Camionetas (“chicken buses”) start their lives as North American school buses, Bluebirds built to ferry under-eights from casa to classroom. Once they move down to these parts, they’re decked out with gaudy “go faster” stripes and windshield stickers bearing religious mantras (“Jesús es el Señor”). Comfort, however, is not customizable: bench seat legroom is so limited that gringo knees are guaranteed a bruise or two, and the roads have enough crater-sized potholes to ensure that your gluteus maximus will take a serious pounding. But you choose to hop aboard in Antigua anyway, just to say you’ve ridden one if for no other reason.
Pre-departure rituals must be observed. Street vendors stream down the aisles, offering everything from chuchitos (stuffed maize dumplings) to bibles. Expect a travelling salesman-cum-quack to appear and utter a heartfelt monologue testifying how his elixir will boost libido, cure piles and insomnia (which won’t be a problem on the journey ahead). Don’t be surprised to find an indigenous family of delightful but snotty-nosed, taco-munching kids on your lap and a basket of dried shrimp under your feet; on the chicken bus, there’s no such thing as “maximum capacity”. A moustachioed driver jumps aboard, plugs in a tape of the cheesiest merengue the marketplace has to offer, and you’re off. The exhaust smoke is so dense even the street dogs run for cover.
Antigua to Nebaj doesn’t look much on a map – around 165km or so – but the route passes through four distinct Maya regions, so you look out for the tightly woven zig-zag shawls typical of Chichicastengo and the scarlet turban-like headdresses worn by the women of the Ixil. Considering the way the bus negotiates the blind bends of the Pan-American Highway, you’ll take anything to divert your attention.
With some luck, after five hours you arrive in Nebaj, a little shaken, slightly bruised, but with a story to tell.