer drove as angrily as I’ve ever seen any driver do it. Our well-practiced handle grip got a workout, as we spent the next half hour being whipped around every curve the road threw at us.
Finally, the driver seemed to calm down after he switched the station to Real Madrid’s soccer game. He was downright Driving Miss Daisy during the broadcast. While Real Madrid eventually went on to lose the game, the game’s outcome wasn’t decided until we were already on the gentle cobblestones of Antigua, rather than still navigating the steep hill and curves that lead to Antigua.
And that’s how our little adventure ended on this particular day. Granted, this was more action than we typically see when we go to the city. Most chicken bus rides are pleasant, forgettable affairs, as was my first solo trip to pick up my passport at the Immigration office.
Is it safe to ride public transportation in Guatemala? In Antigua, sure! Outside, the odds are in your favor nothing will happen. Just as long as you keep your wits about you, and PLEASE refrain from doing something dumb, like taking pictures of jumpy bus drivers.