Blue Birds have been spotted and they are flourishing
here in Guatemala. Gringos call them 'chicken
busses,' and the locals call them autobuses or
camionetas - otherwise known as public
our travels, we have taken these 'chicken busses' all
over Latin America. But never have we seen the
concentration of them as there are here in Guatemala.
Brightly painted reflecting the owner's individual
style, these massive workhorse machines deliver people,
produce, products, and yes, chickens throughout the
mountainous regions of Guatemala.
These busses have not
been reborn, they have been resurrected!
typical day at Antigua bus station. Notice on the left
in this photo some yellow school busses that have not
yet been painted. You can be sure, however, that their
insides have all been remodeled.
process goes like this.
Waiting at the terminal amongst numerous brightly
painted and shined buses, I asked some drivers where
these hefty machines originated. How did my school bus end up here in
Antigua? I was told that their company goes to the
United States and purchases used busses at auction.
Apparently, school busses in the U.S. have to retire
after 150,000 miles or ten years of service, and at that
point they are put up for auction for the highest bidder
bus we road today was from Layfette, Georgia.
school bus has a second life to live!
being purchased they are towed through the country of Mexico to
Ciudad Viejo and San Miguel Duenas, just outside of
Antigua, Guatemala. It is here where they are gutted,
stripped of all nonessentials, and retrofitted for the
demands of the rugged Guatemalan terrain.
had the occasion of visiting one of the more famous
factories in San Migual Duenas,
owner, Senor Alvarez, greeted us and in short order introduced
us to his shop manager, Victor.
of the first steps is to take everything out of the bus!
Looks different, doesn't it?
Victor took us to another lot down the street where we could easily see
the before and after transformation, and then he explained the
process that each bus is put through. After the long
haul from the U.S. auction house, the busses are stripped of
everything bolted down - inside and out - including the
seats. The back of the bus is cut off to shorten
the length, so that the bus will have 10 windows per side.
This shorter bus is much easier to navigate on the narrow
roads in the Guatemalan outback.
the bus is being masked getting it ready for the super-duper
Ninety five percent of the
U.S. stock busses come with an automatic transmission
and hydraulic brakes which are of no use to the drivers here.
These are replaced with
a six or seven speed manual transmission and air brakes. If the motor
is not a diesel or an International Harvester, it too is
inside of the bus and the outside shell are repaired
of any issues needing attention and the bus is taped and
sprayed with a primer.
wider seats are put in, enough to seat 3 people on each
banquette as well as overhead luggage racks. The aisle
down the middle is barely navigable when empty, let
alone when there are passengers with packages aboard.
The Adventurer's Guide to
Donít go to
Guatemala without this book! Take advantage of what we know. Click
new entryway complete with the Blue Bird logo. This
Meanwhile, the destination placard in the front of the bus is
being re-fitted and the hood is adapted for a chrome
grill. The newest converted bus we saw had an electronic
sign board stating its route with moving patterned
lights. Guatemalans love this,
especially if they flash.
A fresh coat of paint is applied along with interior luggage
racks and a roof rack is bolted to the roof with access ladders in the back.
Then the new wider seats are installed and the
windows are replaced.
instrument and decorative panels are set up for the
driver along with a radio and CD player.
smaller wheels and tires are replaced with larger ones
along with new leaf springs giving the bus a higher
ground clearance. Also it was explained to us that the
original school bus tires took about one hour to change
in the likely event of a flat. The new wheels and can be
changed in a matter of minutes. Important when your
livelihood depends on the number of runs and passengers
you can carry daily. The first bus to the stop gets the
riders and these buses are in competition with one
another for the money.
at this piece of art! Makes you want to have one, doesn't it?
entire conversion process from school bus to camioneta
takes less than one month and costs around $17,000 U.S.
Dollars - that is if you supply the original bus.
Otherwise they run about $40,000 USD.
have RV'ed in the past and thought these buses would
make a nice rig. I asked how much they would charge
for an RV conversion. Victor's honest answer was that it
depends on the owner and what they want on the inside.
He mentioned that it would probably take two months to
complete because everything is custom made. They might
have difficulty finding parts, but they have done it
Hmmmmmmm.... How can I talk Akaisha into having
one of these babies?
and rows of these spectacular busses are lined up at all
the bus station in Guatemala. Pretty impressive.
bus is now ready to be placed into service with a driver
and handler. Obviously, the driver drives and with winding roads where everything is a obstacle, these
quite competent. The handler directs passengers by
calling the destination to anyone nearby, handles
baggage too large to place inside by loading it on the
outside luggage rack, and works his way through the
crowded bus to collect the fare. This, too, is quite an
art as the bus is shaking and rattling from side to side
with each turn.
This handler or 'ayudante'
is calling out
the next destination and gathering people into the
bus. They are skilled and friendly.
you see the handler collecting money from each
passenger and giving out change. Look at the wad of cash
he has in his left hand! He knows who has paid
and who has not. Just to confuse things further, sometimes a
person will pay for their child or spouse who is seated
elsewhere in the bus, and the handler has to remember
all the combinations: Who has paid, who has not, how
much for each destination, and any new passengers who have
just arrived. Also people use the back door to enter and
exit if the bus is crowded.
Meanwhile the bus is hauling down the road!
this photo our backpacks being thrown up to the top luggage
rack and tied down - hopefully securely! So far, we have
had great luck and have not lost our luggage on a nasty
turn. However, we have seen other people's luggage topple to the road
below on one of these tight turns. Always makes for some
the road again! It's great to be back on the road again!
the next time you see a school bus on the streets at
home bringing children to and from school, you'll know
they have a full second life ahead of them!