How We Roll

Chicken Bus - Guatemala

Sometimes referred to as “chicken buses” because of their occasional use to transport poultry as well as people, these colorfully painted former school buses form the backbone of the public transportation system throughout much of Central America. There are other ways to get around, but traveling the way locals do has many virtues; not least of which is cost.

One thing we’ve come to realize is that people’s sense of “value” is deeply rooted in their ordinary experiences. If a two-hour, one-way, Greyhound bus ride typically costs us $30 U.S. in the states, then we come to think of that as a reasonable price for a two hour bus ride. What should a similar ticket cost in Belize, or Guatemala? It’s hard for foreigners to know. We’ve encountered a small army of people trying to take advantage of that ignorance.

The tourism industry here has developed a surprisingly keen understanding of the prices we’re used to paying for services. Whether for meals, transportation, or tours, there are no shortage of ways to spend like an American, even in Central America. The trick to mostly (but not entirely) avoiding that fate, is to get away from the offerings of the tourism industry.

Traveling from Belize City to San Ignacio, for example, we were quoted a price of $70 U.S. for two tickets on a private shuttle. We chose to make our way to the bus station instead, where this spiffy green school bus took us the same distance for 7 BZE, or approximately $3.50 U.S.

Chicken Bus - Belize

Similarly, once in San Ignacio, we could have chartered a shuttle to whisk us across the border and straight to Flores, Guatemala, for 260 BZE ($130 US). Talking to locals we stitched together an alterative five part strategy involving a bus, a taxi, some walking, a collectivo and a tuk-tuk. The added complexity saved us about $115 US; equivalent to nearly six nights hotel in Guatemala.

Along the way we got to meet some locals and experience a slice of their daily life, which is part of why we’re here. There’s so much more character in riding the local transport, with its pumping reggae and Latino tunes, than the sterile efficiency of a tourist shuttle. We also achieved a sense of accomplishment in walking across a strange border and making our way completely on our own.

So far we’ve used local transport five different times and have yet to meet another tourist on board (or, sadly, a chicken either). That doesn’t mean we’ll never take tourist transportation. Sometimes speed, efficiency and safety are worth the cost in dollars and in lost experience. But when we can, we’ll choose to eat and move like locals. That’s just how we roll.

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14 Comments on “How We Roll”

  1. Rev. Paul McKay March 7, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    Man, you guys can squeeze a dollar to death, lol! That’s good though; I’m going to school on how you pay your way for future reference.

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  2. customtripplanning March 7, 2012 at 9:24 am #

    My daughter and her husband are currently in Indonesia on a local ferry that is taking 2.5 days to get from point A to point B in their month long trek of that area. No other communication other than periodic GPS uplinks (always showing them in the middle of the water LOL). Given the political nature of the area we had suggested they limit any communication, but will be posting a lot on my blog when they return home home the end of April.

    I agree the ONLY way to understand the culture is to mix with it. Not everyone is comfortable doing it as deeply as you are, but even for Bermuda shorts clad, socks and sandals travelers, there are ways that will enhance without discomfort.

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  3. Pat Bean March 7, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    I love the buses. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Betty Londergan March 7, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    Love it!! I talked my husband into taking the Chinatown bus from DC to Philly on Friday ($24 for both of us vs. $180 on the stupid Amtrak) … and then on the super popular Bolt Bus from Philly to New York on Saturday (free wi-fi, super clean and totally on time –for $30 vs. $160 on stupid Amtrak) ..so like you guys (even stateside) I am in a bus kinda mood. And like you said — it’s just the way we roll!

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    • Rev. Paul McKay March 7, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

      wow, that’s good advice for my september vacation tramping around the Northeast on my USA vacation in September, Betty. Never been above a bus ride and clean as well as bargain is always the best to know in advance.

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  5. Susan Johnson March 8, 2012 at 1:27 am #

    I rode busses in Guatemala back in the early 90’s. I went there 5 times . Used to buy stuff in Guat. and bring it back to states to sell. Great way to realy see the country and get to know the people . Beautiful country !!

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  6. Adrian B. March 8, 2012 at 10:21 am #

    Wow! You two sure know how to save serious money on the road 🙂 And what other better way to get to know the locals than living like them? Great job!

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  7. Brock - Backpack With Brock March 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

    Local transportation is a must – seems like you saved so much money!

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  8. Atari March 9, 2012 at 1:11 am #

    The buses are an awesome alternative, what with getting steeped in all the local colour–just watch out on those mountain roads!

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  9. Jeff & Sheryl Bright March 9, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

    You two really know how to make the most of the experience. Part of me would love to do that, but the other part is nervous outside my comfort zone.

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    • Brian March 9, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

      It’s OK to be nervous. I think that is the very definition of “outside your comfort zone.” But it’s a wonderful feeling to work through that and have your comfort zone expand as a result.

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  10. Deano March 11, 2012 at 12:03 am #

    One of my fondest memories was travelling across the Sinai desert in Egypt in the middle of the night in a local mini bus I had negotiated a deal for a very rag tag bunch of travellers…..myself, a Swiss Chef, a German girl obsessed with Techno music, 2 nuns, and a couple of other random backpackers. This was in 1997, negotiated under intense pressure from all these touts in a parking lot near Suez, some serious bargaining and a great deal was had!

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    • Brian March 11, 2012 at 9:53 am #

      Very cool. So much more interesting, a far better memory, and story, than if you had paid a tour company to whisk you to the sites.

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  11. Emily March 11, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    We enjoyed our “chicken bus” trip from Belize City to and from Placencia recently. We only saw a couple of other tourists traveling this way and were surprised. Sure, it takes longer, but the scenery was great, and the price couldn’t be beat. Made these 50-somethings feel like 20-somethings again too!

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