Chicken bus

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Needing a break from 4 weeks of Spanish immersion we decided to get out of Xela for a weekend. Seeing Lago Atitlan seemed like the way to go and, for once, we traveled without Marlin. We caught the direct chicken bus to San Pedro from the bus station at 2pm though there are buses which leave at all hours – you just have to ask around. Sonia, the best home-stay mom ever, was appalled that we were skipping almuerzo (lunch) and packed up a tasty meal for us which we devoured on the bus.

Chicken buses are not the most comfortable transport but they are the cheapest way to get around Guatemala. There are tour companies that offer direct transport (with probably more comfortable seats) all over Guatemala but they charge you for it. It costs $14 USD/person one way to San Pedro whereas taking the chicken bus was only $3 USD/person one way. Personally, I don’t think the private buses are worth it as you take the same bumpy roads. Save the cash, experience typical Guatemalan transport and stay in a nicer hostel.

During the Vietnam war, Lago Atitlan (particularly the town of Panajachel) was a place where war-dodgers fled to avoid conscription. Once the civil war in Guatemala started most foreigners left the area while the battle for human and civil rights raged for nearly thirty years. In 1996 the hostilities ended and the Lake slowly returned back to a tourist destination.

Lago Atitlan

Lago Atitlan

The lake is beautiful. And it was warm! After freezing in Xela we were pretty excited to be in flip-flops and t-shirts. We spent the Friday night in San Pedro, a popular hangout for the bohemian set. Marijuana and coffee are the main crops and we were approached by more than one young guy trying to sell ‘the lake weed’. We did see signs for pretty cheap Spanish classes, about $55 for 4 hours a day, 5 days per week and accommodation is relatively inexpensive. Personally I think it would be a bit boring after a week or so but there were a number of bohos who looked like they had been there for a long time.

Boat Trip on Lago Atitlan

Boat Trip on Lago Atitlan

The next day we took a boat over the lake to the esoteric San Marcos. The small community is home to mediation courses, reiki, yoga and many other holistic therapies. People come here to complete courses in new age theology which last from 1 to 3 months, or just to participate for a few days. The most famous center in San Marcos is called, Los Piramides, a place where you can take the Moon-course or the Sun-course, both which end with compulsory periods of silence. We had a look around and wandered into their herb garden, in the shape of a pyramid of course, where just about every type of medicinal plant is grown and they can be purchased in the small store for fairly hefty prices.

Las Piramides

Las Piramides

Astral Travelling sounds interesting...

Course Options at Las Piramides

Lakeside in San Marcos

Lakeside in San Marcos

We had to head back to Xela on Sunday and were lucky enough to catch a bus. On Sundays the bus leaves at 8am, we had been told 10am, and when we reached the bus station we were told there were no buses to Xela. Luckily, we met some people from Xela who knew the route back. We grabbed the bus headed to Guatemala City and then switched buses where the road meets the main highway to Guatemala City. Turns out the bus to Xela wasn’t in the best condition as the seat Tom and I had was broken and had slid forward making it a tight squeeze for two long-legged gringos!

Tight Fit on the Bus

Tight Fit on the Bus

When we are not in class filling our brains with Spanish we have been happily hanging out with the students at ICA. There is a broad range of students from all over the world and it is a treat to get to meet all these really great people.

On American Thanksgiving one of the students offered up his apartment for a full-on Thanksgiving meal. Everyone seemed keen and before long the potluck list was full of traditional dishes. This was probably partly due to the fact that more than a few of the students are finding the Guatemalan meals a bit tiny! The dinner was amazing and everyone (about 25 or 30 people) happily stuffed themselves with real turkey (thanks Ben and Krista), mashed potatoes, veggies, gravy and stuffing among other tasty dishes. Pumpkin and apple pie finished off the evening.


This past weekend we set out to see the yearly festival of a local town called San Andres Xecul. The town boasts a technicolour church covered with saints, angels, animals and vines as the background complete with neon lights on the inside. A small fair is set up in front on the church where rides, like the ferris wheel, are hand-operated! Apparently at some point during the weekend there is a pole-climbing contest, which I would assume, is rather interesting judging by the amount of alcohol being consumed. During the afternoon, a long speech by a town leader was followed by (as with all festivals here) a ridiculous amount of fireworks. And then the real party started…dozens of people dressed as conquistadors and animals came out to dance for the crowd. The theme of the Mayas being conquered by the Spanish is a recurring theme in most of the festivals. It seems they have not forgotten.



Getting to and from San Andres Xecul was taken care of the by the local buses fondly known as the, “Chicken Buses”. Take your regular old cheese-wagon from elementary school, pimp it out with chrome details and religious iconography and cram as many humans onto it as possible and then throw in a few more for good measure. Add in your host for the ride, the ayudante, who will scream out the bus destination 20 times in under a minute and call it a day. Welcome to transport Guatemalan style.

All the chicken buses have female names — rumour has it that the buses are usually named after the driver’s mother or daughter. Though they have prayers for safe passage pasted to the windshield they are actually a rather unsafe form of transport due to the umm…driving style and it is not unheard of for backpacks to be swiped when you aren’t paying attention. I have to admit traveling by car beats the chicken bus hands down. But they do look really cool.