A Chicken Bus Adventure from Antigua to Lake Atitlan

10 days after I arrived in Antigua I finally tore myself away to the next Guatemala destination on my list: Lake Atitlan. I had already begun to talk to people about staying longer in Antigua but felt like I needed some time away to wrap my head around this decision to stop moving. So I moved. On chicken buses.

Chicken buses are the generally accepted name for old school buses that have been on Pimp My Ride Latin America. They’re colorfully painted, decorated with stickers on the windshield, and outfitted with speaker systems that blast the local Latin music in your ears for the whole ride. People are packed into the seats six across, forcing the middle two to sit with half a butt cheek on a seat and the other hovering in the aisle. The classic joke “how many people can you fit on a chicken bus?” “one more” is entirely accurate. Speed limits don’t seem to exist in Guatemala in general, but even less so for chicken buses. On one winding mountain road it was a full body workout to keep myself from crushing the people on either side of me as I stood at the front of the aisle. The bus took turns like a rally car driver, forcing everyone to either hold on for dear life or play jello. Even the driver had to hold on on the turns.

The way to San Marcos La Laguna took four chicken buses and a boat. I started at the local market in Antigua and found the first bus to Chimaltenango. I sat in the last row on the bus so I could quickly jump out the back door when it was my turn to exit. I didn’t realize just how quickly I would have to jump. When we got to Chima a nice old man tapped me on the shoulder and pointed that it was time to get out. We were on the side of a busy highway intersection on the edge of town, was this really my stop? The back door swung open and someone asked me, “Donde vas?” “La Escuinta!” “Si aqui, la cruz a La Escuinta. Aca!” And he pointed at a bus that was hovering on the main road perpendicular to us. I threw my backpack on my back and jumped out the back of the barely even stopped bus and ran to the door of the next one. “La Escuinta?” “Si!”

I stepped onto chicken bus #2 as it started to accelerate to see that it was packed to the rim. My backpack found a home underneath the dashboard, held in place by a Guatemala police officer, as I found a place standing in the front of the aisle holding onto the metal rails. This was the workout ride when I thought we might go careening off the road at any turn. Every time someone passed me to get off I had to do a yoga move just to let them through.

The La Escuinta stop was another highway intersection. I jumped off one bus and found the bus to Pana (Panajachel). Finally I could calmly board a bus and wait for it to go. However this was not the bus to Pana but a bus to halfway to Pana, so without warning everyone got off and switched to another bus. Not calm anymore. Finally I made it to Pana.

The bus goes into the center of Pana to the market, but the boats are at the edge of town, so with the direction of “abajo” I walked 15 minutes back to the water’s edge. I don’t know why I expected more of a port – probably because Pana is the main tourist town on the lake and boats run from here to every town – but when I arrived I was slightly surprised by the small, rickety docks and boats. One final mini conversation consisting of location name and pointing at transport and I was on the boat to San Marcos. 30 minutes on rocky waters later I had arrived.

4 buses, 1 boat, 4 hours of travel, 46 quetzales, aka US$6.

It may sound stressful, but I actually found it entirely entertaining. I was laughing to myself most of the way. The chaos somehow works, and it made for a much more interesting ride than the shuttle.

The way back I took the same route with 4 buses, although the next time I was at the lake I had the patience to wait for the bus from Pana straight to Chimaltenango, cutting the ride down to 2. It was much easier that way for just 5Q more. But I’m happy to have done it the chaotic way the first time. Now I feel like I can go anywhere on these buses.



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