Guatemala’s Old American School Buses

A ‘chicken bus’ is a colloquial English name for a colorful, modified and decorated bus that transports goods and people between communities in various Latin American countries. The base vehicle is traditionally a retired North American school bus and the word “chicken” is assumed to refer to the fact that the buses are often crammed with passengers not unlike a truck load of chickens!

As a result of strict regulations in the USA, most school buses are sold after around 10 years’ use. Since this is around half the manufacturer’s estimate of their normal working life, canny Guatemalan entrepreneurs have taken the opportunity to import thousands of old school buses, cheaply bought in the US, in order to repurpose them as public buses in Guatemala.

Typically, yellow school buses are bought at auction in the US and then driven thousands of miles south across Mexico to Guatemala, where they are converted in workshops, the best known of which are the Orellana and Esmeralda companies in the towns of Ciudad Vieja and San Miguel Dueñas respectively.

Most significantly, the buses’ original engines are replaced by doubly powerful truck engines so that they can cope better with Guatemala’s mountainous terrain. These truck engines have also often been bought cheaply in the US, usually because they no longer meet the strict emission laws there. Repainted in vivid colours, the former school buses are then bought by private operators who run them profitably throughout Guatemala as much-loved public buses.

Want more? In this episode Zay Harding travels by truck through Central America’s toughest and most spectacular country, Guatemala.