From School Bus to Chicken Bus

On the last post I wrote about our visit to Cuidad Viejo and the Nuestro Futuro school. Another fascinating though less humanistic part of the visit to the “old city” was a visit to one of the city’s many “Chicken Bus” garages – I’m not sure what you call a place that converts tired school buses from the US into brightly colored Guatemalan Chicken Buses.
This staple of the Central American economy is well know by anyone who has traveled here. The drivers regularly speed through the country-side and the city streets, stopping for seconds less than it takes to get the last rider on board. Music of the driver’s choice blares so you can’t hear anyone speak. The buses are packed with local people as well as the baskets, sacks of corn or packs of goods they have purchased; the roof is also packed, sometimes with crates of chickens or with baskets of food or household items purchased in town. On market days the buses and rooftops are particularly packed because a Chicken Bus maybe the only means of transporting items to be sold at the market.


Chicken buses in the making

In Cuidad Viejo there are a large number of garages or old warehouses where old yellow school buses are refurbished into the colorful and highly functional buses. The one we visited had 4 buses in varying degrees of conversion. The 4 skilled workers remove the bench seats and replace them with seats that seat 3 instead of two people. That means the aisle is about 18″ wide – not nearly wide enough for us fat Americans.


Painting the bus

In addition, roof supports are added for the heavy roof load, strong internal shelves are added, and doors are switched to fold inward, probably so the bus doesn’t clip some innocent person as it speeds through the streets. A major change is to shorten the bus by cutting off the rear; the drive-shaft is then shortened so the buses can turn on the narrow streets. Oh, and a ladder is added so the driver’s helper can quickly climb on top to stack or remove items.
After all of the functional changes have been made the bus is “pimped up” with a colorful paint job of the owner’s choice, chrome trim is added and the bus name is painted on the front and rear. If engine work was needed, the engine is replaced and the bus is ready for the only means of transportation available to thousands of people, whether they live in the cities or the rural areas.

Niños de Guatemala

Last week we had an opportunity which was so unbelievable that I need to share it with you. Unfortunately there will be few photos in this post however I´m hoping you´ll enjoy the story.

The office space next to the office for our Antigua Spanish School is occupied by a program called ´niños de Guatemala´, which is how we learned about the program and therefore had the opportunity to visit this amazing school called ¨Nuestra Futuro¨ or our future.

Ninos de Guatemala is one of hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGO´s) working in Guatemala to improve healthcare, education or other social or economic programs. This one, however is a little different. They started a school in Ciuda Viejo, which is a small and very poor town about a mile from Antigua. The focus of this school was to provide an educational opportunity for the very poorest children of the city; children who live in families where no other family member has had formal education and those whose families cannot afford to send their children to school. What´s more, the families often need the children to start contributing financially at a very young age. These are often the children who are begging or hawking souvenirs in developing countries.

Because there are so many visitors to this unique school, we were asked to not take photos.  However the following are several photos of where the children reside.  Homes have no electricity or water.  Families transport water 1/2 mile up a steep hill from a central well.  They also have no cooking facilities in these cobbled together homes which are made of cornstalks, corrugated metal, old bus parts and whatever can be found.

Walking path to the fields where many parents work for a substandard wage


Homes of the families whose children attend Nuestro Futuro

In  it´s first year the school had only kindergarten and first grade. In the two subsequent years they have added another year so that the school now has K-third grade and has approximately 120 students enrolled.  If not for this school, none of the children would have an opportunity for formal learning.   The school has thus far received all of it´s support from the NGO.  The following are some of the characteristics that were so impressive:

  • There is a social worker at the school who assesses each family to assure that they meet the criteria and to continue to provide support.
  • Parents (usually mothers) are required to pay a very small amount, which is a token for commitment to the program, and doesn´t really provide financial support.
  • Mothers work as volunteers in the lunch program, helping to make the 120+ meals each day.  As you can imagine, this is a way to keep parents involved and committed to the child´s education.
  • Since many children come from homes without running water or electricity, they have the opportunity to take a shower at school.
  • All children brush their teeth at school each day
  • In addition to meeting the requirements for the national curriculum, children learn crafts that are valued by their families.  Examples are embroidery or carpentry.
  • Instead of being in school for a half day like public schools in Guatemala, children are in this school all day.  Afternoon programs build life skills and there are tutoring opportunities.  The afternoon programs are mostly provided by volunteers.
  • A physician and nurse visit the school regularly (although this is likely only enough for the most serious health issues).
  • There are free educational programs for parents – topics such as nutrition, health or family violence.

The Library

Most impressive was the newly opened library.  For most of us, we view books and a library as one of life´s essentials.  Not here, however.  Like many or most cities in Guatemala, Cuida Viejo didn´t have a free library.  But life is changing.

A young intern from Germany volunteered at Nuestro Futuro for the past year.  Her project was to start a library for the school.  It opened several months ago for the families of children in the school and already it is going to open for the entire community.  On the day we visited there were about 30 children from pre-school on up who were taking books from the library shelves and enjoying them in a way that absolutely warmed our hearts.  The shelves were empty by our standards but there were about 1000 books in total – not enough but a start.  There are also several computers This intern will leave on March 31, immediately after the community open house, which she believes will be well attended.

The children at the school were delightful and you could see how eager they are to learn.  What an incredible experience.

Lenten Friday in Coban

Day 9

By now its likely not a surprise to you that one of our favorite travel experiences is to see local festivities or celebrations. Today as we returned to Coban following a day in Semuc Champay, the traffic was very congested and then we realized it was being re-routed.  For Lenten Friday, which we may think of as a minor event, there was a huge procession (or maybe several) and the traffic was at a standstill all over town.

I’m not sure of the exact purpose or origin of this procession however it appeared to be a version of the “Stations of the Cross”. There were two very ornate platforms or floats being carried by about 20 women or girls. The first had Jesus carrying and falling with the cross and the second held the Virgin Mary. Hundreds of men, women and children marched, some carring lit candles while thousands looked on. There was very somber music blasting from speakers.

The procession wove through the city streets and stopped at each church only Catholic, I think) where there was a prayer service, more somber music, clouds of incense but no singing. In addition, some homes placed an altar or pictures of Jesus on their front steps.

If you have more information about this custom, please leave a comment.


Day 8

This morning we awoke to the sound of a soft rain. Good day to chill and read a book and catch up on our diary. “Is this day 7 or 8”, I asked. For a minute I truly was lost in time- what a great feeling. Guess we really are on vacation.

Public market

Yesterday morning we left lovely Flores for the 6ish hour ride to Coban in hilly Central Guatemala. We traded tropical weather for a more temperate climate and a very traditional area of the country. In contrast to the more tourist-laden areas, we have seen some but not many cell phones. There are phone booths but local people who need phone service also go to street vendors to make calls. As a way of making a little money, these street vendors carry a standard landline phone with a small antenna. I’m not sure of how the technology works but it’s a great way to reuse all of our discarded phones.

Street market - Coban


The rain subsided so we walked the city streets for hours, passing through local markets and checking out the city. We ended the day with dinner at a highly recommended gourmet restaurant. Lesson learned; don’t expect to get great American food outside of the USA.

Selling vegetables or social time?
Shoes all stacked and ready to sell
Altars for offerings to the gods - on the Catholic Church steps



Day 6

For the second day in a row we got up with the birds to hop on a bus.  Yesterday we rode from Chetumal, Mexico, through part of Belize and to Flores, Guatemala.  In Mexico the buses were large tourist buses however this trip marked the change to mini-buses and vans, narrow bumpy roads, potholes, stretches of gravel and non-functional air conditioning.  No reading on this ride.

In Flores, a quaint little town which is really an island in the middle of an inland lake, we got a great waterfront room with a balcony.  In this town a waterfront room is easier than you would think – the town is about a half mile square and all hotels face the water.  For this we shelled out $16.00 per night, including 2 beds, TV and wifi service.  Amazing.  The reason for this location was as a launching point for Tikal.

This morning in a deep haze we boarded a mini-bus for our one day trip to Tikal.  This amazing acropolis which is the middle of a dense jungle was a center of Mayan civilization.  The photos speak for themselves.

I forgot to mention that Plano Juno is going with us – she is a part of one of our granddaughter Mira´s school projects.


In addition to the historical beauty, the wildlife was incredible – howler monkeys, spider monkeys, weaver birds, parrots, etc.  And of course a pregnant tarantula which is being held by another traveler.

You can’t Judge a Town by it’s Bus Station

Day 3
To ease into our vacation (really because airfare was dirt cheap) we started by flying into Cancun and spent several nights in Playa del Carmen.  Here we are at the Philly airport.

Today we took a bus to Chetamul, which is a border town and a launching point for either Belize or Tikal, Guatemala. The travel books said the only thing to do here is to leave, so our expectations were low to begin with. When we rolled into the bus station in a drab part of town, we wanted to depart immediately. Upon learning there were no more buses to Tikal until tomorrow we had no choice but to stay overnight.

Imagine our surprise when we got to the city centre which has a huge market (we love markets), clean inexpensive hotels ($40) a Mayan museum and it’s a seaside town with a beautiful waterfront and promenade.

We settled in and walked to the waterfront, only to find that it’s “festival-time” in Chetumal. I’m talking about a pre-Lenten, MardiGras type event but more family oriented. Tonight the whole city came out for the parade, carnival, music and food festivity, like I’ve never seen before. Apparently there are 3 more days – each day the town hits the repeat key.

Oh, and we’re staying another day.

Packed and Ready to Go

2600 cubic inch back packs and a small day bag for each

In the recent days, our conversations with friends and acquaintances have been something like:

Q.  “How many suitcases do you pack for being in Central America for 2 months?”

A.  “One”

Then the long sigh.

As long as you asked, the above photo reveals the answer for me. As you can imagine, Kevin’s packing list is quite different.  Sometimes it would be much easier to be a guy.  Since you can’t tell what the clothing items are,  I’ll follow with a list.  I should also tell you that prior to this photo I had packed my bag twice and still had too much to fit, so I needed to re-think some items.  Here’s where I landed:

  • 2 pair zip-off pants (one zips to shorts and one zips to Capri length)
  • 2 travel skirts
  • 2 button down travel shirts
  • 3 sleeveless shirts
  • 2 short sleeve shirts
  • 2 very lightweight long sleeve t-shirts – one will double as pj top
  • pj bottoms – lightweight cotton
  • wide brim hat
  • undies and socks
  • toiletries
  • toed sandals and flip-flops
  • Fleece zip-up for layering and doubles as a pillow
  • Goretex jacket
  • Camping/packing towel
  • huggies – great for a quick clean-up.  Also double as a stain remover.
  • sunglasses
  • books
  • cards
  • Travel Scrabble (thank you, Shaun)
  • iPod and iPhone – don’t plan to use international service however)
  • Earings – one pair.  Will be easy to purchase locally made jewelry
  • Camera and USB cable, of course
  • Electrical adaptors
  • A few granola bars
  • Crystal Light lemonade packs – for when I’m tired of water.

There are many more small items but this is a good start.


My small bag is a 17″ Ameribag.  It has lots of zippers and in future photos, you’ll see that it has a wide strap, it wears well on my front, and often my arm is on top of the bag which adds some level of security.  It’s not a sure bet but is certainly better than carrying a hand bag.  This is the second one I owned and personally, I wouldn’t travel without it.  In addition I’ll wear a lightweight moneybelt for my passport and one charge card.