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A Guide to Riding Chicken Buses in Central America

A Guide to Riding Chicken Buses in Central America

If you’re travelling in Central America on a budget you’re bound to end up riding a lot of chicken buses. These are old American school buses which have been brightly painted (or sometimes, creepily, left exactly as they were in their school days) and are used to transport locals from town to town. You could be forgiven for assuming they’re full of chickens, but that’s not actually the case. Keep reading to find out more and to get some tips on making your chicken bus experience a success.

Don’t give up your seat without a fight

Seats are like gold on chicken buses. You will have peace and balance in your life as long as you have a seat, so be very careful who you give it up to. There will always be someone more deserving of your seat – but only give it up in extreme cases. Most locals don’t seem to get up for old people, so unless someone is heavily pregnant or 100 years old they have to stand. Don’t people always say to follow the local customs? Yip, this is a good one to follow.

Don’t take up too much space

You’re probably thinking I’m really inconsiderate right now, so I’ll try to repair my reputation with this next tip. A lot of chicken buses have seats that can easily fit 3 (normal size) humans on them, but quite a lot of people (often tourists or rich folk) rudely take up too much space meaning only 2 can sit down. To me this is the height or rudeness (so much ruder than making a poor old lady stand up), so you should try and avoid it.

chicken buses get really crowded - don't give up your seat!

Don’t worry if you don’t have water or food (or medication, books, a belt)

So, you’re rushing to catch the bus and you forgot to eat breakfast, buy a bottle of water and put your belt on. Not a problem, the constantly rolling chicken bus market has you covered. You can pretty much buy anything on chicken buses – here are some things I can remember off the top of my head:

Toothpaste, soap, household cleaning products

Books, pens, cellphone credit

Fruit, vegetables, pre cooked meals, drinks, ice cream

Belts, tools (screwdrivers etc)

Medication (If Dr Chicken Bus MD can’t fix it you’re really screwed)

Electronics – this leads to my next point…

Don’t buy electronics on chicken buses

I learnt this the hard way. I bought a multi board plug thing (where you can plug in lots of cords using 1 wall socket – I have no idea what the official name for that is) for $3 on a chicken bus in El Salvador. I plugged it in and proceeded to use it for a few minutes before its light slowly faded and it left this cruel world – it also left me $3 out of pocket as obviously it didn’t have a warranty.

Get on at a bus station

Don’t fancy standing up in an incredibly packed bus while salesmen constantly push past you on the way to their customers? I can’t stress this point enough – you need a seat, and a sure-fire way to get one is to get on the bus at a bus station. If you wave a chicken bus down on the outskirts of a city you can almost guarantee it’ll be full – which means you’ll be in for an uncomfortable ride.

chicken buses lined up at Santa Ana bus station, El Salvador

Keep your friends close and your bags closer

I have a bit of a 6th sense when it comes to reading people and situations (actually, it’s my 7th; my 6th sense is seeing dead people). I never felt like my things were in danger while riding chicken buses in Central America, but it does pay to be careful. Try and keep you bags where you can see them and put your valuables on your lap. We also locked our bags for an extra layer of security. Sometimes it isn’t possible for your bags to ride inside the bus with you, so you’ll have to let them fend for themselves on the roof (it’s character building).

Don’t expect it to be a quick ride

Chicken bus rides in Central America are slow – really slow. You’ll stop every 100 meters to pick someone up/drop someone off and you’ll probably have to change buses at least once to get to where you’re trying to go. A trip that claims to be 200 km on Google Maps can easily end up taking you all day.

Further reading: Interested in bus travel in Latin America? Check out this series of posts on National Geographic about a guy who travelled by bus from Washington to the bottom of South America (we will have almost done something similar by the end of this trip – Mexico City to Patagonia).

Don’t expect to see many chickens

After riding chicken buses for a few weeks I was beginning to wonder why they were called chicken buses. Was it some kind of joke for Americans that I didn’t get? Was the word “chicken” actually Spanish for slow moving bus? No, they are called chicken buses because chickens get to ride (for free I’m assuming) with their owners – but it took me a long time to finally see one. I was standing up in a sea of Nicaraguans when I looked down at the seat below. A woman was casually sitting with a chicken on her lap and another in a bag by her legs. The one sitting on her lap looked pretty calm – like a baby along for a ride with its mum. After a while it began to scream – maybe it was a baby…

chicken buses - they are unavoidable in Central America!

Have you experienced chicken buses in Central America? Do you have any more tips? Let me know!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.


Friday 17th of July 2015

Once again, an amazing read. So damn direct and conversational. Love reading your writing, very informational and written to the point (detailed yet not deeeeeeeppppp) I wanted to know something. Which camera do you use for taking the snaps for your posts or otherwise?

Jon Algie

Saturday 18th of July 2015

Cheers Raymond! I use the cheapest Canon DSLR I could find and sometimes an Iphone/my girlfriend's camera - need an upgrade at some point.