One of the joys of living in Guatemala is to glide along between picturesque locations using Guatemala’s public transportation system. Oh wait… Did I say “joy” and “glide along”? I totally 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 travel guide section.
Yesterday was my turn to once more head to Guatemala City to extend my 90-day Guatemala Tourist Permit. Which is why I think this is a good 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. We move through the landscape, as if in a spaceship. Hot outside? Cold? Raining? 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 seminar to sell you either, so take what I say with a grain of salt if you must. 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 totally 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 take a nap.
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 elementary 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. That bus… became a drag queen and moved to Guatemala. Life’s about choices, my friend.
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 the door to the 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 the way to go. At 3Q-3.5Q ($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”). And 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 9Q ($1.12) for one way fare. Children do not pay a fare if you can carry them on your lap the entire way – the snag that has kept me from riding to Guatemala on my wife’s lap.
You can go as far as a Panajachel (Lake Atitlan) for only 20Q ($2.50) from Antigua. Not everyone has the money to pay the 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 criss-cross Guatemala City, fare is only 1Q ($0.12).
Roller-coaster of Doom
Since Antigua lies in a valley surrounded by mountains, getting to Guatemala City means that everyone, including buses, have to negotiate the steep hill known as Las Cañas (check out a magnificent picture of Las Cañas here). In order to make up time (more trips = more passengers = more $$$), chicken bus drivers treat this hill as their own personal Formula 1 racetrack. Yes, accidents happen all the time here, to the surprise of exactly no one.
Trust me, you will be using the handle bars 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 call you down for tacos. 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 are not the drop-offs, but the occasional gangs that climb on buses to relieve everyone of their possessions as it passes a small lonely stretch of road. Thankfully, the added Police presence has had the effect of both making holdups go away and drivers slow down. A win all around.
Once you’ve made it past the lonely stretch of road in 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, last year. Another good reason not to be in the city late at night, or use ATMs there if you can help it.
In order to get to the Directoria General de Immigracion (Immigration Building), it was necessary for us to switch buses. Thankfully, my wife was guiding us the whole way. To me, the street layout of Guatemala City and its bus routes is as easy to navigate as trying to figure out the layout of a bowl of spaghetti. Eventually, we landed at “El Trebol”, which literally means “The Cloverleaf” (it’s a cloverleaf interchange – obviously 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 inside the movie “Avatar.” Only instead of pretty 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. 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, seeing that there were people walking around 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 get shot in the face by motorcycle-riding hit-men here, so I understand her apprehension.
We ended up walking, uneventfully, roughly 10 blocks from where the Antigua chicken bus dropped us off to the El Trebol bus terminal/street market.
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. The 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.
Another type of bus is the blue TransUrbano bus. They go 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 the TransMetro, they won’t accept change at the bus.
As for our ride in the TransMetro, it was a quick, pleasant. We took the bus towards the El Calvario Bus Stop and switched to the one heading to the Exposiciones Bus Stop, which dropped us off almost right in front of the Immigration Office.
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 largely consisted of providing atrocious service and illegally increased rush-hour fares that jumped from 1Q to 5Q. In the end, TransMetro won out and Red Buses lost, simply because Red Bus owners have other things to worry about, namely being shot in the head.
As I mentioned, one of the things that makes driving in Guatemala City so confusing is the 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 unto the right street, you can still end up in the “wrong” side of the street and unable to easily cross over unto the other side. This, of course, plays havoc on trying to follow a logical bus route anywhere. Oftentimes, one is forced to take a completely different route, much different to the one which one arrived in. The actual bus stop to return may be up to half a mile away, as was the case yesterday.
I avoid Red Buses whenever possible. My first experience was enough to steer clear. It so happened that two “shady” characters got on the bus to “solicit” donations. There was nothing to suggest either of the characters 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…”
Since the easiest way to catch the bus back to Antigua was a Red bus (or Rojo Diablo – Devil Red, as they’re known), we went ahead and boarded one.
Lately there’s been a rash of attacks on Red bus drivers. This is due to gang extortion. Typically, a gang will demand that ever-escalating payments be made to them to guarantee the “safety” of the driver. If the extortion payment is not complied with, gangs will send out hit-men in motorcycles to kill drivers and on-board fare collectors (ayudantes). It has gotten so bad lately, 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 own 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 bus had him jumpier than a teenage girl watching a “Saw” movie. He 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’s not the brightest idea to take pictures of jumpy guys, one of whom is holding a shotgun. Specially 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’ never a good idea to sit behind or near a bus driver if in the city.
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 on-board 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 has been a fairly peaceful ride in the past turned into a dangerous game of chicken in a flash. Chicken bus drivers often compete to catch fares and it’s seen as bad chicken bus driver etiquette for one bus to overtake another one on a route. Some drivers don’t care, 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. For all intents and purposes, the offending bus driver might as well have had a huge middle finger painted on the back of the bus along with an image of Calvin urinating on Real Madrid’s soccer club logo (here you’re either for Real Madrid or for Barcelona – doesn’t matter if you don’t give a hoot about soccer).
So off our bus driver went, mashing on the accelerator, determined not to let the offending chicken bus steal fares that were divinely appointed to him. As such, a dangerous game of chicken ensued, each chicken bus cutting off the other chicken bus. Full speed, in the middle of rush-hour traffic. This lasted for a few minutes, until everything came to a head when during an ill-timed cut by the offending bus. There was a loud **THUNK** and immediately both buses stopped. I was fully expecting a brawl to break out, maybe even shots fired. So 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 and 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 passed our bus again. But troubles were far from over, as now our driver drove as angrily as I’ve ever seen a driver take the wheel. 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, switched the station to Real Madrid’s soccer game, and was downright gentle 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 the steep hill and curves at its entrance.
And that’s how our little adventure ended on this particular day. Granted, this was more action than we normally see when we go to the city. Most chicken bus rides are pleasant, forgettable affairs.
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.