Buses of Guatemala

While the buses within Guatemala City are mostly older transit style former school buses, the interurban buses tend to be newer conventional models. These newer buses, serving places like Antigua, are the most highly decorated ones I’ve seen in Central America. The paint jobs tend to be bright and polished, and I even saw a couple of buses with scrolling LED headsigns where they used to say School Bus. One reason for their relatively good condition may be the national government’s law prohibiting the importation of buses more than a certain number of years old (the bus owner I interviewed wasn’t sure of the exact age).

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Transmetro – BRT in Guatemala City

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The week I arrived in Guatemala City, the municipality initiated service on the new Corredor Central (shown in green in the map above) of its Transmetro bus rapid transit (BRT) system. The city’s first line, Transmetro Sur (shown above in orange), opened in 2007 and was also the first BRT line in Central America. The municipality is continuing to expand on these two existing lines, with hopes of eventually replacing the old red school buses on many of the city’s most crowded routes.

Unlike many of the so-called BRT systems in the United States, the Transmetro has many characteristics of high quality transit, including prepaid fares, multiple boarding doors, level platform loading at enclosed stations, and well-enforced exclusive right of way (for most stretches). I’m not sure if traffic signal prioritization has been implemented, but at some intersections along the routes, officers directing traffic essentially served as signal preemption. The first line uses 160-passenger Busscar Urbanuss Plus articulated buses on Ciferal and Volvo chassis, while the new Corredor Central uses 119-passenger Busscar Urbanuss models on Scania chassis. Having police officers at each station and on each bus greatly improves boarding efficiency and security over the old red buses. The Transmetro Sur even has a mix of local and express services. In short, for the same fare as the old red school buses (about 12¢), the Transmetro is a much safer and more pleasant transportation experience.

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Buses of Guatemala City

Red Type D transit-style buses, many of which have Blue Bird bodies, form the core of Guatemala City’s bus system. Interurban Type C conventional buses interface with the main urban routes at nodes throughout the city. See, for example, the aerial picture of Trébol below. About twelve Route 57 buses are queued along the overpass at the bottom of the picture. A couple blocks up, more than twenty intercity buses are queued along the street. When I walked through here to catch a bus to Antigua, the honking intercity buses were all constantly creeping forward. Boarding passengers had to navigate the crowd of people, scan the headsigns for their destinations, and jump onto the appropriate bus all while trying to avoid being run over.

The municipal government is starting to introduce a new bus rapid transit system (in which the buses actually come to a complete stop for boarding and about which more will be posted soon), but implementation is fairly slow, and the old red buses are sure to be around for a while.

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Buses of Western Belize

Many companies run along the Western Highway from Belize City and Belmopan to Benque Viejo near the border with Guatemala, including Shaw’s, National, Guerra’s, D&E, Middleton’s, and the Belize Bus Owners Cooperative. This tends to be a slower route than the other main highway routes, due to curves and heavy agricultural traffic near the Mennonite community of Spanish Lookout. It was even slower for a few days during my stay with a detour required by repair work being done on the Hawksworth Bridge between San Ignacio and Santa Elena.

Drivers in Belize used their prewarning and warning lights not for boarding or alighting passengers, but instead for decoration and visibility. I saw a few buses with flashing lights and strobes driving along the Northern Highway, and it seemed more common in the west.

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Southern Belize – Bus Photos

Southern Belize seemed to have a slightly more diverse population of bus makes than the North. In front yards and empty lots along the Hummingbird and Southern Highways from Belmopan to Punta Gorda, I saw Blue Birds, AmTrans, Wards, Waynes, Carpenters, and Thomas Built Buses. As in other places, many of them had the school district names covered in black spray paint, as if censored; I’d be interested in finding out whether this is done by the old owners (school districts), the new ones, or someone in between. Two years ago, I would have seen many more abandoned buses along the route; the recently paved Southern Highway used to take its toll on buses (in the first image below, note the picture of a bus driving through two feet of water), and many that broke down would be left on the shoulder of the road. Recently, scrap metal dealers, especially from Guatemala, have been hauling these away.

Unlike the Northern and Western Highways, which are served by many different bus companies, the Southern Highway is essentially served by only one company, James Bus Lines. Operating out of Punta Gorda, James Bus Lines is an icon of the country. Stonetree Records even uses the James livery as a motif for their This is Belize album.

The founder, James Williams, who recently passed away, was very well regarded by those in Punta Gorda. One person told me it was Williams’ morning routine to drive his truck to a bus stop known as The Dump, where residents of San Antonio and Crique Jute transfer from village buses to the early morning northbound express, just to talk with them and make sure they were doing well. The company also raffles off cash prizes to its passengers, using their ticket stubs as entry tickets. Other companies are able to make runs in the southern towns of Dangriga and Placencia, but James Bus Lines has a virtual monopoly on service all the way to Punta Gorda. A resident of Na Luum Caj told me that passengers in Punta Gorda simply will not ride another company’s buses. While much has changed since the 1989 bus report I read in Belize’s National Archives, the following still seems to apply to James Bus Lines: “Bus owners take great pride in their business and acknowledge the importance and responsibility in providing public transportation. In turn, passengers reciprocate through loyalty to specific bus firms.”

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Buses of Na Luum Caj

Scheduled buses from Na Luûm Caj to Punta Gorda run only four days a week, departing at 3:00 and 3:30 AM so that vendors can set up their market stalls at sunrise. This schedule is still an improvement over twenty years ago, when the majority of Toledo’s villagers had to ride into town in the back of pickup trucks.

The main bus owner in Na Luûm Caj is Felix Choc. He operates the 3:30 AM departure using a 1994 Blue Bird All American that was retired from a school district in Arizona earlier this year. Choc also owns a 1988 Thomas/Ford conventional that made its way down from Illinois in 2003 and three older buses used for spare parts and scrap metal. Last year he sold a 1983 Thomas/Ford conventional, formerly Bus #26 in the fleet of Florida’s Duval County Public Schools, to his neighbor, Lucio Sho. Lucio, the brother of my host, now uses it to run the 3:00 AM departure.

Another highlight of my time in the village was an hour and a half long hike through the jungle to an old logging site. The holder of the logging title towed an old school bus up to the site and set it up as an overnight shelter for his workers.

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Gilharry’s Bus Shop

In Corozal, I was able to get a tour of the Gilharry/Venus Bus Lines shop from the owner’s son. Talking with him, and interviewing the owner a couple days later, gave me a great sense of the history of passenger transportation in Belize. I’ll publish highlights from that interview soon. In the meantime, here are some pictures of the older buses that are kept at the shop for parts.

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Northern Belize – Bus Photos

Various former school buses in the Corozal and Orange Walk Districts of Belize

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