If you are traveling and backpacking in Central America, you are probably counting your money to save as much as possible. That means that you are most likely crossing the country by bus. Buses are usually the cheapest option for traveling for any distance in these countries.
Good for you! This is part of the Nicaraguan experience and you need to have at least one anecdote on a bus. But before you get on a bus, let me explain you 10 things you need to know about buses in Nicaragua:
1. Chicken what?
Yes, I’m talking about the American yellow school buses. The first time that someone called them “chicken buses”, I thought I didn’t hear well. Apparently when American or Canadian school buses reach the age of ten years or 150,000 miles, they are sold at auction. One of the most often destination is Central American countries like Guatemala and Nicaragua, where buses can live their second life.
Tourists usually call them “chicken buses” (bus o camioneta in Spanish), because of the fact that they are often crammed with passengers, not unlike a truckload of chickens. Also, I guess because locals occasionally transport live animals, including live chickens.
2. Calm down and travel
Most of the buses don´t have a schedule, the act of planning your journey it would be almost impossible. But that is part of the adventure, right?
My advice, learn to be patient and flexible (that’s actually a general advice for traveling). Chicken buses are slow and unpredictable, but they will get you everywhere.
3. Good morning
Be aware that you will need to wake up early for catching buses. As I said before, buses usually don’t have a schedule, but they have one thing in common, they finish really early. Don’t expect to travel at 6pm, except if you are going to Managua.
Some of the destinations only have two or three buses a day, and the last time will be around midday. So, wake up early and hit the bus station, you never know what your bus is planning for your trip.
4. All inclusive
I have the theory that you can survive all your life in a chicken bus without getting off. The only inconvenience will be the bathroom, but I guess we can find a solution for that too.
What do I say that? You literally can find everything you need on the bus from the vendors. Every time the bus stops, a bunch of street vendors will get into the bus with the most random and essential things you can imagine. I’m talking about full meals and cold drinks, candies, clothes, toothpaste, razors, headphones, shampoo, movies… Believe me, I’ve seen everything!
5. Safety, safety
Nicaragua is not a dangerous place and locals are usually really friendly and helpful. But being extra aware of your belongings is always essential.
Chicken buses can get really crowded, even when you feel no one else can fit inside, believe me, it is still room for five more people. Between all these locals, “gringos” always seem a good target. Pick-pocketing and bag slashing can happen, but if you use the usual precautions you should be fine.
6. Backpacks on the roof
Usually, backpacks and big items are placed on the roof, since they need to fit as many people as possible inside.
DON’T LEFT ANY IMPORTANT ITEM INSIDE YOUR BACKPACK, especially on the outside pockets. The locals in charge of the roof are friendly and good people, but they also know how many gadgets foreign carry. Open a pocket and grab your go-pro is really easy. When taking a bus, keep your valuable things close to you, you are the best protector!
Putting your things on the roof doesn’t cost anything. If someone is trying to get an extra income from your backpacks, he is taking advantage of you.
Bonus advice: There are some buses that will allow you to go on the roof. Ask the driver or the helper, you will kill two birds with one stone, you will be able to check your backpack and it would be cool as hell!
7. Who am I paying?
Don’t search for windows or machines, formal tickets don’t exist in Central America. Sometimes you will pay the bus before getting in, but most of the time a collector will show up in the middle of your trip, so just wait for him!
Make sure you see other passengers paying this guy before giving money to a scammer. Tell him where you are going and he will tell you the price. If you want to make sure and you speak enough Spanish, ask a local passenger the cost, so you can check once the collector tells you how much it is.
8. Silence… no thanks!
Latin American people aren’t really quiet in general, and when it comes to their transport either. Be ready to learn the most popular reggaeton songs really out loud, they install sound systems especially for you.
Have you seen Hollywood last action movie? No? Don’t worry! You will have a huge TV set up on the front and the sound system just for you. Best that being on a cinema with surround sound!
9. Fast and furious
Look that chicken bus, it seems so old! It is a retired school bus, that it’s been repaint and probably uses a light truck chassis. Poor thing! Wait until you hit the road, it would be like being in the movie.
Bus drivers don’t care about the sandy road (most of them!), potholes, cars coming in the other direction or cows crossing the way. They just need to win this imaginary race! Don’t worry, that’s the normal speed!
Maybe that’s why they have this remarkable quotes on their windshields, like “Jesus is my driver” or “Only Jesus can judge me”.
10. Enjoy the ride
Try to sit down between these two locals in the sit for two, buy something from the vendors, learn some local music and enjoy the ride!
Traveling by chicken bus is a unique experience that you don’t want to miss. Don’t be afraid of this transport! Ask the locals if you are confused, tell the collector or the driver to indicate you when you should exit, they’ll take care of you.
And if by any chance you end in an unknown place, just change your plans and love the adventure!