Public transport in Guatemala is certainly an experience.
Whilst road safety may not always be at the forefront of drivers' minds, local buses are cheap and offer a great opportunity to see a different side of this country's vibrant culture that can not always be found if solely relying on expensive tourist shuttles. Chicken buses (old American Bluebird school buses that have been given a second chance) and small minivans known as collectivos, are the most common ways of getting around. Whilst we strongly recommend using these to see the country, in our two months there, we certainly noticed a few eccentricities...
#1 there's no such thing as full capacity
There has been many a trip throughout this delightful country when we have been forced to become a little too well acquainted with a fellow traveller's anatomy - on a good day this may merely be their elbow, but on a bad day you may attain intimate knowledge of a crotch or two. The standard two-person per seat formation simply doesn't exist, our record was five people.
Handy little diagrams at the front of the bus indicating maximum sitting and standing passengers appear not to have made it to Central America. As we found ourselves wedged between six people, with limbs akimbo and hands we weren't entirely sure belonged to each other in close proximity to more private parts, it became startlingly obvious there is a differing concept of 'full capacity'.
#2 speed limits are only a guide
Give the driver an unpaved, pot-hole ridden dirt track and, if merely out of concern for their bus, they will adhere somewhat to speed limits. Yet apparently, hair pin bends or the inability to see two metres ahead in thick fog are only of secondary concern to some.
On a terrorising bus journey along the treacherous, serpentine Inter-Americana highway, our time was largely split between assessing the exit routes in the event of a crash and leaving permanent nail indentations on the seat in front. It's startlingly obvious that the road quality is the ONLY limitation to speed.
We did arrive 30 minutes early though... but just note that skid marks may be present in places other than the road.
#3 OVERTAKING IS A GAME OF CHICKEN
As fans of Grease, we're up for taking part in drag-races. However, when that drag race consists of two mini-vans - with a maximum acceleration of 50 mph - jockeying for first place side-by-side with a blind corner only 40 metres away, you feel less like John Travolta and more like a soon-to-be John Doe.
Chicken buses in Guatemala certainly require a show of strength!
#4 you can buy anything from bus stop vendors, viagra included
The Guatemalans have got something right here. Unlike back home, where service station breaks mean trudging across dark car parks in the rain to pay £4 for a stale sandwich or tepid Wild Bean coffee, here, at regular intervals friendly vendors will supply you with ice-cold water, fresh mango, tamales and.......viagra. We kid you not.
You don't get that in a BP Garage, but chicken bus journeys in Guatemala can clearly give you more than a stiff neck.
#5 a mechanic is rarely needed
No matter what noises or smells the car makes, it does not require a mechanic until the bus will not move. On more than one occasion we have heard a noise that can only suggest some essential part of the vehicle is about to fall off. Save a cursory glance out the window, this is largely ignored.
If this means your driver has to free wheel in neutral to make a few extra quetzales, so be it!
#6 a novel way of dealing with steep inclines
After a particularly traumatising experience involving an old moped, winding Balinese roads, two surfboards and limited gears, one of us is all too aware that not all motorised vehicles can defy the laws of physics; it appears that well worn collectivos and chicken buses can have a similar problem.
Whilst battling against an ever increasing incline on the way to Chichistenango, we were surprised when the driver stopped and directed the majority of his passengers to get out and join the already full van behind us (see point #1). The remainder of us were directed to the front to balance the weight and join collective prayers that we would make it to the other side.
Perhaps what was even more concerning is that the only thing stopping us from rolling back this steep incline was a strategically placed brick.
#7 wear a supportive bra.
As with safety belts, fully functioning windows and a fully functioning gear box, suspension appears is a luxury. To women everywhere with more than an A-cup, wear a supportive bra as riding the chicken bus in Guatemala can be akin to an aerobics class!
#8 there are disappointingly few chickens on chicken buses in guatemala
Save for a single hen tucked away under a variety of fruit and vegetables, we were dismayed to discover a distinct lack of livestock to share our journeys with. Not that we were expecting to see cockerels strutting up and down aisles, cock-a-doodling at regular intervals, but a few more feathered friends would certainly provide a little entertainment.
A paltry amount of poultry, one might say.
We also want to reassure potential travellers about using these buses. We've met a few people who had been completely scared off due to stories they'd heard or experiences they'd had. Guatemala does have bus robberies and thefts, absolutely, and if you read the local papers there's always at least one story about this.
All we can say is this: we travelled for over two months exclusively on this type of bus and…whether this was through pure luck or chance….nothing bad happened once. So, for every two bad experiences you've heard about, balance it out with both our positive ones.