Beyond Cariari, All Aboard the Chicken Bus
Every morning at 4 a.m. and every afternoon at 2 p.m., the bus arrives in the town of Cariari, in the northern part of the Limón province, to take farmers, fishermen and entire families up a treacherous rocky road to their homes in some of Costa Rica’s smallest towns. After two-and-a-half hours of bumping and thrashing, honking at neighbors and inching up steep hills, the bus arrives at Puerto Lindo, located on the northern branch of the Río Colorado in the northeast corner of the country. In Puerto Lindo, it drops off passengers, turns around, picks up more, and heads back.
Although they rarely go faster than 35 km/hour, the two buses that traverse the lone road in this part of the country are nicknamed El Perico (the Parakeet) and La Golondrina (the swallow). Despite their names, the buses are blue and white, slow and dusty, and never leave the ground.
The bus driver is a square-headed, jolly man named Christopher Sánchez. Of average height and plump, he has a full head of spiked black hair and is usually grinning, revealing his uneven teeth. When Sánchez sees a stranger, he masks his pleasant demeanor with a scowl; although here, on the stony path that is the only way for people from the northeast corner of Limón to reach the rest of the country, almost every face is a familiar one.
A Community Feeling
The usual passengers are the people of the small communities of this region, which include Linda Vista, Los Angeles, El Cedral, Caño Zapota and Puerto Lindo. Aside from Barra del Colorado, which has some fame as a sport fishing hotspot, none of the towns served by the bus have merited even the tiniest speck on the country’s maps.
The region is home to farmers and fishermen, whose houses are humble but whose properties are broad and green with rolling hills, thick trees, skinny milk cows and hump-backed, heat-resistant zebu cattle. Their houses are far apart, but occasionally along the road a few are grouped together near an elementary school and soccer field. When the riders need to go into Cariari, home of the region’s only gas station, grocery store, and health clinic, they wait along the road for the bus and Sánchez’s smiling face.
On the morning route from Puerto Lindo, dozens of young mothers board the bus, holding their babies and toddlers tight in swaddling blankets as the bus plods over large grey stones and across narrow bridges. The rumble of the engine, the sound of rocks shifting underneath the wheels and the wails of the children make it a noisy trip.
Most mothers are taking their babies to the government health clinic in Cariari or to the Nutrition and Education Center in Palmitas, just north of there. The other passengers make the trek to buy food, cooking equipment, shoes, medicine, clothing and other necessities unavailable in the rural towns they inhabit, which they stuff into plastic bags.
Around 9 a.m., the bus arrives in Cariari after a there-and-back trip to Puerto Lindo. Sánchez goes home to rest, and the passengers spend the morning in the big city filling their bags with necessities.
At 2 p.m., Sánchez returns, smiling and rested. He honks as the bus comes to an abrupt halt in front of the terminal. The passengers waiting to board are the same faces from the morning, except now the babies are fed and sleeping, and the once-empty bags are stuffed and heavy. Several passengers stand for the trip home, with bags of flour, rice, beans or potatoes resting over their shoulders, bringing home weeks’ worth of sustenance and materials.
Hazards of the Journey
Despite the community feeling aboard the bus, there are growing concerns. In August, several masked men wielding guns held up the bus. They emerged from the trees on the side of the road, pointed their weapons at Sánchez, boarded, and took the passengers’ hard-earned goods. With no other cars on the rocky byway, the thieves had plenty of time to ransack the bus and loot everyone aboard.
“It was the first time it happened to me,” said Sánchez, who has driven the route every day for six months. “But I was warned it would happen. It happened to the driver before me four or five times. For a while, a police officer rode the bus with us, but after a few days, he stopped riding.”
The route is known for being susceptible to robberies, and while passengers are warned of the dangers, what can they do? The bus is the only way into town in the morning and the only way home at night.
“I usually pray before the trip,” said Rosela Campos, a resident of Barra del Colorado as she waited in the dark for the 5 a.m. boat that takes residents to Puerto Lindo to catch the 6:15 bus into Cariari. “I’ve never been on a bus that was robbed, but I know many people who have. It’s a shame we don’t have any police to protect us. People save their money for weeks and then have all their purchases taken from them. It’s very sad.”
The other worry is the condition of the road. While it has always been bad, recent heavy rains have resulted in landslides, fallen trees and a partially collapsed bridge. The missing portion of the bridge is marked off by yellow tape, and the bus narrowly passes over what remains.
“I have taken pictures of the road and the landslides and the bridge and sent them to CONAVI (the National Roadway Council),” Sánchez said. “But no one has responded. They say they will come to help, but no one has and the road is getting worse. I’m worried for the passengers and I fear for my own safety.”
According the official government newspaper La Gaceta, the road has been declared a national roadway, and is therefore the responsibility of CONAVI rather than the local municipality. Sánchez says he has contacted CONAVI several times but no assistance has yet arrived. As of press time, CONAVI had not responded to inquires from The Tico Times about the road.
For now, the bus plods on seven days a week, bringing the people of the rural villages of northeastern Limón to the city, and bringing bits of the city to rural villages. The riders cross their fingers and say their prayers, hoping they make it home safely.
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