Central America and the Art of Chicken Buses

Central america and the art of chicken buses title

I can’t tell you how many times people have told me I “should” take a chicken bus here, there or anywhere.  Firstly, ‘should’ needs to be removed from our vocabulary. It creates unnecessary pressure and expectations on us, whether by others or by ourselves. A rod for our backs that didn’t exist in the first place.  I should do this, I should have done that.  Forget it.  Erase it. I don’t need to ‘should’ anything and I am the master of my own life, so please don’t be telling me what to do.

Second, I lived in Brazil and took buses EVERYWHERE, EVERYDAY for three and a half years!  I am a pro and it doesn’t make my experience more ‘authentic’ because it is closer to your experience, it just makes it closer to your experience.

That said, I chicken bussed the hell out of Central America with Chloe back from Playa Jiquilillo, Nicaragua to El Tunco in El, Salvador.  Two full days of more changes than a Madonna concert. It was great fun on day one, and most of day two, it was just one bus too many in the end.  It didn’t authenticate my experience of Central America, it was an experience shared with a friend, an adventure, but life is a journey with many different paths, and each of us walk our own path. Those unique pathways contribute to our uniqueness and what makes us special.  There is enough homogeneity in the world, surely we travel to experience fresh things for ourselves and contribute towards our own authenticity?

El salvador has many places yet to open up to me and I look forward to exploring this lovely country more in the future!  This mini-adventure took us on a whirlwind from El Tunco, one of the main surf spots in El Salvador, to El Cuco, a beautiful beach in the South-East of El Salvador, and the venue for the first ever Equilibrio festival held by Future Clear productions and to Playa Jiquilillo, in North-West Nicaragua.

El Tunco:

Beautiful El Tunco, one of the best surf beaches in El Salvador and home to this very photogenic rock.

Beautiful El Tunco beach, one of the best surf beaches in El Salvador and home to this very photogenic rock.

Home to one of the best breaks in El Salvador (Sunzal Point), this little surf town is a strange juxtaposition of early-to-bed, early-to-rise surfers and native party goers from San Salvador. Whilst it’s full of guest houses, hostels and restaurants, it’s still small enough to be quaint.  Let’s hope it stays that way and doesn’t explode too much or there will be more jostling in the waves for prime positions.

El Cuco:

Equilibrio Festival at La Tortuga Verde

One of the areas of the festival with the final night burn structure in front. White sand, blue sky, palm trees. Sigh.

A costal retreat for locals from San Miguel, there are a few hostels and ranchos descended upon in droves at the weekends, but the only place really set up for Gringo travellers is La Tortuga Verde.  This was the host site of the Equlibrio 2015 festival.  The first in hopefully a long series, it was an event full of healing, movement, music, crafts and great vegan friendly food. More to follow!

This is us crossing the border at Nicaragua, rigid security...

This is us crossing the border into Nicaragua, rigid security…

Playa Jiquilillo:

Epically beautiful beach, quiet, unspoilt and a good surf spot

Epically beautiful beach, quiet, unspoilt and a good surf spot

A tiny town of fishermen, the beach is epic, there’s a beach break frequented by surfers, but with too much of a current for me to test it out on my own!  There’s a couple of very chilled out resorts (we stayed at Rancho Esperanza and loved it, especially the compost toilets!) and a great after school club for the local children set up by Celine Wintenberger, Hada-Madrina (Fairy Godmother).  There is just one elementary school in the area, lacking supplies and activities.  The kids go to school from 8am to 12am and are then left to their own devices until their parents are back from fishing. Hada-Madrina runs activities which help the children explore their creative and active sides from 2 till 5pm. Celine has created a magical place to inspire children. We loved it there and wished we could have stayed longer and volunteered.

The after school club at Hada-Madrina, Playa Jiquilillo, volunteers sleep on the bus!

The after school club at Hada-Madrina, Playa Jiquilillo, volunteers sleep on the bus!

A veritable feast of options to travel back to El Salvador

Alas it was not to be, we had to hot foot it back to El Tunco for Chloe’s flight back to London.  Not that we wanted her to leave!  In typical Central American style, the shuttle from Leon we’d thought was booked, was not actually booked.  We had 3 options:

1 – Take the boat back to La Union and go back to El Tunco by way of San Miguel and San Salvador. Risky because it’s never guaranteed the boat is leaving. The water may be too choppy or it might just not be going. We didn’t have a buffer day to risk this.

2 – Share a taxi with a mother and daughter we’d met at Rancho Esperanza in Jiquilillo to Managua and then take a Tica bus from Managua to San Salvador for 11 hours the following day.  We couldn’t book online so were hoping there was going to be availability at one of the bus companies to jump on a bus that same night back.

3 – Chicken bus it all the way back.

We had option 1 locked in with a couple we met at Rancho Esperanza until they changed their minds an hour later because they realised they didn’t have enough money to get there. Then we progressed to option 2 until a middle of the night pee, when it struck me that it was ridiculous to spend half the day travelling across Nicaragua only to have to come back and that we should just smash it straight off with chicken buses.  A sleepy Chloe concurred, after she’d calmed down from the terror of waking up in the middle of the night in a hut with high bug potential and we got up early, settled our bill and was on the 7.30 am to Chinandega on the Titanic express!  Hopefully not a foreboding title.

The bus conductor told us where to get off and even hailed a taxi to take us to the international bus terminal, but the temptation of a $30 ride to the border and the chance of a massive head start was too much for us. As our taxi boomed down the highway, pointing out the tallest mountain in Nicaragua and dodging potholes whilst belting out some banging pop & reggaeton tunes in a speaker that must have taken up the entire boot, we celebrated with some takeout rice and beans for breakfast which kept us going all day!

Upon arriving at the border to Honduras in Guasaule our young driver handed us over to a push bike tuk tuk driver to take us across the border.  We left our bags with him as we paid our $12 to leave Nicaragua and waited patiently to get our passports back. As he peddled us uphill to the other side of no man’s land whilst talking to his mum on the phone, the $5 fee to take us across the border and put us on the bus to the other border suddenly rose to $20 and in my best portuguese (hope he understood) I told him it was ridiculous, wasn’t what we agreed and we wouldn’t pay it. We took our bags and walked the rest of the border and found our own bloody bus.

We were siphoned off down a weird side street/back garden that had a few old tatty minibuses parked in it so were half confident we were in the right place, eventually verified after a half hour wait when another passenger turned up and then suddenly we were full, everybody stocked up on soft drinks and fried chicken, and we were off!

Weaving our way through Honduras I was actually really taken with the countryside and villages we passed through.  Such a shame to race through a country that clearly needs to be scratched below its surface. There was something wilder about its forests, tangled about its trees. I’ll be back to explore you Honduras. Crossing you in 2 hours is just wrong!

People from Islands love crossing borders!

People from Islands love crossing borders!

In exasperation of our lack of ability to answer where our customs forms were and our ineffectual waving of the exit tax from Nicaragua receipt at him saying “en transito” we passed our of Honduras with little drama and crossed over to the shiny, air conditioned El Salvadorean side.  Money talks and it likes talking in dollars. It was initially fun to stand there with air conditioning blowing through the cut outs in the glass, but it got boring after 30 minutes, where was my passport?!  I’m still not entirely sure what the problem was, I think I must have been checked out/in somewhere in error whilst I still had time left on my visa.  Eventually after half an hour they gave me back my passport telling me I had to leave in 23 days.  I could have told them that in a fraction of the time and we still could have hitched a ride in the back of a ute straight to San Miguel.  Why do that when we can take 2 more chicken buses?!

We didn’t realise initially that everybody else had gotten off the bus because we were too busy taking selfies of ourselves going insane on the bus. Thankfully the bus conductor found a way to get us off the bus and put us on the next one to San Miguel where we arrived 5 minutes before the last bus to San Salvador.  To get to El Tunco we would have to go all the way there and stay the night or try to change buses somewhere in the dark.  We didn’t like the sound of that and we opted for a 7th transport change that day to detour back to El Cuco and spend the night at La Tortuga Verde in familiar surroundings.

Thank you to the staff at La Tortuga Verde for feeding us despite it being slightly past restaurant closing by the time we eventually got there. We were famished by that point and there was nothing for it but to have a Pina Colada to celebrate making it through our eight different forms of transportation that day, excluding legs! We slept like babies.

Back on the buses – day two

“The fastest way back to El Tunco is to go to San Miguel, take the express to San Salvador and then take a bus from San Salvador to El Tunco”- Tom and Harry both told us independently of the other.

“We can’t go backwards on ourselves”, replied Chloe and I. We have to go forwards.  With that bell tolling in our ears we scooped Susan under our wing and took a taxi to El Cuco town to sit on an empty bus for an hour. Eventually it filled up and we creaked up the hill on our way to El Deilirio. A roundabout where we would jump down and take another bus to Usulatan. Only the buses wouldn’t stop. Were we standing in the wrong place? Was this the only stretch of road where they didn’t stop on demand? Fortunately a nice friendly man let us jump in the back of his ute and we worked on our wind tan, wishing I’d put factor 50 spf on that morning instead of only 30. As the ute slowed down at the side of the road we wondered why he was slowing and tried not to think bad thoughts about 3 Gringas in the back of a ute in the middle of nowhere in a country with a high crime rate… Quite rightly so, because this lovely man was slowing down so that Susan could take a photo of the volcano before he put us on the right bus to continue on our journey.  Thank you lovely man who looked like a cowboy!

Think happy thoughts, think happy thoughts.... hitching a ride to Usulutan

Think happy thoughts, think happy thoughts…. hitching a ride to Usulutan

Overwhelmed by the pouncing of the shuttle and bus conductors we clamboured onto the bus to the next change in Como Lapa, still chasing the elusive and mysterious 187 bus that we knew had to start somewhere along the costal road on its way back to Sonsonate. I probably should have looked that up, but iPhones and Central American bus timetable websites aren’t so compatible and all that certainty would have certainly been less fun.

We didn’t find the 187, but I’ll spare you the rest of the details, our 90 minute bus turned into 150 minutes, we changed again in Como Lapa, again in La Libertad and again upon actually reaching El Tunco. Susan was still smiling until the point we started walking up the road with her bags in dusk, but we were all back to ourselves after a really good shower because I for one was sweaty, dusty and stinky.

She probably needs another holiday with a full 3 days spent sitting in various economy leg room travel vehicles, but we got Chloe back in time to the airport and she still left with a big smile on her face. So the jury’s out, was that because she had an ‘authentic’ experience or just cos we had a great time together?

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2 responses to “Central America and the Art of Chicken Buses

  1. Beautifully written, and an awesome journey! What could be seen on face value as a mundane and everyday bus ride, a necessary commute, transit, the getting from a to b – was so much more! An experience shared, an adventure had – happiness in action because it was done together, my strawberry blossom. We danced through Honduras with smiles on our faces and hope in our hearts xx

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  2. Pingback: Playlist for Chicken bus travelling | Ramblings of a wild strawberry·

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