Do you know what happens to US school buses when they retire? They become ‘Chicken buses’

I had several things on the agenda today, to go to the local market which we missed last time. To find a supermarket and buy crackers, cheese and milk and to buy the fabric and notions for class.

Antigua might strike you at first, as it did me, as something of a museum piece, but you only have to walk a few blocks from the centre to discover that “real” life happens here too. The market on the western fringes of the old town is totally non-touristy and is a great place to explore when you’re saturated with beautiful colonial architecture and artistic ruins. Here is the place to come to see how local people live here – how they shop, what they eat, how they travel around.

I sort of hung around the fringes at first. There were definitely no other tourists visiting and I looked a bit odd, but O found the courage and took the plunge.

The fruit looked delicious I only wish I could eat some of it but I’m allergic to it all.

Then I got a bit braver and ventured out into the bus park. The buses were coming and going, people shouting directions, the buses vomiting huge plumes of black diesel smoke.

When American school buses reach the age of ten years or 150,000 miles, they are sold at auction. Many of these buses are bought and driven down through Mexico to Guatemala where they are prepared for their second lives. In contrast to their modest first lives as yellow buses carting children to school, their second lives are spent stuffed with people, topped with roof racks full of cargo, and driving at high speeds over mountain passes. The old yellow paint is covered with colorful murals and praises to Jesus. They are called. “Chicken buses”

The word “chicken” refers to the fact that rural Guatemalans occasionally transport live animals such as chicken – a practice that visitors from other countries often find remarkable. The word might also refer to the tight manner in which passengers are crammed into these retired U.S. school buses. Either way, the experience is something travellers never forget. Each bus has one or two young men called ayudante or helper. The ayudante is responsible for passengers and luggage, collecting money, and organizing the suitcases, livestock, or produce, etc. onto the roof of the bus–often while in motion. Loudly announcing destinations the bus is reaching is also a responsibility.

They are indeed amazing works of art on wheels.

They have charming names like Esmerelda and Matilda. They move at fast through the narrow streets in the town and at high speed across the mountain passes. I think they are relishing their new lives.



I got braver and ventured into the dark alleys of the  market.


I wasn’t tempted to buy though.




The colors are wonderful and almost everyone wears national dress.

Then it was on to find my supplies for class. I don’t go to dealers I’ve found a wonderful place to purchase at a very reasonable price and I will take my friends there when we have the opportunity.


This first garment I bought is tiny but it’s a mens’ shirt known as a traje. I think it is really one of the most distinctive and elegant in all Guatemala.  The shirt has a long squared-off collar, made of two layers of cloth stitched up around the edges, but with an opening that permits the dangling collar ends to be used as pockets. A black or dark brown wool capixay (a sort of pullover with partly open, short and mostly non-functional sleeves) is worn over the red shirt, and held in place by a sash.

The other piece I bought was a childs’ shirt, hand dyed, woven and embroidered. They are old and worn but I love them and they will be re-purposed and treasured in my house. I bought one for Tilly last trip.




The long piece under the point of the scissors is another old embroidered collar and I bought two packs of ‘bits’ for $3. The buttons, small birds and wraps are all hand made and will go into our project. I couldn’t find pearl cotton, but I met a lady weaving and she sold me some… it was a great  adventure indeed and I clocked up 13 kms on those cobblestone streets.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Joyce says:

    Pam, the real thrill of the Chicken Buses is following one on the curvy high mountain passes and hold your breath as the ayudante climbs out of an open window while the bus navigates the curves (and we are talking curves with no yellow painted line on the road and rail guards on the outside edges!) and with great athletic finesse either places baggage or removes it from the top then climbs back in through an open window!

    1. Pam Holland says:

      I imagine it would be, we actually followed one up the mountain the other day.

Leave a Reply