Friday morning dawns clearly, and it’s the smell that first reminds us to the fact that we weren’t camping in the desert last night – while we were sleeping, the Pacaya volcano was still erupting around us (and generating that sulphur smell!). It was entirely worth spending the night here, for the overnight tales around a lava campfire and for this – an opportunity to experience the volcano well before the crowds of tourists arrive.
So while they’re all just getting off their buses, we’re on our way back to better explore the town of Antigua, Guatemala. Ordered evacuated in the late 1700s, the town today is a mix of those Spanish colonial ruins and a modern central American community wanted to display the colours and flavours of this region. There’s an easy lunch to grab at the markets, and coffee … well, it’s just as good (and local) as the chocolate was yesterday.
Our last stop is a drink on the rooftop terrace of Cafe Sky, the perfect space to watch the sun set between the volcanoes that surround the town. For us today, the weather is not as perfect as it could be – there are storms rolling in. Make sure you grab an extra drink for the road – we have a long night ahead of us … on the buses.
Central America is known for its ‘Chicken Buses’, mostly old US school buses repurposed for local transport where they are reborn with character … and a little craziness. We feel a little crazy waiting in the bus shelter for our 7pm bus to arrive, but what a moment to savour when it does. It’s Friday night in Guatemala, and our senses are being pressed by the encroaching storm; focusing us on the small things that surround us as we board; and as lightning cracks and the rain begins to dump our bus pulls out from Antigua on the way back to Guatemala City.
Colourful as the Chicken Buses are (and if you love the photos here, consider buying the book here!), it’s the fellow passengers that make the journey exciting. We’re on a dream holiday, yet for them this is reality, living and working in the small town of Antigua and each with their own reason to be heading into the capital city in the rain. Travelling by bus in Guatemala is a tourist ritual, and to miss a Chicken Bus experience is like going to Pisa, Italy, to only see the train station.
The same can’t be said of all bus journeys, however. This is just the first leg of a marathon effort that will take us all the way from this plantation community on Friday night to the island of Caye Caulker, in neighbouring Belize, on Saturday afternoon.
We recently shared our tips for surviving long train journeys. In our experience, 8 hours on a train is much, much easier than 8 hours on a bus. And so our tips are different.
- Pack plenty of water and snacks
- And pack wet wipes for your face (et cetera). This will help the person next to you as much as it will help you!
- If you’ve ever had any kind of motion sickness, be prepared to elbow your way to get a seat near the front of the bus
- Things to bring on a long bus ride start with Headphones, headphones, headphones – you don’t always want to use them because the long bus rides are the perfect opportunity to talk to people, meet interesting fellow travellers (or locals) and gain some tips about places to go / see / eat /sleep. But it’s also good to have a backup plan
- Don’t plan to sleep on the bus. Unless you’re very tired (or used to it), you probably won’t, even if it’s an overnight bus
- Move your seat back asap. The longer you leave it forward, the more of a kick from behind you’ll get when you first recline
- Use the toilet at every pitstop, even if you don’t think you need to go – no matter how bad it is, it’s probably better than experiencing the smell of the bus toilet (or a nasty pothole experience)
- And here’s a sneaky one we love from Redditer crackanape: “in a cheap country, I try to buy a child ticket for the seat next to me. Sometimes they get annoyed when I can’t produce an actual child, but it’s always worked in the end.”
Our overnight bus from Guatemala City east to the town of Flores is thankfully incident-free, helped by the fact that we booked a 1st Class bus rather than the locals, which are somewhat cheaper but can potentially stop every 30 minutes … for 12 hours.
We arrive in Flores just after 5am, with the sun just a hint on the horizon and the storms having long since rolled through. There’s two hours here to stretch our legs by walking around the small town with the (successful) aim of finding fresh coffee at 7am on a Saturday morning. Most of our fellow passengers are staying here, with plans to visit the nearby Tikal National Park. We have one more bus, an express (always take the express) from Flores across the border into Belize, and up to Belize City where we arrive at lunchtime. As we board the water taxi in Belize City, we can feel our final destination – and then we can see it, the small island of Caye Caulker, where the sea air has the magic effect of washing away any deleterious effects of all that time on the bus.
Saturday afternoon is spent exploring the island. We have time to ourselves – pretty well everything in Caye Caulker is a 20 minute walk away, at most. (And if that’s too much of a strain, you can hire a golf cart and take it really easy.) And there’s the option of an afternoon Bird Tour where … yes … that’s exactly what we needed to remind ourselves why we travel…a Tucan taking flight!
If the camping and the bus trip are still clinging to you, you’ll love our Sunday plans as we jump onto a boat for a full day snorkelling tour. Caye Caulker is on the edge of a tropical reef, and there’s no shortage of tropical fish and coral to snorkel past. We also have a chance to find out why Shark-Ray Alley is so named – and remember, any fins you see here probably aren’t attached to dolphins!! Lastly, there’s a chance to visit the Swallow Caye Marine Reserve – if anyone is loving the water as much as we are today, it’s these endangered Manatees that just look so darn huggable!
Hot lava to cold ocean. That’s the everydaydream holiday weekend!
Want to go? Need to know!
- You can fly from Guatemala City to Belize City to avoid the buses. Just be prepared to pay over $200 for the 45 minute flight … a positive bargain for the almost $100 you can pay for the onward flight from Belize City to Caye Caulker. Or pay a premium for shuttle buses (and miss the local experience) http://www.transportguatemala.com/shuttle-schedule.php
- The roads in Guatemala are far better than you’re expecting, which also helps with enjoying the bus experience.
- Water Taxis will cost $20Bz each way, but like most things in Belize US DOllars are also welcome (just confirm prices before handing them over, to avoid anything untoward).
- Tsunami Adventures offer bird tours both by walking (on the southern end of Caye Caulker) or incorporating a boat tour to the north of the island
- Caye Caulker is also a popular dive site, with experienced divers often travelling here just to explore the 145m deep Great Blue Hole in the centre of the Lighthouse Reef
- Manatees are also known as Dugongs. An endangered species globally, they’re often overlooked in a world of Finding Nemo and Shark Fin Soup. Companies like Humpybong in Australia are trying to change that awareness gap.
What are your tips for long bus rides? Share them with the world in the comments below.