Transport in Central America varies from place to place, we have taken a lot of public buses, long-distance buses, chicken buses, one car ferry, a boat, a few water taxis, a private shuttle, road on the back of a truck, a bike taxi, a quad bike, cycled a few times and walked a lot!
Here are a few highlights and low lights of our transport experiences in Central America.
Our longest bus ride was 16-hour night bus from San Jose to Panama City. This included a 2-hour boarding crossing the Costa Rica – Panama border. Most of this journey was spent looking at the top of 2 random peoples heads as their seats were pushed so far back we could not move our legs.
Luckily for us, the border crossing was so long we got respite from the bus. However, we did end up arriving in Panama City around 5am… Not ideal when arriving in a new city. Our hostel was amazing, and let us check in early for some much-needed sleep.
The hot and sticky
In Costa Rica and Nicaragua, there is virtually no air conditioning on buses, so every bus ride was a sweaty affair. Banos (toilets) were also limited so we had to be prepared to hold on for up to 4 hours at a time. The buses and transport in Panama were better, with almost every form of transport having air conditioning, except they turn it off when going up hills.
Annoying other travellers
From Leon, Nicaragua to Flores, Guatemala we were plagued by this group of about 6 young Irish girls. Every time they were on our transport there were issues and delays. I will give them a pass as one of them was very sick at the El Salvador border but for the 10hr bus trip in Guatemala they were all hungover and we had to keep stopping so they could be sick…
The most Surprising moments
A few surprising moments on public transport includes my bag falling out of the bus between Montezuma and Santa Teresa. For some reason the back door was open and the road was very bumpy, hence one big bump and out it goes. I was thinking haha that poor suckers bag has fallen out, when I looked back I realised it was mine… lucky for me a Swiss-German guy jumped out ran down the street and got it for me!
Another surprising moment was on the car ferry, it was only about 4pm and this ferry turned into a party boat. All these Costa Rican families were dancing and singing to music the whole way. It makes me think our society is so conservative and this would never happen at home (unless everyone was drunk).
One day when we were doing our TEFL course in Costa Rica, I left my wallet on a public bus. I truly believed it was gone forever. It was my favourite wallet, one that I brought at the witches market in La Paz, Bolivia. I was lucky I didn’t have any cash it in, but it did mean I had to cancel all my credit cards and would be without my driver’s licence.
Luck would have, it a few days later I received a message via Facebook. Someone had found my wallet, and using a photocopy of my passport inside, found me and told me where I could pick it up. I was so grateful.
The opposite happened to Alisdair. After getting a bike taxi his wallet was swiftly stolen from his pocket whilst fighting through the crowds in Leon, Nicaragua. It was never seen again.
The most dangerous
We took private tourist transport from Leon, Nicaragua to Antigua, Guatemala. This trip took us through Honduras, El Salvador and into Guatemala. We left in the very early hours of the morning and arrived late at night into Antigua. It was an excessively long day.
What made it dangerous, was that tourist transport requires police escort between the El Salvador border to Antigua. There were many traveller stories of robberies so it was a comfort to have the escort.
The most scared I felt on transport during our whole time is the boat ride on Lake Nicaragua. I truly thought we were going to drown. Not only is Lake Nicaragua rough, but it is also one of the most shark-infested waters in the world.
We stood outside to be on the safe side but go so soaked by waves I moved inside. However, I hung by the door gripping for my life just encase…
One of the craziest rides has to be between Lost and Found hostel to Bocas del Toro. We were in a small shuttle made for about 20 people. When we got on there must have been about 30 people inside. We had to stand for an hour and a half whilst this crazy driver drove over a windy mountain range, in the background, there was some very Latin music which added to the drama. I was surrounded by a Panamanian family and one puppy. I also swear someone touched my ass when I bent over.. Poor Ali was too tall for the shuttle.
The sweetest moment was waiting in a bus terminal in Punta Arenas, Costa Rica. The terminal was extremely busy as people were heading back to San Jose after the Christmas holidays. We were in a really big queue with our bags and there was a family in front of us. The 2 little boys (about 7 and 5 years old) took it upon themselves to help me with my bag. It was so cute! Luckily I had some kiwi stickers on me so I gave each of them one which they were happy about.
We also enjoyed the variety of food and drinks we could purchase at any public bus stop. It was cheap and locally supplied. Sometimes, they even came onto the bus which meant we could get food from the comfort of our seat. I did pass on the chicken meal in the plastic bag though, looked like a bag of food poisoning. Otherwise, a cold bottle of coke or water was a welcome relief from the heat.
Bus stops don’t have a schedule but locals know when the buses are due and where they leave from and they will generally help. A good website to use is thebusschedule.com which provides bus times for Central America. The schedule is not always right but is useful for planning ahead and gives you an idea of the route you might need to take.
Lucky for us, Alisdair is a public transport nerd. So he always knows the best ways to get from A to B no matter where we are in the world. Generally, we will always opt for public transport as it is more interesting and is generally much cheaper. Timetables are rare and finding the various public bus stations can be hard but if you are on a budget or looking for an adventure it is worth the effort.
Transport experiences can be hit and miss, but there are lots of good moments in the chaos and whatever experience you have makes for an interesting travel experience.
For more transport advice check out;
- How to get to Montezuma, Costa Rica
- Da Nang Airport to Hoi An on the cheap
- Nicaragua in a nutshell
- Crossing the border: Costa Rica to Panama