Monday, August 5, 2013

Colectivos and Chicken Buses

I know I've mentioned both colectivos and chicken buses as forms of travel I've used extensively since beginning my Central American travels. But I thought I'd explain a bit more to maybe give more insight into the culture of this type of transportation.

When you think about it, the concept of shared transport makes a lot of sense, especially in areas where people don't have a lot of money which makes owning their own cars out of the realm of possibility. Let me explain one more time how it works: Let's say you want to go somewhere, but the taxi ride there will cost $10 (just to use a nice, round number; that's actually quite a bit of money here). You don't have $10, but there are other people going the same general direction as you, so you all pool together to come up with the fare. (The only US example I can think of is people in Manhattan sharing a taxi. But I kind of think that mostly just happens on tv and in the movies?) You save money and you help the environment (one trip for the driver instead of multiple), but you definitely don't save time. You have to wait around until you have the necessary number of people to fill a particular vehicle - not so hard for a four person sedan, a bit harder for a shuttle bus or lancha, and quite difficult for a full size bus.

Chicken buses are only a little bit different, but there is a distinct difference. They're not exactly colectivos because they usually run to *some* type of schedule and will leave even if not full (because it most certainly will be soon enough). The countries of Central America are not particularly densely populated. (Sorry in advance, but you'll have to scroll about halfway down for that info. I was too tired to deal with learning that bit of html code.) Guatemala, the largest by population, comes in at #66 on the world population list. With people that spread out, it makes more sense that people would just hail a bus as it drives by (and just let the driver know when you're ready to get off). And how do people know the bus is coming without just waiting by the side of the road for potentially hours on end? Easy. The driver honks like hell as he drives down the road and if people come out, he stops. That's actually the most annoying thing about chicken buses for me because that horn is LOUD. In case you're wondering what these things look like:
(Converted school bus! One of mine the other day still had Kanawha County Schools - West Virginia - printed on the side.)
And a shot from the inside:
(Not my photo. From
I think the payment system on chicken buses is really interesting. There's a guy (almost always a guy, I think I've only seen a girl do the job once) whose job it is to shout down and gather potential riders, as well as handle all of the money. Usually a person or five or 10 will get on the bus, find their seats, and it's some time later before the money handler makes his way down the aisle to collect payment. He never watches where they're sitting so how he keeps track of everyone is pretty amazing. He also always remembers who's due change and where they're sitting, too (and people don't just stay in the same seats, either). I suppose it's not all that different from waiting tables and I did that for eight years, but it SEEMS different. :) On the bus leaving Coyolito from Isla del Tigre, there was even a kid who was in training. He and his mentor were so cute working together.

Earlier in this post, I talked about how sharing rides helps save money. For the solo traveler such as myself, this is one of the few times we're not getting the short end of the stick and having to pay more for traveling alone. It comes in handy...when it works. But when it doesn't, like for my lancha ride from Isla del Tigre, solo travelers are back to wishing they were traveling in a big group. Sure, it was only $2.50 that day, but the colectivo boat at Lake Atitlan is less than a dollar and the private one is more than ten times that, so it can make a difference.

Bringing it back around to the culture I also mentioned earlier, the common threads are waiting and sharing. The idea of "central America time" begins to make more sense when you realize people are used to waiting for things and waiting for an extra half hour past the scheduled departure time is just not such a big deal. Besides just sharing the fare, riders do also tend to share snacks and such as well, although not to nearly the extent that it's shared in India

So what do you think? If you were to ever travel in this part of the world, would you partake of the chicken bus experience or stick to the more expensive, private shuttle buses (I've used those, too!)? And if you've already traveled to this part of the world, did I do a good job explaining or is there more I should've added?

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(Also: happy birthday shout-out to my brother-in-law who never comments, but I'm pretty sure he's out there reading anyway. I'll have a Nicaraguan beer today in your honor!)


  1. I would probably elect the more-expensive option. That just all sounds very tiresome and loud to me.

    1. To be honest, if I only had a week or two, I'd probably opt for the more expensive option, too. But budgeting is a bit different for more long term travel...

  2. My option would be to rent a car. I know that you didn't mention that but you should have ��

    1. Hahahaha, it's cute that you think renting a car is an option. ;) I mean, it IS, but you've clearly never seen how people drive around here. They are *bonkers*. Also, see my comment above about budgeting and yada yada yada.

  3. Well I guess it's about time I chime in. Thanks for the shout out and the BEER. Sounds like your enjoying your time down there, can't wait to see you in September.