We returned from the Coban area today by a very nice air-conditioned bus into Guatemala City. From there we needed to get the one hour ride to Antigua. There are many options and we’d decided ride the local.
At the bus station, a little man asked where we needed to go, and when we said Antigua he grabbed our suitcase and started walking towards his taxi. I called ‘Seňor. Seňor. Seňor.’ He ignored until I was face to face and asked if he was taking us to Antigua or the place where the buses leave to Antigua. He replied ‘Antigua, por supuesto’. He quoted around US $70, so I said that I was sorry for the misunderstanding but we just needed to go to the place to catch a bus to Antigua. He went down to $65, so I repeated where we wanted to go.
The local bus was just pulling out of the barn so we were the only ones to board, stowed our bags above and we took off in a minute. Lucky, or so I thought. Buses are different here in Guatemala, and much of the third world. First, it’s the most common form of transportation. Everyone takes buses but there are several kinds. First you can get a private transfer from point to point, mostly done for tourists, but still reasonable in price. Then there are shared shuttles, point to point, again for tourists and very inexpensive, relative to similar transportation in the States. Then public buses and these come in a several sized and service levels. The bus we took from Coban to Guatemala City was a very modern bus, A/C, comfortable reserved seats, and a movie! The 5 hour ride costs about $11 per person.
Most all buses have a driver, uniform with epilates and all, plus an ‘ayudante’ or helper. This guy may sit in the front seat on the right, if there is one, or stands in the stairwell. His job is to take money, help people off/on the bus with bags, etc, and to assist the driver with reading traffic. Many of the big highway was still only 2 lanes, and food vendors are right up to the curb. The ayudante would signal to an upcoming vendor what he wanted, the driver would slow the bus, the helper jumped off, dropped money and picked up the drink or snack, without actually stopping the vehicle.
The local bus – affectionately called ‘chicken bus’ for the farm animals that may accompany riders, are usually Blue Bird brand, often seen in the states as school buses, with bench seats and no seatbelts. While a few are still school bus yellow, most are painted bright colors, decorated with lots of lights, and paintings of gods or God. Drivers wear no uniform.
We took off, still the only passengers and feeling pretty good about that. The helper stands in the open door of the bus yelling ‘Antigua’ or ‘TEE-GUA’ as we went down city streets in the direction of the main road. People would hop on board and within minutes, we were full.
A man boarded early in this process with a bible and handing out leaflets. He hopped off at the next stop. Another guy made a big speech and demo of some cables he was selling that would get you better cable signal on your phone. Like you’d buy this from someone on a bus. Another was selling water but not in bottles, in plastic bags. Another was selling crackers and walked down the length of the bus and placed a packet in each person’s hand, then on the way back to the front asked for payment. Most just returned the packet.
They still made stops and picked up more riders. And more. Once it seemed we were full, the helper walked through the bus and collected Q10 or $1.25 from each person (remember the taxista wanted $75!). Then he went back to barking out the door and we picked up even more. It was pretty much 3 people sitting on each 2-person bench and at one point I looked back and saw the ayudante standing up on a seat to collect from new borders.
Finally it seemed we were ready to get this show on the road. Bob was on the aisle and saw the driver shift gears, and the shift knob fell off. He continued shifting, and you could hear it grind each time. Then we’d stop and let people off, take others on, and so on. At last we got to Antigua and the bus lot, just behind the municipal market. There were dozens, maybe 100 of these colorful buses there, parked cheek to jowl, one pulling out of the lot for a trip back to the capitol. The ayudante was yelling ‘Guate. Guate.’