Having recently returned from backpacking in Central America having solely used buses as transport I thought I would share my experiences. There are 3 main types of bus Minivans, Long-distance buses and Chicken buses.
These large taxis rule the roost in the towns and cities of Central America, some have designated routes, some are shuttles along transport corridors and others linger around like oversized taxis. Private hire is expensive but if you get a shuttle or one of the collectivos on a certain route then they are a very cheap way to get around, you do skimp on comfort though. There is rarely (if ever) any AC other than open windows (which in turn leads to dusty faces/clothes/bags) and just because there is 12 seats it doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t cram in another 5 or more people. Don’t expect to use one of these and come out dust free or non-sweaty.
There are a number of different companies who operate the long distance routes, these routes tend to be just between the capitals cities throughout the region. I used long-distances buses to travel between countries as I was on a reasonably tight time schedule. There are a number of advantages to these buses.
- They are comfy and have AC (probably too cold if anything so take a jumper).
- They are direct and the quickest way to travel between the countries.
- The drivers know people at the borders as they do the routes every day so you tend to go through quicker than you would otherwise.
The disadvantages in my mind don’t outweigh the advantages but you should take it into consideration.
1.They only run certain routes so if you want to see any of the country outside the capital you need to organise other travel plans.
2. A lot of the terminals are out of town or in slightly dodgy areas so if you arrive at night (which is more often than not the case) then you will need to be brave(/stupid) or hire a taxi to get to your hostel.
3. They’re comparably expensive.
Personally I used Tica Bus ( https://www.ticabus.com/ ) but there are a number of others who also operate throughout the whole central region TransNica ( http://transnica.com/new/ ) and King Quality are other popular ones with tourists and rich locals although King Quality is more expensive than the other two.
Anybody who has heard anything about overland travel in Central America has heard of the fabled chicken bus. They are named chicken because it refers to the fact that the buses are often crammed with passengers not unlike a truck load of chickens, or to the fact that Central Americans occasionally transport live animals on such buses. They are brightly coloured old USA school buses which are super cheap but the phrase you pay for what you get certainly is true. To say that they get packed is an understatement, especially early morning or in the afternoon when schools close/shops shut when it appears that the whole nation descends on these workhorses.
Many people (including Lonely Planet) say to be cautious on them and not to travel on them at night but having travelled both during the day and night I disagree. I never felt threatened or vulnerable whilst travelling on them, if anything the opposite, I personally think that chicken buses are they way to travel through Central America, especially if you’re not in a rush, yes it might take you over two hours to travel 45km on a busy day but you get to meet locals, have random conversations in your broken Spanish and pay next to nothing for the pleasure (always less than $1). It’s not for everyone but any semi-serious backpacker should at least try it even if you don’t use it as your main means of travel.
If you don’t like buses there are always taxis or planes.