An Unforeseen Difficulty

A Protest Around La Unión Hold Up My Trip

As I have written before, the biggest transportation problem on my trip was getting from Copán, Honduras to Rio Dulce, Guatemala. In the end, I was right. There had at one time been shuttle buses that made the trip, but either they had been canceled or occurred only during certain times. In the end, I cut a deal with a Honduran travel agency called Baseline Tours out of the Café ViaVia to hire a car and driver to:

  1. Drive me to Rio Dulce
  2. Allow for a one- or two-hour stopover at the Maya ruins of Quiriguá on the way

I wound up paying 1,700 Guatemalan quetzales (about $217) for a car and driver to take me there. I could have taken public transportation for much cheaper, but it would have thrown a monkey wrench into my schedule. I would have had to take a collectívo to the Guatemalan border at El Florido, a Litegua bus to Chiquimula, and an (unspecified) second class bus to Quirigua, where I would have had to spend the night. And then, I would have had to face the chore of a bus from Quiriguá to Morales, and from Morales to Rio Dulce. So I spent the money and adhered to my schedule.

Except there was one little unforeseen difficulty. Midway between El Florido and Chiquimula, the highway was closed in both directions because the residents of La Unión were protesting en masse some government dictate or malfeasance. For an hour and a half, I sat in the car reading my Kindle when—quite suddenly—the local police (shown above) started letting traffic through.

It is not unusual to find whole towns in Latin America shutting down access to and from their towns while they make their point to the government. Bolivia is particularly notorious for this type of action.

In the end, I got to Quiriguá and Rio Dulce with time to spare. It was not an accident that I left early, around 8 AM, to allow for this sort of hindrance.


Chicken Buses

“Chicken Bus” with Conductor Hanging Out the Door

Old American school buses have a second life in Guatemala. They are imported, gussied up according to local taste, and converted into what are lovingly called chicken buses, because presumably the local Maya could transport pigs and chickens as well as themselves. They come with a driver and a conductor, who hangs out the front door as in the photo above, calling out the destination. Anyone could stop one of these second class buses by simply hailing it and climbing aboard. The conductor collects the fare and makes change, sometimes making the passenger wait until more fares are collected.

I did not take any chicken buses in Guatemala because of the potential for hold-ups and assorted violence. The guidebooks say to take tourist shuttles instead, even though they cost considerably more. Also, I do believe the language used by the driver and conductor is usually the local dialect of Mayan.

A Chicken Bus to Magdalena and Santa Lucia

There tend to be two, sometimes three, public transit options in the intercity market: chicken buses, tourist shuttles, and the (rare) first class bus that goes from point to point without picking up or discharging passengers on the way. (In a later post, I will tell you about my adventures careening through the jungle in a somewhat ratty first class bus.) The first class buses are usually for Ladinos; the chicken buses, for the locals; and tourist shuttles for Gringos.

Chicken Buses Lined up at Antigua’s Bus Terminal

I noticed that the numbers on the front or rear windows of buses (and some cars) merely repeat the license plate in larger letters (for the convenience of witnesses and the police?),

All the buses shown on this page were taken in Antigua near the second class bus terminal. The buses in Eastern Guatemala are different. But more about that later.

Tuk-Tuk? Nyuk-Nyuk!

An India Import: Auto Rickshaws, or Tuk-Tuks, from Bajaj Auto of Pune, the World Leader

If one travels to smaller towns in Central America, one is likely to travel around town in an auto-rickshaw, called a tuk-tuk from the sound of its engine. Above are two tuk-tuks parked near the public dock in San Juan la Laguna, on the shores of the Lago de Atitlán. In towns where taxicabs exist, they generally are more competitive, costing 5 or 10 quetzales instead of 20 or 30 quetzales (or more). As of today, the quetzal is worth 12.7 cents based on OANDA Corporation’s currency converter.

Riding a tuk-tuk is sort of fun, if you relish the experience of being puréed in a blender. Given the cobblestoned streets and the quick sideways maneuvers to avoid oncoming automotive traffic, you are likely to be tossed about a bit. And if you look closely, you won’t see anything that resembles a seat belt. You just have to hold on for dear life.

In Guatemala and Honduras, I have seen tuk-tuks with a driver and up to four passengers, three sitting in the back and one perched precariously next to the driver. But then, the Maya are not a large people. You can probably fit two American adults, max, in one of these three-wheeled wonders.

Tuk-Tuk Traffic in Panajachel

At first, I was afraid of trying to ride a tuk-tuk, until I found myself stranded at the eastern edge of Antigua. I was footsore from walking too many miles on rough cobblestones and narrow, dicey sidewalks, and I didn’t see any taxes passing by the Santo Domingo Museum, but a tuk-tuk stopped for me; and I was happy to take a load off my feet.