At the end of last year I was lucky enough to be able to take a break from the daily grind of full time work and took myself on a three month backpacking adventure across the wonderful Central America! I swapped Christmas trees and cold commuter journeys for delicious fish tacos under Mexico’s sunny skies and began my trip with a couple of weeks travelling the Yucatan peninsular. After making my way south through Mexico I continued down to explore Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and finally Cuba. A fantastic whirlwind of different cultures, landscapes, food, and people which I would love to continue writing about but, alas, I realise that this should be a design-themed blog so I’ll try to remain focussed!

On my return to the greyness of Blighty and to the desk which was left just where I left it, I decided to write a design blog inspired by my travels. Having travelled through relatively poor countries, where in some cases half the population live below the national poverty line, I wasn’t surprised to find that beautifully crafted graphic design, packaging and advertising wasn’t the top of their priorities. And this was shown in their brilliantly dated billboard designs, worn shop fronts and mundane/lack of food packaging. But beauty came in an abundance of other forms such as Mexico’s woven tapestries, Cuba’s political graffiti art and Guatemala’s intricately decorated buses. The “chicken buses”, as they are known locally, are an abundance of colour, noise and smell and to me, were one of the greatest design stories I encountered during my time away.

As tired, former US school buses that no longer conform to the States’ strict safety standards, these classic yellow and black machines are auctioned off to Guatemalan families to be given a new lease of life as a city bus in Central America. After being purchased at a knock-off price, a nominated family member is given the arduous task of taking the bus on the long and dangerous drive back to Guatemala, via Mexico. Driving 16 hour days, sleeping overnight in Mexican ganglands, and navigating corrupt officials at the border crossings are just some of the dangers they face. But, once safely arrived in Guatemala, the driver can take his prized new purchase to a workshop where the real magic can begin! They are transformed from uniform, state-run machines to colourful works of art, showered with unique character and each design created individually for it’s owner. The belief is that the better and brighter the bus design, the more people that will want to use it to get from A to B, therefore more money for the driver and his employer. So they pull out all the stops!

Any links to the bus’s previous life must be covered over so, once the team of designers get to work, they first use rudimentary flame-lit newspaper scraps and alcohol to melt away the school name lettering running down the sides. They sometimes even go to the efforts of replacing the traditional square windows with slanted frames to give the impression of speed, and rusty metal parts get a coating of shiny chrome paint. With a blank canvas ready to be painted, the workshop manager will then work with the bus company owner to create a bespoke design that uses the company’s unique brand colours, and includes any design elements that are significant to them. These could be anything from birds to represent smooth flight (kind of ironic!), to religious hints of patron of safe travel St Christopher, or traditional Guatemalan patterns for an injection of colour. Once the design is signed off, it is mapped out on the bus using masking tape and newspaper and then the workers use brightly coloured spray paint to fill in the gaps. A few weeks later, a true “camioneta” (modified, decorated bus) is born and ready to be put into action on the streets of Guatemala! It’s distinctive design sets it apart from other company’s so that, when faced with a bus park full of colours and designs, you can pick out the one you’d like to ride in.

If you manage to make it over to Guatemala, a ride on a camioneta is definitely a ‘must’ for any visitor. The way they squeeze 5 adults onto a 2 seater bench made for children, the manic sprint passengers must do to launch themselves into the back as they drive past, and the huge array of goods that ladies hoard aboard in the hope of a sale. If you manage to get to your intended destination then pat yourself on the back, its a massive achievement! But don’t bank on having comfort, a sense of urgency or a smooth ride. That’s the beauty of it. Just sit back, enjoy the adventure and watch the wonderfully bizarre world of buses in Guatemala play out.