This is where school buses go to….live again? I’d never really considered it before, but what a mundane life a school bus in the states must have. They are all dressed exactly the same, a uniform of yellow and caution, driven delicately by careful people, oppressed by speed limit signs, school zones, and double yellow lines. Their individuality shows only in the small black numbers pasted in the window to tell one from another. Where’s the personality? Where’s the fun?
Well, it turns out the lucky ones get a second chance at life in Guatemala (yes, lots of other developing nations too, but today we’re in Guatemala). It is here that these oppressed buses can let their hair down, show their true colors, and squeal through mountain passes with a pent-up recklessness they never knew they had. They are dressed in bright primary colors, bedazzled with shiny chrome jewelry, draped with tassels and prayer beads, and amped with thumping subwoofers.
There is a strategy to climbing aboard one of these newly liberated bucking broncos. While I’m sure the bus is loving it, one foot on the dash, windows rolled down, blaring Guatemalan rap music, heckling inferior and timid buses along the way, it is not always a blast for the passengers. The trips are lengthy, sweaty and bumpy. A strategy for survival – ok, maybe just for a modicum of comfort – is crucial.
Since over a 5-day stretch, we just spent at least 32 hours on 9 different buses (plus 4 tuktuks, 3 taxis, 2 pangas and partridge on a 3-wheeled bike thing), we are basically Guatemalan-public-transportation-strategy-experts now. So here are my words of advice for anyone undertaking such a daring feat as riding the bus.
Lesson #1: look asleep
We learned this one early and quickly. We were on our 2nd Guatemala bus and I was just pondering how all these new people were going to fit on this crowded bus for the remaining weaving winding trip of several hours. That’s when it happened. I made eye contact with a weather-hardened but grandmotherly woman with a sweet smile and a significant backend. She scanned the bus seats briefly before making a half turn next to me and shimmying her sizable rump into our bus seat. A bus seat designed 35 years ago for two pre-teens with spindly legs and tiny torsos. As the bus pulled back into traffic, I glanced around our cozy acquaintance and quickly deduced two things: 1. We can proudly tout that we were the first row to complete the 3-to-a-seat challenge. And 2. Almost every passenger still enjoying the ample room offered by only two sizable adults in a kids sized seat was – or at least appeared to be – asleep. Got it.
When we reached our stop a few hours later, John nearly toppled off the bus, his right leg numb from toes to rump and refusing to carry any weight. We stood in the rain, digging in damp backpacks for flannels and rain jackets, unsticking our shirts from our sweaty lower backs, wiggling our toes and trying to get oriented. We had been plopped down on the side of a “highway” on the outskirts of Zunil, a small town on the outskirts of Quetzeltenango (or Xela – pronounced Shay-la- as it’s affectionately known), facing a muddy track winding up the mountain beside us. Since winning the 3-to-a-seat race with a squinched up Becca sandwich, our freedom-crazed angry-hippy bus swerved around potholes, oncoming traffic, and tight switchbacks with the gusto of an oppressed 17 year old on a Friday night. We had climbed more than 7,000 feet, from the humid rainy tropical lowlands to the humid rainy cold highlands. The temperature change was shocking, and a welcome relief from summer in Chiapas.
Our destination was 3 miles up, at the top of that muddy track, a sliver of paradise called Fuentes Georginas, complete with hot springs, cabins, fireplaces, delicious food and quiet solitude. We were standing on the side of the road likely looking as lost as we felt, when a tuktuk appeared to carry us and our sopping bags to the top, slowly putt-putting up the steep grade, weaving between mud puddles that could sink a smartcar. Or a tuktuk, now that I think of it.
It was a warm cozy night of hot cocoa and long soaks in the hot springs and cards by the heat of the fire. In the morning, the clouds lifted to reveal incredible vistas of nearby volcanoes and the steep patchwork of agriculture that dots every hillside. We decided to forgo the tuktuk ride down and walked instead, soaking in the majestic scenery (and a not insignificant amount of rain). A thousand shades of jungle green gave way to small farm plots on impossibly steep inclines dotted with splashes of red – the shawls of women bent over their work. Steam rose from yellowed rocks lining the road, spilling strong whiffs of sulfur, precursors to the Fuentes above. The clouds lifted and settled, swaying through valleys, drooping over farms, and lifting again.
Back down on the highway and caught squarely in the afternoon rainstorm, we waited for our next bus character to whisk us away.
Lessson #2: Avoid the hump
I seem to remember choosing the row with the hump as a kid (I believe the appropriate grown-up term is wheel well), but then again I had spindly legs and a tiny torso and fit quite nicely in incredibly small spaces. I still fit pretty well in small spaces, but John…doesn’t. So we aim to sit just in front of the hump, where leg room is spacious reasonable less terrible and the shocks absorb a bit more of the ride than they do at the back. The front piles up first with extra people, nobody willing to push back through the crowds when its time to disembark. The row just in front of the hump is the goldilocks of newly revived hippy buses.
We snagged our goldilocks seats for a long ride from Xela to Panajachel (Pana, for short). I settled in with my head on John’s shoulder, eyes squinted shut whenever new people clamored aboard. It was one of our more pleasant bus journeys; we didn’t have to share our goldilocks claim with a single oversized rump. Success!
After a night in Pana, punctuated with a terrible overpriced dinner and a long stroll with delicious hot cocoa, we wandered down to the water to procure a boat ride across Lake Atitlan to a little hippy town called San Marcos. The street hustlers honed in on us from blocks away and soon we were whisked down a rickety dock and into a panga slopping with water. It was sitting on this panga for an hour as it wrestled with the dock trying to hold it still in choppy seas that I surmised another lesson in the art of Guatemalan public transportation. It applies equally, I have learned, to both panga and bus travel.
Lesson #3: Ask the right questions
We could have avoided a bit of irritation on that boat if I had started with “Cuando Salimos?” (When do we leave?). The answer, in this case, would likely have been a non-committal “pronto” (soon) or “un momento” (in a minute). Do you know how long a Guatemalan minute is?! They must circle the sun much slower here. But I then could have followed up with a request for more information – what are we waiting for? More people? Calmer seas? Your brother’s friend’s cousin to arrive with dog food? Yes, it turns out. All of the above. After an hour and a half of waiting, we climb off the boat in search of a panga that will take us across the lake “now”. Even a Guatemalan “now” would be fine. Miraculously, in the 10 minutes we are away, the boat fills, the sea settles, and his brother’s friend’s cousin shows up with the dog food. El Capitan (who, as a sidenote, cannot possibly be older than 14) comes jogging after us exclaiming that they are ready now, we can come back. We climb onto an inexplicably packed panga and soon untie the lines.
The other important question is whether it is a direct ride (in our panga case, we already knew the answer – San Marcos is the first stop). In an attempt to drum up business, once they’ve heard your destination, bus hecklers will urge you on board promising this is the direction they go. Not a lie, but not a truth either. Often they get part of the way to your destination before turning the wrong way for several hours then shooing you off the bus, explaining that that other bus – the one there dressed in bright greens and reds and yellows, a Bob Marley lookalike with a contradictory “Jesus Loves you” banner plastered across the majority of the windshield – that one will take you to your destination. But perhaps it doesn’t leave for a few hours.
We spent a wonderfully relaxing few days exploring San Marcos and the nearby towns of Lake Atitlan. We discovered pizza better than anything we’ve had in Mexico. We toured textile co-ops, painting co-ops, chocolate co-ops and coffee co-ops (the locals are big on co-ops here). We met a dreadlocked didgeridu-toting funghi specialist who recruited us (and everyone else he met) to join him in his weekly funghi university class. So sorry to miss it, my friend, but we leave in the morning!
When I told our host of our plans to make it from that very spot all the way to Puerto Chiapas the following day, he had some sage advice. In the end, he redirected our travels and likely shaved off several hours and at least two extra non-direct bus transfers. Backing up the timing of our last bus to the boarder, we decided on a 5am departure. Unsure of the availability of tuktuks at that hour, the host’s father-in-law called his brother who has a tuktuk, then walked us up to the street the following morning at 5am to ensure his brother arrived. What service.
Lesson #4: carry change
The tuktuk wheeled us through mud puddles and around fallen boulders to San Pedro, a nearby town with buses. It wasn’t until we arrived in the center of San Pedro that I realized my blunder. I didn’t have enough small monies to pay our gracious early morning driver. I only had 100 Q notes (about $15) for our 40 Q ride. He didn’t have change, and neither did the small scattering of other awake humans in the square. I apologized and asked him to wait until our bus arrived, hoping that bus driver would have change. But he was eager, and said he had change at his house a few blocks away and would return shortly. He asked us to wait for him.
The flamboyant bus that had pulled up earlier (not our bus) with flashy lights and sparkly runners sat for a long time before emitting two high pitched honks and scurrying away. I was hoping our bus would do the same. It didn’t. Before our tuktuk driver could return, our bus stopped briefly to let us on, literally pausing diagonally across the intersection. And while there wasn’t much traffic at that ugly hour, it made a clear statement that it would not be idling around. The next bus to get us to Xela was in 3 hours. I frantically explained my situation to the driver in broken early morning Spanish and asked for change. He didn’t have it. His heckler didn’t have it. But some guy that appeared from the roof of the bus had a wad of cash and was able to make change for me (Just call me “el banco” he muttered, somewhat creepily).
John was on the bus, which was starting to roll forward. I grabbed the 40 Q owed to our tuktuk driver, still nowhere in sight, and handed it off to the nice older man we had first inquired about change. I tried to impress upon him the importance of passing this 40 Q note on to our tuktuk when he returned and not keeping it to buy booze later. I hope my innocent philosophy that people are, in general, good, holds true for that man, and that my money and appreciation made it to our host’s father-in-law’s brother. I really do.
As we bounced down the cobble-stone streets of San Pedro, We resumed the position – one row in front of the hump, my head on John’s shoulder. We knew it would be a long day of bumpy bus rides, and we were prepared.
Lesson #5: bring podcasts, not books
A book, along with an iPhone, a kindle, an iPad, a magazine, or anything else you hold with words on it, is an impossible tease on Guatemala’s public transportation network of personality buses standing proud in their true colors. It’s not the potential motion sickness that stops us, (though if you’re prone to that sort of thing, I’d advise you knock yourself out with some Dramamine) it’s that it is literally impossible to form words and sentences and meaning out of the letters and symbols dancing and ducking and weaving in front of you. It’s just not possible. You could get a few lines in each time the bus stopped to load more human cargo, but that’s the moment when your eyes should be shut tight, perhaps a little slack in you jaw to look convincingly asleep.
Most of the time, the stunning scenery bouncing by the window and the cultural experiments taking place in the confines of a stinky sweaty bus keep us occupied. But sometimes it’s helpful to forget where you are, encourage time to pass more quickly (in American minutes, not Guatemalan minutes), and be entertained. That’s when I grab my fancy dancy wireless headphones and plug in (so to speak) to a podcast or three. I can still watch the scenery, observe the interactions between strangers in a confined space, and – most importantly of course – drop head to shoulder and squeeze eyes shut as required.
We made it back to Puerto Chiapas in a day (a 12 hour- 4 bus- 2 tuktuk- and 1 taxi- day), exhausted and sweaty and dusty and full of new memories of a wonderful country. Until reaching the Guatemalan boarder, we had been in Mexico for six straight months. I suppose the six-month mark is something to celebrate, but more pressingly, it is exactly how long our Mexican travel visa lasts. The boat is allowed to stay, but its human occupants must leave the country for at least three days before returning with a new 6-month visa in hand. So we did what any adventurer living 20 miles from the Guatemalan boarder with an almost expired visa would do. We shoved some clothes, a kindle, a deck of cards, headphones and a handful of granola bars in a backpack and started bus-hopping across the next-door country, learning the tricks of the trade as we went. And that is how we became Guatemalan-public-transportation-strategy-experts.
John took so many amazing photos on this trip to Guatemala – I wanted to share more of them here with you. Enjoy!