Bus Breakdown in Guatemala

t was time to head to our next destination. After jamming our backpacks into a taxi we zipped off for the bus station. Our plan was to take a 1:30 pm bus from Riu Dulce to Santa Elena (Flores) which is the base city for explorers such as ourselves wanting to visit the ancient ruins of Tikal. As we approached the bus stop in Riu Dulce the bus was parked directly in front of us in the middle of the main highway, loading passengers ready for the trip. This “Fuente del Norte” bus was 15 minutes early as it just passed through one city after another from Guatemala City to its destination. It’s arrival time I did not realize was based on traffic, not a particular schedule. As I paid the taxi driver I had the kids rush to get our packs into the storage compartment under the bus. They lined up and I arrived in time to hand over 60 quetzels for each of our 3 tickets. After having experienced a comfortable air conditioned coach from Guatemala City to Riu Dulce we were a bit surprised as we mounted the steps to our new bus environment. Being the last to get on the bus we were among the 7 people who were relegated to standing up on the bus since there were more passengers than there were seats. This isn’t a big deal on a short bus ride but on a 4 hour trip I wasn’t looking forward to this Guatemalan experience.
The drivers assistant however had compassion on us Gringos and moved some kids around to share seats and invited Alyssa and I to sit at the front of the bus on his bench seat. It was a nice cool place to sit in the hot sticky bus. It also had a great view of the crazy bus driver driving. The bus however looked like it came from a school bus bone yard. It wasn’t anything special as it was just to get people from point A to point B.

Being at the front of the bus under normal circumstances is a fine experience. Being able to see the road and scenery in front of you is great in a new country. This front row seat however was the perfect opportunity to see Guatemalan driving in action. The driver speeds up behind slower vehicles in front of him and pass anything he approaches. I learned from first hand experience that double yellow lines mean nothing if someone in front of you is slow. I also found that Guatemalan bus drivers can see around bends in the road as they have no problem passing vehicles in these unlikely places. Perhaps the most nerve racking experience was when the oncoming driver of a semi truck had to swerve back into his lane after narrowly overtaking another semi to avoid colliding with us.

As we swerved along my ears began to ring. The driver’s assistant that was there to collect the money from all passengers kept pulling a string that connected to the loud horn of the bus. The horn sounded like it was mounted directly behind my ears. The money collector would toot the horn to wave at people, to cars he was overtaking and to vehicles in his way. He loved having control of this loud noisemaker.

The seats were a bit tattered and when I finally found a proper seat 45 minutes later after a few people got off, there was no firm bottom to my seat, just a saggy cushion. I began to wonder what would happen if something broke down on the bus. Would we ever get to our destination.

I didn’t have to wonder for long because only 1 hour into our trip we heard a huge bang near the rear of the bus. The driver slowed down and pulled off to the side of the road. We had blown one of the balding rear tires. Well back at home a backup bus would have been called but in Guatemala they simple pull out the spare tire and get to work at winching the Bus up and pulling the 10 bolts off the tire. The flat tire however was the inside tire of two on the rear drivers side. The bolts were on so tight that a 6 foot long pipe was placed over the bolt wrench to pry the bolts off the tire.

About half of the passengers got off the bus to hang out the shade to watch the changing of a bus tire. A few of them got in and started helping the driver and his assistant as they got to work to remove the wheels and replace them with their bald spare. Within 45 minutes we were back on the bus and on our way again.

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