Laughing to Cayo on a Chicken Bus in Belize

On the tail end of a full week with the Denning Family, our great friends from Iowa, the Castenadas, came to visit us. I have been friends with Jessica for over 14 years and she’s been one of the few that has visited me in both Costa Rica and now Belize. Jessica & Salvador have a great family that includes 2 beautiful boys and one baby on the way. They are living proof that families can travel to the jungles of the world with little ones in tow. We spent the first few days on the island, and we are traveling to the mainland for a little more site seeing.

The most economical way to travel around Belize is by bus – Belizians call them Chicken Buses. The buses of Belize are run by private companies and are actually quite efficient. A chicken bus is an old US school bus that has made its way to Central America to become the major form of public transportation. Sometimes they scream down the highways and other times it seems as if they stop every 25 feet to pick up passengers. Either way, they keep to an amazingly on time schedule and are the cheapest way to get around the country. I’m not sure why they are called chicken buses, because there are no chickens or livestock on them (I’ve been on real “chicken buses” in Peru with chickens sitting next to me). Most chicken buses have a luggage rack on one side where you can stow away your backpack or suitcase. If your suitcase is too big, then you’ll have to stow it in the luggage space below the bus. There is usually two people working on the bus, the driver and the fare man. They are very helpful and if you ask them to notify you of your stop they will. They’ll also help with your luggage, if need be. But they don’t have any uniforms, name tags or any other way of identifying them, so upon boarding it may be confusing as to who is actually taking your luggage to stow it away. Just trust, watch you bag get loaded and squeeze onto the bus. The bus from Belize City to San Ignacio costs $7 bzd ($3.50 US).

The Chicken Buses of Belize

The Chicken Buses of Belize

We were lucky the ‘fare man’ saved us two seats for our two families. The bus was packed – all seats and standing spaces taken. There are arms in the air holding onto the luggage rack and we can see which women are overdue for an underarm shave.

Chicken bus in Belize

The view from the back of a Chicken bus in Belize

Salvador turns to me and asks if there is any other way to get to San Ignacio?

“Of course!” I say. “Taxi, shuttle, rent a car or fly – but you wanted the ‘backpack’ experience. This is it. This is the real Belize.”

I think back to messaging with him before they got here. He wanted to fly over the blue hole, snorkel, cave tube, see Mayan ruins, play in Placencia and the rest of the country in 8 days, with 2 children and a pregnant wife.

I laugh out loud.

The first day on Ambergris Caye he and his wife, Jessica, got dreadfully sunburned. So much so, they spent the next 3 days indoors, avoiding the sunshine and missing out on the planned adventures Sal hoped to have.

Now, they sit on an old school bus seat – back and chest blistering. As the bus travels toward San Ignacio, the winds cool us and I hope their peeling skin isn’t flying into my face.

“Once we start traveling, we may have to up our travel budget” Salvador says.

I laugh again.

What? Didn’t he like sitting in the humidity of the bus station in Belize? Did he laugh when the bus pulled up and hoards of people started running toward it before it stopped? Wasn’t it funny when he saw me help Jessica by boosting her butt up so that she could get in through the back door of the bus? I guess not. I thought it was funny.

I realize this style of travel isn’t ideal for everyone. But you do get to see the diverse culture that is Belize. Otherwise, you fly right over it or get shuttled through it surrounded by tourists just like you.

The bus is filled with people sporting corn rows, short haired afros, do rags, cowboy hats, blond flyaway strands, gray hair dyed red, brown ponytails and black braids. That’s diverse.

We choose to travel this way. We could certainly afford traveling otherwise, but for us the value is in the experience not the dollars spent. And for now, this is the experience we choose.

We want to live in Belize, experience Belize, not just observe Belize.

We pull out of Belize City, the bus makes several stops where most of the standing passengers get off and create more room. Ahhh…it’s more comfortable to travel without armpits above us.

More passengers get off at the Belize Zoo and Sal looks much more comfortable, but we are constantly reminding him to stop peeling his skin – it is going to fly into our face!

Sal's peeling Mexican skin

Sal's peeling Mexican skin

Jessica says “I like this traveling better than in Costa Rica” – her family visited us a year ago and she is referring to the crazy mountain roads in Costa Rica. The Belize hills are tame in comparison.

The Gambler has great advice

There is old country western music playing. We find the bus to be somewhat relaxing. In fact, I wrote most of this post on it. And I think the country western music is relaxing Jessica too. The Gambler reminds us that

“the secret to survival is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep. Every hands a winner and every hands a loser”

As Keith and I burst into song (yes, out loud…there are times when even we have no shame) I think about those words and how wise they are. Life really is what you make of it and that depends on the attitude you have. I digress, that is another blog post.

Losing Jessica

Jessica turns around and asks me “Do you remember the time you guys lost me in the Grand Canyon?”

I laugh again.

We reminisce about hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, getting there at dusk and not being able to make it to our designated camp spot. We slept with the donkeys that night and ate mac and cheese for breakfast.  Now we’re both married, have children and are still lifelong friends. But, I wonder if she thinks we’ll lose her in Belize.

We stop quickly in Belmopan-nearly halfway there. The front and back doors open and more people pile on the bus for the next leg of the trip. This is new territory for the Kings…we haven’t been to the Cayo district yet. By this time, Miss I needs a little entertainment and I hand her my old digital camera (which, by the way, is one of the best travel toys for kids).  G has woken from his “I don’t like taxis and I don’t like buses” nap and is much more agreeable now. I think about how awesome my children are. In fact, all the kids are handling this nearly 3 hour bus ride extremely well.

Best Child Travel Toy - an old, but functioning digital camera

Best Child Travel Toy - an old, but functioning digital camera

Sal is more relaxed, or as much as he gets. I ask Jessica if she’s ever traveled somewhere without knowing where she is sleeping. She says “No” and then with slightly bigger eyes asks “Is that what we are doing?”

I laugh again.

I answer honestly that we don’t have a place to stay, but I’m sure we’ll find one when we get there. I’m not sure this gives her any comfort. I have to keep up with being her “nearly fearless adventure friend”. It’s my role and I’m constantly upping the game.

In reality, we’re both quite adventurous. I quit my lucrative corporate job (albeit 2 yrs of it) over 11 years ago in favor of the unpredictable roller coaster of entrepreneurship and learning. Jessica gave up a successful, secure job as a CAD operator to go to chiropractic school and follow her passion for natural health. Now, she runs one of the most successful chiropractic offices in Davenport, IA, solely on her passion (and a little hard work).

We roll past nicely maintained little plots of land with cows grazing, a few homes that look like estates and then more typical homes of Belize. I like this Belize. It’s varied and abundant. We pass TeaKettle Village, where we buy our organic produce, more citrus fields and a large field full of papaya trees. The land is flat with a few patchwork lots that have remained ‘jungly’, but the land here is mainly farmland surrounded by hills.

Threshold and Destination Reached

Just as I reach my threshold of heat, humidity, music, squirmy children and being confined to a school bus seat, the traveler behind me says we only have 5 more minutes to go.  Great timing. My patience is running thin, Miss I is super tired and can’t we just be there yet?

The bus pulls into the bus ‘station’, which is a dirt parking lot on the edge of downtown San Ignacio. In typical Belize fashion, we jump off the BACK of the bus while strangers hold our babies. Jessica wonders if we are okay with having a stranger handle our kids. I guess we are. I wouldn’t let this guy take my child somewhere where I couldn’t see him, but, yes, please help me by holding my baby as I jump off this bus. Thank you.

I can only imagine what their fresh eyes and minds are seeing. All this is new: the bus, the landscape, the variety of people. Is it instinct to be weary of new places or a learned response? Either way, Jessica and Sal are on high alert and probably in sensory overload.

We stroll into town and sit down at Flayva’s restaurant, order some food and send the guys off to hunt down some shelter for the next two days. Sal comes back with wide eyes and uncomfortable body language and Keith strolls into the restaurant like he found the best deal on the planet. They looked at a few places and Sal let Keith make the decision to stay at the Hi-Et (pronounced like Hyatt, but not even close to the Hyatt).

Simple, but clean rooms at the Hi-Et in San Ignacio...for $25US/night

Simple, but clean rooms at the Hi-Et in San Ignacio...for $25 US/night

I’m not sure Sal is comfortable with the decision. He even offered to pay for our room in a nicer hotel.

I laugh again.

Sal is totally NOT in his comfort zone. Does he think we are crazy? Maybe he thinks we can’t afford anything else? Maybe we just want to torture our guests? To tell you the truth, it is interesting to see peoples reactions in new, uncomfortable situations. So, maybe we are a little warped like that. But, I keep thinking: “Sal, you are getting exactly what you asked for and, perhaps, exactly what you need.” Either way, he is not relaxed, but we finish our meal and head off around the corner to the Hi-Et.

As we walk up the hill, Jessica laughs out loud (I’m glad someone else is finally laughing with me). Looking at the Hi-Et, she just realized that it’s not the HYATT and is amused.

The Hi-Et in San Ignacio, Cayo - Belize

The Hi-Et in San Ignacio, Cayo - Belize

We drop our stuff in our rooms and head on out to the market to buy fresh fruit for the morning breakfast. The market in San Ignacio is filled with beautiful, colorful produce…for a fraction of the price we find on Ambergris Caye. I drool at the colors, variety, freshness and price!

Colors of Produce at the San Ignacio, Belize Market

Colors of Produce at the San Ignacio, Belize Market

We end our day near the river, enjoying dusk with the locals playing, barbequing and relaxing by the river.

The river in San Ignacio, Belize

The river in San Ignacio, Belize


Jessica relaxing with her boys

Jessica relaxing with her boys


G and Evan, expending lots of 3 & 4 yr old energy

G and Evan, expending lots of 3 & 4 yr old energy

Tomorrow, we are set to explore a Barton Creek Cave and make sure the Xunantunich Mayan ruins are fit for the visit of Prince Harry.

I lay down to sleep, with a smile on my face and a trickle of laughter remaining, wondering what my friends are really thinking. I am so glad that they are here experiencing this with us.

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8 Responses to “Laughing to Cayo on a Chicken Bus in Belize”

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