How Safe are Guatemala’s Chicken Buses?

Choosing to travel by the brightly colored, old American school buses while backpacking around Guatemala (or any Central American country for that matter) is certainly intriguing to most travelers.

These chicken buses feel like a party on wheels – especially with all that crazy whipping around corners, and extreme stops and starts. Or, maybe that's what makes them an unsafe choice of transportation?

We take a look at the ins and outs of various public transport options in Guatemala, including the ever-so intriguing chicken buses.

Concerns for Safety on Chicken Buses

The fact chicken buses are old school buses from the US should raise some concern. Maintenance is always an issue, and it's said that faulty brakes are responsible for a chicken bus crash that occured in January 2011 – unfortunately, the bus crashed into a ravine near San Marcos, killing 14 paramilitary persons (no tourists).

Actually, the concern is less about old bus parts themselves, than the treatment and control of passengers and reckless driving on some of the worst roads (which are often one-lane and on mountain sides) in the world. Reports claim that the overcapacity of a bus in March of 2008 led to the brakes faltering, and a bus running off a ravine near Guatemala City, killing 45.

While these accidents are gruesome, they are actually few-and-far between, considering how many chicken buses are running throughout the country at any given moment.

Chicken Bus Concerns for Travelers

It's recommended not take a chicken bus when it appears to be too crowded, or once the sun has set.

If you ride a chicken bus throughout Guatemala, you may be hanging on for dear life at every corner, but the real concern for travelers (according to the owner of a transportation association in Guatemala) is when a traveler doesn't speak Spanish, and therefore pays too much for a trip – which goes for any type of transport in Guatemala.

To avoid overpaying, ask locals for rates and pay attention to what the locals are paying before handing your fee to the assistant. Once you open your mouth to ask, they may see the opportunity to gouge prices.

Buses outside of Guatemala City are genearlly safe when it comes to robbery (who wants to rob a bus full of poor people?), but inside the city are well-known for being taken advantage of regularly by gangs, especially after dark. Instead, take a proper taxi or private shuttle throughout all zones of Guatemala City.

One major concern of travelers in Guatemala, is the safety of their luggage on top of the chicken buses. As with any travel, having a day-pack with important items with you at all times is wise. However, a traveler said he once used chicken buses with luggage on top more than 100 times during his stay in Guatemala. Every single time, his luggage was returned to him safe and sound.

Alternative Transport to the Chicken Bus

Numerous forms of transportation are available in Guatemala – including everything from boats and tuk tuks to private shuttle vans and taxis.

If you're traveling from Guatemala City to Flores (near Tikal), take the popular flight, which will save you heaps of time.

Tuk tuks are readily available in small towns across the country, but a transportation association lists shuttles and private vans as the safest modes of transport. Getting held up would typically be a matter of the driver making sure that the van is in the 'right' place at the right time.

A tuk-tuk flies past the Santa Catalina arch, Antigua. Photo credit: iStock

Transport Issues in Guatemala

Traffic in Guatemala City is notorious for accidents. One traveler online notes seeing two car accidents on a short 12km drive from the airport. To avoid traffic, it is best to avoid peak hours and head out early in the morning if possible.

The Western Highlands – the mountainous side of Guatemala – should be driven with extreme caution, as roads tend to have sharp curves and narrow lanes. Even the route to Antigua from Guatemala City can be littered with rock slides and debris, and this is even worse during the rainy season from April to October.

Locals warn against walking or driving around Lake Atitlan because of bandits, who are quick to rob tourists. The boat taxi from San Pedro to Panajachel is recommended instead.

Farm animals, such as cows, on the road are a concern in the rural areas of the country, giving just another reason to take extreme caution when behind the wheel.

The Pan-American Highway has been in the process of an upgrade for a while, but throughout the process, has seen effects of landslides dumping huge amounts of rock and dirt on the road, closing lanes along the journey between Quetzaltenango (Xela) and Guatemala City. Be prepared for debris, construction and delays at any time.

Couple eating food with chopsticks and smiling

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5 Comments

  • Shuttles in Guatemala said

    It's really easy to travel in Guatemala. Travelers can find a lot of shuttle transportation from tourist attractions.

  • fabian said

    nice introduction to chicken buses. I actually loved using them and did so a lot. I never had any problems in terms of pick pockets or robbery but of course you shouldn't leave any valuables in your big backpack. always keep everything important very close to you.
    here are my experiences taking chicken buses:
    http://www.travelpixelz.com/guatemala-chickenbus-madness/

  • Radu said

    Hello! I made a video about taking the chicken bus from Guatemala City to Antigua: https://youtu.be/gjIrmEDprEI

    I think the bus is “safe enough” if you take it around lunch (when it’s not that crowded so you can take the backpack inside with you, not stored on the roof) and try to sit in front (locals told me it’s safer). For 10 quetzals + 1 quetzal for the Transmetro bus which takes you to El Trebol, it’s a bargain compared to the price of the shuttle (around 80 quetzals).

  • Virginia said

    I took a chicken bus once, from Antigua to Lake Atitlan. I tried to fit all my things in my backpack and kept it with me in the bus. It was cheap and not very crowded. It's a good way to stay with locals, who usually are not very open. I then took mini vans for longer distances but the van from semuc champey to flores was very busy and we had problems with brakes. I suggest booking a van with a good travel agency. I felt always quite safe. Maybe I was only lucky. The area around the lake sometimes felt unsafe, especially less touristy places.

  • trekkingwithtracy said

    I've been visiting my family in Guatemala my entire life. I think I have ridden a chicken bus once in over 30 years. Uber has been around in Guatemala City the last 2 years and is another great and affordable way to get from point A to point B. Google maps/location services don't work as well there, so make sure you accurately indicate your location on the map when pinning your pickup location. If you rent a car in Guatemala City (make sure you have quick reflexes i fyou do as often cars are in poor condition with malfunctioning lights or turn signals, the traffic can be overwhelming, not to mention the occasional goats/stray dogs crossing the road), Waze works well most of the time. Even with Waze you should always make sure to know exactly where you are going ahead of time. If using Uber, be prepared to call your driver and provide some landmarks if they can't seem to find you. I would also suggest avoiding being on the roads late at night as this increases the potentials risks of accidents or crime.

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