Friday, December 14, 2018

Chickens on the Chicken Bus

Where do I begin??? Yesterday was one of the most challenging travel days I’ve had on this trip. But it was also one of the most personally satisfying. Read on to find out why.
A tuk-tuk in Gracias.
I hailed a tuk-tuk on the street in front of the hotel in Gracias, Lempira at 8:30 a.m. I went to the bus terminal, which is just a large dirt parking lot surrounded by produce stalls and food vendors. I started asking around for the next bus to Santa Rosa. I found it within seconds and boarded the old school bus i.e. chicken bus. The winding drive through the mountains took about an hour because of all the stops to pick up anyone standing on the side of the road who signaled with their hand or arm as the bus approached. I got off at the “bus station” in Santa Rosa and immediately guys were all around me shouting out the names of other cities, offering taxi services, etc. When I said my next destination was Ocotepeque they backed off and one guy led me across the parking lot and out to the main road.
I took the bus on the right from Gracias to Santa Rosa.
There, hidden around the corner on a side street, was the minibus to Ocotepeque. It was just pulling away from the curb but my helper flagged it down and I boarded quickly. The bus wasn’t full but the driver still insisted I sit up front across from him, which was a first. Whereas in previous travels in other parts of the world I actually prefer sitting near the front as it’s more conducive to watching the scenery go by, here in Central America I’ve learned to find a seat about midway back, especially on the smaller buses, or otherwise passengers and their belongings will be piled on top of you when the bus gets full.
The bus on the right is the one I eventually ended up taking to Ocotepeque.
We didn’t even make it to the Santa Rosa city limits before we got stuck in traffic caused by construction work. While we were waiting, the driver spotted another larger coach bus that was also going to Ocotepeque. He sent his assistant to chat with the other bus driver and they decided it would make more sense if all of his passengers, me included, transferred onto the larger bus which was also not quite full. That way the minibus could go back to the station and wait for more people. We pulled over on the side of the road and made a quick transfer. I ended up in a window seat near the front but was in the blinding hot sun with no air conditioning, no way to open the window to get some air, and no curtains or shades. Thankfully I was dressed in layers and I took off my blouse to use it as a sunshade.
Ears of corn drying in the sun.
The three hour drive to Ocotepeque was one of the most scenic I’ve had on this trip, winding through a beautiful mountain landscape layered with lush green coffee plants, many with berries ready for harvest. There were also numerous drying patios and processing facilities. I swear I could smell the dried coffee berries, even while trapped in that sweltering bus!
That's not gravel on the ground; it's coffee!
There were a few other passengers also going to the border at El Poy so the driver dropped us off on the main street in Ocotepeque and said to take a taxi from there. We crossed the street and four of us piled into a beat-up old hatchback. I was the only one with luggage. The fare is fixed per person and was posted on the front windshield so I didn’t have to worry about negotiating or getting ripped off. On a related note: When I'm on the chicken buses, I just watch what other people pay and what they get back in change. Coins are rarely used so it’s easier to see the bills and do the math. The biggest challenge is that, since you can hop on and off these buses at any time, not everyone pays the same amount. It helps that the assistant walks through the bus to collect the money, so if you’re sitting midway towards the back you’ll have a chance to observe the exchange a few times before he gets to you.
Coffee plants and mountain scenery.
The taxi ride to the border took about 10 minutes. The driver pulled into a small parking area and pointed to an old man on a bicycle cart. He said the man would take me and my luggage to the appropriate places to process out of Honduras and into El Salvador. So I followed his instructions and soon discovered the bicitaxi driver, who appeared to be about 70, was also mute. Thankfully it turned out to be a relatively straightforward process: wait in a short line to get my passport stamped by Honduran border security (she only asked where I had been in Honduras and where I was going next); get back in the bicitaxi and ride about 500 feet across the border; get stopped by another Honduran agent standing in the road checking paperwork for vehicles (she just looked at my passport to make sure I had the Honduras exit stamp); go a bit farther to reach another building and get in line to have my passport examined but not stamped by El Salvadoran border security (she asked me specifically about my travel dates in the CA-4 countries and reminded me that, by her calculation, I was already on day 71 of a maximum 90 days of travel allowed in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua without a visa); get back in bicitaxi and ride another 1000 feet to the bus station, which was another dirt parking lot. The whole process took about 20 minutes.
This is how I crossed the border from Honduras into El Salvador.
While waiting for the next bus going in the direction of San Salvador, I paid to use the toilet. The posted price was $0.25. I wasn’t thinking clearly at first and I got out 25 centavos (Honduran cents). But the attendant quickly shook his head no and I realized my mistake: I was in another country now and El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar! Thankfully I prepared for this in advance and have been carrying 20 U.S. $1 bills in reserve cash since I left the U.S. three months ago, just for this purpose. It's no big deal if you aren't carrying U.S. currency when you cross the border; just be sure to change money with one of the guys standing by the immigration building as there are no ATMs in the immediate vicinity.
A food vendor boards the bus to San Salvador.
About 15 minutes later I boarded yet another bus. Out of all the chicken buses I’ve ridden on so far, this was the most conspicuously decorated. The outside was the usual vividly colored paint and praises to God, but the inside is what really caught my eye. First, I couldn’t help but notice the huge Union Jack on the ceiling. Then, I saw that there were multiple types of hair clips (the claw type) attached to the rearview mirror. Finally, I spotted the bumper sticker above the windshield which said “I love …” but in this case the “…” was replaced by a graphic of a man on top of a woman, obviously having sex. The driver, who is also usually the owner, was a young man in his mid 20’s. As soon as we pulled out of the parking lot, he turned on some club music and cranked it up to full volume with the bass booming. This is what I, and all the locals including two preachers, endured for the duration of the two hour ride to Aguilares, which is where I hopped off on the highway to find my next connection.
Zoom in on this photo and you can see
the hair clips and bumper sticker.
Standing on the busy road in Aguilares, there were no signs indicating where I might find the next bus. Once again, a local man kindly offered to lead me to my connecting bus to Suchitoto. The bus was parked a few blocks away on a side street, invisible from the main road. I never would have found it without asking. I boarded the back of the bus and had to climb over a huge bag of grain (some type of animal feed) that was bigger than my suitcase. The final 22 km on a small two-lane road were very scenic with mountains in the background and fields of corn, sugarcane, or cows in the foreground. I also saw evidence of the recent civil war in a neighborhood we drove through about five kilometers from Suchitoto that was called El Barrio.
Scenery on the final bus ride to Suchitoto.
The highlight of the day happened on the very last bus ride from Aguilares to Suchitoto. A mother and daughter (she looked to be about eight years old) boarded the bus in the rural area outside Aguilares. The girl was carrying a medium-sized cardboard box that was tied shut. There were no available seats on the bus and I couldn’t give them my seat because of all the people around me, so instead I offered to hold the box and the little girl gave it to me. It was only then that I realized that something inside the box was moving and soon I heard the peeping chicks! I couldn’t hear them right away because, as usual, the driver was blasting music at high volume throughout the bus. Soon enough the family got to sit down and the mom came up and took the chickens from me.
The view from Suchitoto to the lake.
I showed up in Suchitoto without a hotel reservation, with only a couple of budget-minded possibilities on my radar. For the first time during this entire travel day, I actually used Google Maps to find the hotel. I got lucky and they still had a bed available for $8 a night. It's very basic and is in some kind of converted barn with unfinished walls that are only about 10 feet high and therefore the rooms are not fully enclosed. I’m sharing a single toilet/shower stall, with an accordion-style plastic door that doesn't lock, with at least four other people.
Iglesia Santa Lucia in Suchitoto.
As soon as I dropped off my luggage, I headed back out for a quick walk around town before it got completely dark. I also went to an ATM machine to get cash and was shocked when it dispensed $200 worth of brand new $10 bills (it gave me no other option of denomination or currency). Later, I bought a few items from a tienda, and the shopkeeper gave me my change in $1 Presidential coins that were minted in 2007 and which I have never seen before in the U.S.!
Check out the $1 coins on the right.
So, besides the obvious highlight of finally encountering chickens on the chicken bus, why was yesterday so personally satisfying? It's because I managed the entire travel day without a definite plan, on local buses that don't have a fixed schedule, by only speaking Spanish and by asking the locals for directions as needed. I didn’t see another non-Central American tourist the entire day except possibly a couple from South America who were carrying backpacks and camping gear on the bus to Ocotepeque; nor did I see any local tourists with the exception of five teenage boys who were on the bus to San Salvador. Every bus I took was filled with people going about their day-to-day lives and business. Plus, the total cost for nine hours of travel including all forms of transport was only $12.76.
The welcome sign after crossing the border at El Poy.
I also should mention why it was one of the most challenging travel days I've had so far. Last weekend I was sick in bed with a virus that caused severe body aches, fever, stomach cramps, etc. for more than 24 hours and left me very weak from not eating. It took a few days to rest, recuperate, and to have enough strength to travel from Copan Ruinas to Gracias, Lempira on Tuesday. Unfortunately, I've still been suffering from some of the symptoms since then with some days being worse than others. When you travel on public transit in Central America, there are no restroom breaks and generally nowhere to go if you needed or wanted to. So it's best if you don't eat or drink anything for the entire time you're traveling, which will then leave you dehydrated and even more exhausted than you would have been normally.

Well, that's the full story of the chickens on the chicken bus, among other things! It was so much fun (ha ha) that I'm doing it again tomorrow to get to Santa Ana!


  1. People ask me what I have learned from so much travel. This day you describe encapsulates it all. Trust. And patience. Trust that is will all work out, and have the patience to wait for it. People will help you, buses will come, and stories will unfold. Some of the best travel days ensue. <3 I love everything about this.

  2. Amazing to see you go through many changes of sight and perspectives. Sorry you have been so poorly, hope you can have a restful couple of days and get your energy back for your next adventure x

    1. Thanks, Ness! Thankfully I am feeling much better now. Traveling like this gives you so many opportunities to learn and grow as an individual. It's what I live for!

  3. Yeah, patience. Taking the bus has made me a more patient person.

    Thank you for thinking to offer to hold the box!!

    1. So true! Even in Portland, public transit can certainly be trying at times. People here are so accustomed to what we consider to be very challenging conditions; I do my best to follow their lead.

  4. This is worth reading article. Such an amazing adventure. Cheers for sharing.