Traveling Across Belize and Guatemala on a Chicken Bus
If you’ve never crammed into a tiny van with no air conditioning and a bunch of Guatemalans, you should try it. You’re missing out.
This summer, my kids and I spent just under three weeks in Belize and Guatemala. I had researched transportation before our trip and had found that traveling by bus was the recommended way to travel. It was cheap and mostly efficient.
So it was with that recommendation that we found ourselves at the bus station in Belize City shortly after our flight landed.
We arrived at the bus station, and several men greeted us as soon as we stepped out of our taxi. They tried to direct us, appearing to know what we needed more than we did. I walked past them to look for the ticket counter, but I soon realized that there wasn’t a ticket counter–the men were legitimately trying to help us. The bus to San Ignacio was out front, getting ready to pull away from the station, so we hopped on.
As we stepped onto the bus, the ticket seller, stacked the kids’ suitcases near him at the front. The kids quickly found an empty seat where they could sit together, and I sat across the aisle with a Belizean woman, my backpack overhead. As soon as we found our seats, the fun began.
Chicken busses, as they are called in Belize and Guatemala, are retired U.S. school busses. The same small seats with the ugly brown vinyl. The same bumpy ride. The same latch windows, except our bus had all the windows all the way down and had a loud speaker system that blared Latino music. The wind whipped my hair, the music pounded my ears, and Oliver, my 10-year-old, somehow managed to fall asleep.
Each time we came across a person on the side of the road, the bus would stop to pick them up. This eased my concerns as we planned to get off the bus at the zoo and later stand alongside the road in hopes of another bus stopping to pick us up. It now didn’t seem like a big deal, but when I read about it, I couldn’t help but think, What? We’re going to stand along the road until a bus stops to pick us up?!
Now this seems completely reasonable–you stand along the road, and a bus will pick you up. Easy. And that’s exactly our experience. We loved the zoo. We stored our luggage in a locker. We enjoyed a nice lunch. When we were ready to leave, we walked towards the road with our luggage in tow. Almost as soon as we got there, a bus rounded the corner, and we were on our way to San Ignacio once again.
After our stay in San Ignacio, we took a cab to the border where we encountered no problems going through customs. We exited to Guatemala, hoping to find transportation to continue our journey to Flores. Almost instantly, a young teen with perfect English approached us. He was from Honduras and had moved to Belize for work. He was so charismatic and walked with us to the bus for Flores.
Only instead of a bus, we were led to a passenger van that I would guess could comfortably hold 15 or so passengers. Our luggage was strapped to the top, and then I looked into the van, which I would argue was already full. The boy assured us that there was room. The kids found space in the back row, and I sat by the door near the front. At first, I thought my seat was pretty good, but as we continued to let people on (how this was possible, I still don’t know), I found that the money collector stood hunched over my right shoulder, half in the van, half out of the van. He was so close I could feel him breathing on my neck.
We continued to stop and pick people up in the same fashion that we had in Belize. At times, I thought we’d have to drive by because we couldn’t possibly fit anymore. Every time I was wrong. Every. Single. Time.
At one point, we veered off the main road. We turned onto smaller, more remote roads. When you don’t know the language, you don’t ever really know what is going on–you just hope for the best. Eventually, we found ourselves in a small village. There were chickens running around, children came up to the van, eager to see who was getting off. As people began exiting the van, I saw that a woman was holding a tiny baby. Another was holding a stack of eggs. How? I’ll never know.
We eventually made our way to a bus stop where everyone got out of the van. As Emma, Oliver, and I tried to get off, the driver motioned for us to stay put. Another man handed us our luggage and closed the door. I was confused, but we listened. Three men jumped in the front row, and they turned on the air conditioning. I couldn’t believe there had been air conditioning this entire time. Did I mention how hot is was?
After a fourth man jumped on, we took off. Me, the kids, and four Guatemalan men. We drove for a few minutes before the colorful island town of Flores appeared in the distance. We had made it.