Buses go almost everywhere in Guatemala, and the buses will leave you with some of your most vivid memories of the country. Most of them are ancient school buses from the USA and Canada. Many travelers know these vehicles as chicken buses, after the live cargo accompanying many passengers. They are frequent, crowded and cheap. Expect to pay around Q10 to Q15 for an hour of travel.
Chicken buses will stop anywhere, for anyone. Helpers will yell 'hay lugares!' (eye loo-gar-ays), which literally means 'there are places.' The space they refer to may be no more than a sliver of air between dozens of locals mashed against one another. These same helpers will also yell their bus's destination in voices of varying hilarity and cadence; just listen for the song of your town. Tall travelers will be especially challenged on these buses. To catch a chicken bus, simply stand beside the road with your arm out parallel to the ground.
Some routes, especially between big cities, are served by more comfortable buses with the luxury of one seat per person. The best buses are labeled 'Pullman,' 'especial' or 'primera clase.' Occasionally these may have bathrooms (but don't count on them working), TVs and even food service.
Pullman routes always originate or end in Guatemala City.
In general, more buses leave in the morning (some leave as early as 2am) than the afternoon. Bus traffic drops off precipitously after about 4pm; night buses are rare and not generally recommended.
Distances in Guatemala are not huge and, apart from the Guatemala City–Flores run, you won't often ride for more than four hours at a time. On a typical four-hour bus trip you'll cover 175km to 200km for Q60 to Q100.
For a few of the better services you can buy tickets in advance, and this is generally worth doing as it ensures that you get a place.
On some shorter routes, minibuses, usually called 'microbuses,' are replacing chicken buses. These are operated with the same cram-'em-all-in principle and can be even more uncomfortable because they have less leg room. Where neither buses nor minibuses roam, picop (pickup) trucks serve as de facto buses; you hail them and pay for them as if they were the genuine article.
At least a couple of times a month, a chicken bus plunges over a cliff or rounds a blind bend into a head-on collision. Newspapers are full of gory details and diagrams of the latest wreck, which doesn't foster affectionate feelings toward Guatemalan public transportation.
While bus travel at night in Guatemala is rarely a good idea for anybody, it is strongly advised that solo female travelers not catch buses – Pullman or 'chicken' – at night time. Aside from the increased risks of road accidents at night, you strongly want to avoid being the last person on the bus when it arrives, if it's going to arrive at night.
If you rode the bus to school 10 years ago or more in the US, you might just end up meeting an old friend in Guatemala, resurrected and given new life as a 'chicken bus.' Love 'em or hate 'em, chicken buses (camionetas or parrillas to Guatemalans) are a fact of life in traveling around Guatemala. A lot of times there is no alternative.
As you can probably tell by the signs that sometimes remain in these buses ('anyone breaking the rules will lose their bus riding privileges'), these buses really did once carry school kids. In the US, once school buses reach the ripe old age of 10 years or do 150,000 miles, they're auctioned off. They get towed through the States and Mexico, taken to a workshop here where they are refitted (bigger engine, six-speed gearbox, destination board, luggage racks, longer seats) and fancied up with a paint job, sound system and chrome detailing.
Drivers then add their individual touches – anything from religious paraphernalia to Christmas lights dangling around the dashboard area. Some chicken buses now sport DVD players so you can watch loud, annoying movies just like on a real bus.
Thus, the chicken bus is ready to roll, and roll they do. The average bus works 14 hours a day, seven days a week – more miles in one day than it covered in a week back on the school run.
If you've got a choice of buses to go with, looks can be important – if the paint is fresh and the chrome gleaming, the owner is hopefully also spending on new brakes and regular maintenance. That said, many chicken-bus drivers treat the roads like a winner-takes-all rally track, and with regular accidents it's also worth noting that many Guatemalans also dub them busas de la muerte, or death buses. It can be fun catching one, but you don't nesessarily want to make a habit of it.