Tips for the Road:
This morning I awoke to the sound of Nelson- a polite, gray haired taxi driver that I befriended yesterday- mildly knocking on the door of my hotel room."Listo amigo", Nelson bashfully asked as he stood under the doorway, keys in hand. It was 6am and time to get moving. I threw my gear in the back of Nelson’s faded yellow taxi and set out for the Terminal Occidente for my final border crossing into Guatemala. I can see the end of the journey...sort of. Once I hit Guatemala, I have a few days to myself and then it's an expedited trip south to San Jose, Costa Rica for my flight back to the States. Now, it’s just a short hop to the El Salvador/Guatemala border and one last chicken bus to Guatemala City.
Day 18 (Jun. 21):
San Salvador, El Salvador
The final chicken bus from the boisterous border town of San Cristóbal to Guatemala City proved to be an intense test of will. As I approached the bus, I ascertained what appeared to be minor luxury. A nice, smooth paint job and undercarriage storage. The San Cristóbal shuttle looked to be a sweet, little ride from the outside..the key words being ‘from the outside’. Stepping into the bus I was faced with a much different image. The seat cushions floated freely on the bench frames and the manufacturers of this bus failed to factor in leg room of any sorts. Wedged into my unstable seat my knees were jammed against the back of the seat in front of me causing the plastic frame of the seat to bend and buckle from the pressure. In this bus we were seated three to a row and, as the seats were packed full, the driver pulled out a stack of battered 5 gallon buckets and routinely set them in the aisle to create extra seating; sort of like the Dallas Cowboys football stadium. These are the types of surprises that I’ve come to accept as normal during these trips on the chicken bus circuit. And in some twisted way, I often enjoy them. For a few dollars, you have to come to terms with the fact you are sacrificing comfort for convenience. There are, however, a number of rules that I’ve developed to help me through the many uneasy trips of the Pan-American Highway. So, if you happen to find yourself on the circuit, here are some pointers that can save you a good bit of pain and frustration:
1.) Most large bus companies are located within central stations that operate around the clock.
These locations are surprisingly comfortable spots if you find yourself in a bind and need to kill a few hours…or a few days. Typically, there are outlets to charge your electronics, vending machines, and often access to drinking water. These all sound like minor details from the outside, but after a few weeks of beating about the highway these simple amenities will leave you dancing in the street. The Albrook station in Panama City, Panama has been the most accommodating station that I’ve encountered thus far; to the degree that it was difficult to leave it behind. Also, the Deldu station in San Jose provides a wonderfully comfortable waiting area that is constructed from old bus seats. The station operates around the clock and is quite a nice place to stay if you find yourself stuck without an accommodation.
2.) Always check out the final row of seats on the bus.
Often, the seats that are located behind the rear exit have triple the leg room. The signs indicate that they are set aside as “handicap seating”, but I have yet to encounter a passenger traveling on these buses that require the special accommodation. When these rows appear- which quite often they do- it is a great joy for any traveler of the chicken bus circuit. Be sure to take advantage of this tip; your knees and ass will thank you.
3.)Put your valuables in a separate carry-on bag.
Many bus companies have designated space for large bags under the bus. However, these spaces are often filled with piles of staple items- such as potatoes and bananas- and your luggage does not receive the best treatment. Also, the buses make constant stops throughout the trip to allow passengers to enter and exit the vehicle; meaning that the undercarriage storage is constantly being accessed. Coupled with the fact that bus travel is usually designated as 'sleep time', having the items you cannot afford to lose will save you from a major screw-job if your underneath luggage mysteriously disappears…or gets soaking wet. Typically, I keep a small backpack rolled up in my big bag. I can quickly shuffle my laptop, tablet, important paperwork, and chargers (these are just as critical as your electronics) into my backpack and throw my pack under the bus without worry. I prefer these quick transitions because they allow me to consolidate everything into one pack during periods that require a lot of walking.
4.) Take overnight buses for long trips.
Once you get south of Managua, many of the legs of the Pan-American Highway can take 8 hours or longer to complete. This is a literal pain in the ass if you schedule these trips during midday. Often, the last bus will leave late in the evening (after 10pm) or very early in the morning (3am). I’ve found this to be a great time to hit the road. Down a couple of beers at one of the local tiendas and you will be fast asleep for the majority of the trip. More often than not, chicken bussers find themselves constantly exhausted from the non-stop travel. In these cases, it’s never too difficult to sleep through most of the ride.
5.) Directos (buses that don’t stop in other towns) often provide a quicker trip with more luxury, but Colectivos (buses that make constant stops) offer great experiences.
At times, chicken bussers can get fed up with the constant travel and the Directos offer a ride that’s a bit more comfortable. The Colectivos, however, are great for a true taste of the road. These buses make frequent stops and occasionally give travelers the opportunity to exit the bus, find a bite to eat, and stretch those cramped legs for 20 minutes. Also, the Colectivos randomly bring you into contact with some beautiful sights that you only blaze by in the Directos. Many travelers find the experience to be well worth the lack of comfort…myself included.
6.) Don’t be afraid to splurge on the luxury lines.
At times travelers just need a break from the chaos of the cramped and chaotic buses. The luxury lines- such as TicaBus, King Quality, and TransNica- are extremely smooth rides and they aren’t all that expensive. They really cut down on travel time, they’re air conditioned, and the seats are immaculate. As a chicken busser, you deserve the random pleasure of a trip on a luxury line…just don’t make it a habit.
So, these are some of the every day thought processes that have become habitus as I make my way along the Pan-American Highway. I’ve made it from Panama City, Panama to Guatemala City, Guatemala in just about three weeks. The road can be lonely and often quite boring, so the simplicity of these tips pay great dividends for anyone finding themselves beat down by the rigors of the road.