When I first heard about the infamous chicken bus my first reaction was, as I imagine, the same as most people. I laughed.
Haha very funny, a bus with chickens! But really, how are we getting there?
Then it dawned on me… !bienvenido a la chicken bus gringa!
Just as my love for Central America grew, so did my love for the chicken buses. Riding on a chicken bus, though just a normal form of transport for most Central Americans, can be a totally out of this world experience. So, what are you waiting for?
Firstly, what the fudge is a chicken bus?!?
If you can imagine Xzibit from pimp my ride letting loose with an old American school bus whilst also becoming a devout catholic with a love for reggaeton, you can imagine a chicken bus. The combination is as odd and fantastic as it sounds. These souped up school buses are the heart of transport in Central America and are likely taking you from your a to b. They are loud, they are packed, they are noisy and sometimes they smell. However, they are never dull.
I can’t ignore the elephant in the room any longer…. why are they called a chicken bus?!?
I have heard various theories throughout my time but seeingly they are called chicken buses 1) because there may actually be real chickens and/or other animals in the bus with you and 2) becayse you are crammed on the bus so tightly you feel like a chicken in a cage. For locals however they are just called buses, so if you say un bus de pollo everyone will be confused.
How do they work?
Each bus will state on the front where they are going e.g Rivas. Nevertheless the bus drivers will shout the direction at anyone walking past the bus incase you were in doubt.
“Mananananananaaaaguaaa!” getting shouted in my face everyday somehow just made me fall in love with Nicaragua even more.
If you are looking for a definitive bus stop and you are not in a big city, you usually won’t be in luck. The bus stop may be a fruit stand or just a certain point in the road, so make sure you check it out on a map or ask someone before you get on a bus. If it is a longer distance bus (longer than an hour), there are usually designated bus stations to catch the bus from.
Whilst some buses have ‘times’ they are supposed to leave by most buses just leave when they are full. I have waited on a bus for an hour and a half till
it was full enough (translation: you could no longer move your arms) to leave, so if you have to be somewhere in a hurry please take much more time than you think you need, or just get a taxi!
Hop on the bus, the front or the back is fine. If you think you won’t fit, don’t worry they will make you fit. Usually the bus driver or the ticket man will ask you where you are going, and this is the time to ask how much the ticket is if you’re unsure. If you have a bag you can put it in the shelves above you (keep an eye on this but I’ll discuss this later). If it’s a big bag it will either go at the back of the bus with the other cargo and potential chickens, or someone will climb on top of the bus and secure it up there. So next time you’re on a chicken bus and you hear something above you don’t worry someone is just spidermanning up there.
So sit down (if you’re lucky) or stand and the bus will take off. Hold onto something tight because these drivers drive like they’re playing Grand Theft Auto!
At some point the tickets man will squeeze through the mounds of people to ask you to pay for your ticket. The tickets should usually stay the same price, however if you get a more unscrupulous ticket man, bad luck! In one chicken bus (I’m looking at you Rivas to Las Salinas bus) I heard the Nicaraguan man in front of me being charged half the price of my ticket. When I got off the bus and caught up with my friend (we’d been split up by the chicken bus crowd) who didn’t speak Spanish on the bus it turns out she had been charged twice as much as me (and x4 as expensive as local price!). Moral of the story, speak as much Spanish as you can, it will be cheaper for you! You won’t receive a paper ticket, but don’t worry the guy will usually remember your face. So when they come round again asking for payment just shake your head or say you’ve already paid. The driver will shout each stop they get to, and if you have a particularly nice driver or ticket man, or you look particularly green they will have remembered your stop and will shout directly at you to get off.
For some reason the only time people seem to be in a hurry in central America is on a chicken bus so when you get off, get off quickly! If not, they will drive off whilst you are still getting off – this happened to me in Costa Rica and whilst I felt like I was in mission impossible I actually hurt my ankle and I’m sure it looked much less impressive from the outside.
I recommend having the change ready before you get on the bus or having it somewhere that is easily retrievable. Also carrying a bit more than you think you need for occasions such as above is helpful. Trying to rummage through your backpack is not only annoying for you and the ticket man, it also draws attention to everything in your bag. This brings me nicely onto my next point….
But are chicken buses safe?!? The answer is usually yes! However, I would be lying if I didn’t say that if you are going to get mugged this is one of the more likely places for this to happen. Naturally when a bus is massively packed and you have people pressed up against you that are leaving and never to be seen again muggings are more likely to happen, much like in any metro in Europe. But there is no need to worry, like anything in life all you need is precautions!
- If you put your bag above you, make sure you can see it at all times.
- Make sure there is nothing valuable in your big bag that will be out of sight. Who knows what’s happening to it when its tied to the top of a bus!
- Keep all valuables hidden and if possible, on your person hidden below clothing. Do not flash valuables.
- Do not fall asleep unless you are in a group of people. So, if you’re feeling sleepy buying a coffee would be much less expensive than losing your stuff.
- Do not take a chicken bus after dark!!! Most people advise not travelling in any form (taxi, walking outside of safe areas) at dark in Central America and chicken buses are no different. There is a reason it is rare to see overnight buses in this area of the world. It is better just to stay a night in a stop-over area than take a chicken bus.
- Do not trust what people in the bus stations say (apart from the actual drivers). It is not uncommon to be told by untrustworthy taxi drivers that the bus you just so happen to want to take is not running or won’t leave for hours, so you’ll just have to take their (massively overpriced) taxi. They will come up to you and harass you, so a firm “no I am getting the bus” and walking away is the best way to deal with them. If you really need to work out some information either ask the drivers or locals who are also waiting for the bus.
A couple of unusual customs-
Ever felt hungry on a bus and wished you could buy food? Well worry no more! Chicken buses come with their own transportable shop of sorts. Tradesmen/women and children will come on the bus with big baskets filled with sweets, crisps, cakes, sodas and even sometimes phone accessories to sell. They are usually delicious, and a cold drink is needed on long trips! Depending on how long the bus stops for, you can even buy food from street vendors through the windows. Its truly a sight to behold and really handy! (this all happens quite quickly so I recommend having a fairly good grasp on Spanish before you try this out).
Machismo is often something complained about in Latin America, but it can sometimes come in handy (especially if your feet hurt). Due to cultural norms it is customary for men to offer you their seat on long journeys. The order of who gets priority of seats goes: 1) female children/ pregnant women 2) old women 3) all other women 4) young boys 5) old men and then 6) all other men. So don’t be surprised if an elderly man offers you their seat, it is good manners to take it and thank them.
Lastly don’t be surprised if someone else’s child ends up on your lap! Because the buses get so full there often isn’t room for both the mother and the child, so their child may end up sitting on you. Don’t worry this is perfectly normal, you have become the chicken bus baby-sitter for the journey.
Be safe and happy travels! x
If you are interested in reading more about travelling in Central America check out my other blogs about the region!