Guatemala: a bus ride from the mountains to the sea

Traveling between the country’s amazing nature beauties requires letting go to the adventure.

The bus lurched us from side to side; the mountainous ran-drenched dirt road that lay before us had become a collection of mud-filled potholes. I distracted myself by staring out the cracked window at the verdant valleys of Guatemala whizzing past.

It was a few days before Christmas and we found ourselves in the isolated mountain town of Lanquin, home to the strikingly unique waterfalls of Semuc Champey. Unseasonably heavy rain had belted down for three days and the roads were quickly turning into landslides waiting to happen, so we decided it was time to make a move.

From Lanquin most travellers have two options: head southwest to Coban or north to Flores. We had already come north through Coban, a foggy regional city surrounded by dense forest and coffee plantations. Flores was another eight hours north back towards Mexico where we had already spent enough time.

We’d heard through conversations with other travellers that a third option laid to the east. Rio Dulce, a far less visited corner of Guatemala full of cowboys and lush lowlands. There you can follow the ‘sweet river’ as it starts in Lake Izabel before spurting out into the Caribbean Sea. The swampy mangroves lured us in with tales of a rich west-Indian history and end-of-the-road vibes. But the roads are so bad in Guatemala that, as a rule of thumb, you must double whatever travel time they advertise. They’d told us four hours so that it meant it was going to be a long day.

The main mode of transport in Guatemala and indeed throughout most of Latin America is the infamous ‘chicken buses’. These are decommissioned American school buses, sent down south to be vibrantly repainted and used as unregulated transport between towns. Their drivers are always accompanied by an ayudante, the helper who collects money and manages luggage. Together, the driver and his ayudante earn a minuscule commission from space filled, thus, the buses don’t leave until their insides are crammed to the brim of human (and non-human) cargo and their roofs strapped down with more luggage than a Boeing 747.

There are seemingly no rules as to what you can bring onto these hulking machines, and sometimes passengers hop on with (you guessed it) live chickens, or once as we experienced, buckets of fish. Supposedly, about once a month a chicken bus makes an unscheduled stop at the bottom of a cliff, or hurtles around a corner head on into an oncoming semi-trailer.

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Chicken buses awaiting passengers

It’s about 7.45 in the morning as my partner and I approach the bus with our bulky backpacks on our shoulders. Some locals had told us the day before that the bus leaves daily at 8am from the out front of the local school.

Upon seeing two white backpackers, the enthusiastic teenage ayudante bounds up and offers to relieve us of our heavy bags. We graciously accept his offer but are sceptical as to how this slim boy could manage both at once.

We’re left feeling a bit silly as the kid, a bag in each hand, skilfully spider-monkeys his way up to the roof of the bus to loosely strap our luggage to railing. I try to keep a watchful eye on where he’s placed them, but before long our belongings have been lost in a sea of bundled baskets and tattered canvass bags. We ask if we need to buy the tickets now, but the young lad shakes his head and hurriedly gestures for us to board.

We clamber up the muddied steps as a sea of eyes stare at our foreign faces. The bus’s retrofitted radio blasts reggaeton, which competes with the hubbub of chatter from the slowly growing crowd of passengers. We luckily find two spots next to each other near to the front. The worn leather seats are sticky with an unknown grey goop, and the ground is awash with oil and mud. Around us are posters for evangelical churches and crisis centres for human trafficking.

As we wait for every available space to fill, a vivacious snake oil salesman dressed in an ill-fitting suit hops aboard. Admittedly, his briefcase of suspicious wares probably doesn’t contain literal snake oil, though he excitedly boasts that his miracle pills are the cure to all that ails you, from coughs to cancer. People bustle about him as his shouts his well-rehearsed speech in rapid Spanish. He concludes and eagerly makes his way down the aisle to source potential customers. He grins at us, the only non-Guatemalans, flashing his silver fillings. No, gracias, we politely decline his mysterious medicine. A middle-aged woman wrapped in a colourful Mayan shawl whistles him over and proceeds to buy two unwrapped pills for around four dollars.

It’s about 8.30 and I lean over to the pot-bellied driver who’s just sat down at the wheel and is sipping orange juice through a straw. I ask him if he knows when we’ll be leaving. He uninterestedly mutters between the straw and his yellowed teeth that it would about ten more minutes.

A girl of around fourteen finds a way to pop herself on the remaining inch of the seat next to my girlfriend. Despite the chilly mountain wind she’s dressed solely in a technicolour short-sleeved shirt and on her back she carries a tiny infant who could be her sibling or maybe her newborn. My girlfriend strokes the sausage arm of the baby who giggles in response. The girl shyly smiles but keeps her gaze low.

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The misty Guatemalan highlands

Thirty immobile minutes later and the young ayudante bounds onto the bus. He shouts a last few times our bus’s destination, and the driver cranks the bus into gear. We lurch forward under the weight of the small army aboard and the last stragglers rush up to take the last few squishy spots in the almost-full aisle.

The grumbling engine is deafening and every gear change seems to vibrate the entire bus. Fresh mountain air rushes through the open bus door, out of which the ayudante hangs yelling in a singsong melody:

Rio Dulce! Rio! Rio! Rio Dulce!

We leave the outskirts of Lanquin and begin our precarious descent from the Alta Vera Mountains toward the Caribbean. We past tuk-tuks and tiny shops selling the ubiquitous corn tortillas and Coca Cola. Every few hundred metres, the bus rolls to a halt and someone steps on or off. We hit bare mountain road and the ayudante cranks the lever to close the old school bus door. He makes his way along the rows collecting the fares. With one hand he carries wads of cash, with the other he holds firmly to bus’s shuddering handrail. As always, we try to pay close attention to how much the locals are paying. He reaches us and asks for fifty quetzales for the two of us. I hand him the exact cash — the equivalent of six dollars — and he grunts before continuing moving on.

We wobble along the washed out road, the uneven surface playing havoc with the bus’s worn-out suspension. Every bump and hole sways the bus like a boat in a storm, over whose oars we had no control. We both grip as tight as we can with both hands to the steel railing to prevent us from sliding off the vinyl seats. The driver hurls us around the tightest of corners, narrowly overtaking pickups and labourers carrying enormous piles of wood on their backs.

The radio pumps out what appears to be the same song on repeat at full volume. Across from us sits a man wedged against the window. He’s clutching a large cardboard box and has miraculously managed to fall asleep. His head rests on the box, blissfully immune to the juddering crowded vehicle on which he sleeps. I consult the map on my phone and realise we’ve barely made a dent in our journey.

Some time later we stop in small town and a crowd of passengers gets off, including the young girl and her baby. A couple of women board selling crisps and little bags of fruit. It’s early afternoon and, the motion sickness notwithstanding, we’re both rather hungry. We buy two bags of crisps and a banana each. The driver returns from the toilet, and clears is nose with a wipe of his hand and a colossal sniff. Grinning he shares some joke with the young ayudante and swings his heavy frame into his seat. No one new gets on so our bus kicks off down the dirt path.

The road begins to taper. I look out the window at the valley below that vanishes into the thick mist, as if inviting the bus and its hopeless occupants into its depths. With a jolt we stop abruptly on a matchstick width of mountain road. In front is a parked semi-trailer carrying half a forest’s worth of trees. Its driver notices that we can’t pass. The reverse lights come on and he begins to back down the slippery way he came. The oversize wheels spin ominously in the thick mud.

Cuidado amigo, cuidado says the bus driver, be careful.

Even his face has turned a little paler as he too concentrates to reverse the decade’s old school bus down hill. The wheels of the semi are spinning like crazy and they slip a few inches under its heavy weight. Muddy water is kicked up onto the windscreen of the bus as the semi gets within spitting distance of us. The semi and our bus slowly edge backwards to a slightly wider point in the road and the truck in front stops. Our driver switches gears and we gingerly proceeds forward, barely squeezing past the truck and the gorge below. Thoughts of worst-case scenarios fill my mind. Maybe eating wasn’t a good idea.

We pass.

Around us the forest is thinning out into balding clumps of scattered trees. The landscape is flattening and up ahead I spy wide-open plains. The mist now long behind us, swallows up the mountains in the distance. To our right is an expanse of water surrounding by sinewy mangrove trees — Lake Izabel and the beginning of the river.

The rain continues to patter down as the bus rolls up at the dock in Rio Dulce. We clamber over bags to stretch our stiff bruised legs. The ayudante asks to wear my rain jacket as he unloads the left over luggage. I oblige, just grateful that we arrived in one piece. The driver steps down off the bus and greets some of the dockworkers. They clearly see each other quite often. The ayudante hands me back my jacket and I ask how often he makes this trip.

Cada dia, amigo — every day.

For us this was one bizarre and scary experience and for them it was simply a day at work. I don’t envy these guys. Humbled, we watch colourful birds flittering over the water of Lake Izabel.

Written by

Dominic is a writer and traveller from Australia and currently based in Italy.

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