From school bus to ‘chicken bus’

If you’ve ever wondered where that big yellow school bus you spent hours on during elementary school goes when it dies, you’ll be happy to hear it gets a new life in Guatemala.

Every year, old school buses roll south from across the United States. Alejandro Mejia owns a shop on the outskirts of Antigua, Guatemala that takes in the rundown buses and turns them into usable transit in his country.

Before entering Guatemala’s transit system, Meija tricks the buses out by raising their suspension and chopping several feet from the back so they’re lighter and can better navigate the region’s tough terrain.

To complete the makeover, each bus gets a nice paint job in any color from bright green, to deep red, to ocean blue. Four or five weeks later, Meija gives the revamped bus a name like Evelyn or Esmeralda and turns it over to it’s new owner.

The buses are known as camionetas or “chicken buses,” referring to their cramped quarters and the fact that they sometimes transport livestock.

First Student Inc. is an Ohio-based company that contracts with roughly 90 public education agencies in California and others nationwide to sell their used school buses. Danny Cozort, a fleet sales manager, told California Watch he estimates his company sold 3,000 buses last year alone.

Many of them were sent to Mexico, Guatemala and other countries in Central America. According to Cozort, customers there pay anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 for the aged buses.

Some used school buses are also reused stateside, converted into mobile homes or as transportation for local churches.

There’s no limit to how old these rides can be in California, since the state doesn’t require school districts to retire buses after a certain number of years. Instead, districts must have every bus certified by the California Highway Patrol every 13 months.

Anna Borges, supervisor for the state Office of School Transportation told California Watch:

“We’ve got buses from the ’80s still running.”

Once buses travel south, they could still have another 10 to 20 years of life in them.

So next time you see a worn-down yellow school bus, think about the exciting new life it may soon have providing a primary means of transportation for many Guatemalans.