On the chicken bus in El Salvador

Huw Hennessy travels around El Salvador in its cheap and cheerful "chicken buses".

On the chicken buses in El Salvador: Chicken bus interior by Huw Hennessy
The 'welcome message' reads "sali con tu mujer" - "I went out with your wife."

Two young rappers in black T-shirts, shaking maracas made out of old Pringles tubes chant tales of infidelity and corruption; a middle-aged salesman sporting a slick ponytail touts herbal remedies for everything from gastric wind to period pains; and a blind man with perfect teeth sings “Un Dia a la Vez, Señor” – One Day at a Time – in a thin, reedy voice. A sample line-up of the entertainment during one short bus ride from Santa Ana to Ahuachapán in western El Salvador.

On the chicken buses in El Salvador: Rappers by Huw Hennessy
Rappers sing stories of infidelity and corruption.

I’ve travelled all over Central America on the iconic old US school buses, known as ‘Chicken Buses”, for the hens that are still not an unusual sight peering from baskets on the overhead racks. Some buses are battered and worn; some re-vamped and gleaming with polished steel trimming; and others still in their original bright marigold paintwork fronted by high-school name tags, from Buffalo to San Diego. The interiors are brightly decorated in spangly kitsch: from mini-shrines to the Virgen de Guadalupe on the dashboard, to dayglo slogans stuck on the windscreen. One of my gruesome favourites was “Cúbrenos en Tu Sangre, Señor” – Cover Us in Your Blood, Lord. A bit more thought-provoking than the mild “How is my driving?” printed on the back of National Express coaches, but perhaps not quite so reassuring.

On a recent visit to El Salvador, however, I discovered that its chicken buses go that bit further than its neighbours in providing not just transportation, but a virtual community on wheels. Apart from the constant stream of buskers, mendicants, quacks and soap-box orators, you’ll also be confronted by snack sellers forcing their way down the aisle at every stop. Any time of day you can buy individual sweets torn off a long strip, little packets of peanuts, taco chips and cashews, polythene bags full of dodgy-looking fluorescent drinks, ready-peeled oranges (which are sucked for their juice then thrown, like everything else, out of the window), pizza slices, chips, hot dogs, and of course, pupusas complete with chopped salad and chile sauce.

On the chicken buses in El Salvador: Suchitoto city bus by Huw Hennessy
Suchitoto: "más que una ciudad" - "more than a city."

Considering the average journey time in this tiny country is about an hour, it remains a mystery to me why everyone needs this endless grazing. But if you’re travelling on a budget it certainly makes a good saving. The highest fare I paid was $1.75, for the scenic three-hour journey up through spectacular mountain scenery to La Palma from Chalatenango. Gorging myself on nibbles en route cost another few dollars, which added up to a pretty cheap day.

Bus travel here is not generally a relaxing experience, however. Be prepared to jostle for space with at least three others per seat, with child-size legroom pushing the average gringo’s knees up to chin level. That’s if you’re one of the lucky few who manage to get a seat at all. Otherwise you’ll be in the aisle – noting above the flow of sellers and conductor leaving you bumped and bruised by the time you reach your destination. Pop and salsa is played at full volume, and with drivers’ favourite CDs left on a loop I soon learned the lyrics to Papa Americano off by heart.

On the chicken buses in El Salvador: Licence plate by Huw Hennessy
The monument pictured is the "Monument to the Savior of the World" in San Salvador City.

Spare a thought though for the tireless ‘cobrador’ – usually a small and wiry man chosen for his agility to worm his way through the bus - hissing and clicking his tongue for fares, and hanging out the doorway, shouting out “Avisa, avisa!” for more customers to pile on board.

I noted in my diary at the time that all my white-knuckle adventures in El Salvador, including canyoning, whitewater rafting, abseiling and paragliding, paled into insignificance against the physical challenges of the buses. But I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything. You’re thrown into local life in all its hectic bustle, you get to chat to people en route, and even the shortest journey may throw up the unexpected surprise. You might even be able to pick up a cure for the aching back and bruised knees you’ve acquired.

NB: Chicken buses don’t travel after dark and they only connect the towns, so not easy to get off the beaten track to national parks, etc. Some hostels arrange shuttle-bus transfers between popular locations, such as from Tacuba to Playa el Zonte, approx $70 per person one way.

For more details, contact Imposible Tours, Hostel Anáhuac in Juayúa, or Suchitoto Outfitters.

Huw Hennessy is a travel journalist and author of several travel guides.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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