Written by: Colin
What are the differences between chicken buses and tica buses?
Buses and shuttles
Buses and shuttles are the most common mode of transportation and inexpensive but can take a very long time. Here are the typical options.
1. “Chicken buses” are retired US school buses painted with neat designs, chromed out, and full the brim with people, luggage, and sometimes chickens. These buses stop regularly so progress is slow but they are very cheap like $.50 USD per hour of travel. Fares are sometimes posted but if you get on or off mid route, are negotiable. There’s typically one person on the bus in charge of money who watches for folks getting on and then gives them a price for where they want to go. They may try to take advantage of you and charge much more than is reasonable to see what they can get away with. Watch how much the locals pay to not get taken to the cleaners. Folks may try to charge you extra for large bags or for random reasons like being tall. That’s a bunch of malarkey as long as your bag fits in the overhead rack or in your lap. The language barrier can be a challenge though so keep the overall cost in perspective and pick your battles. Don’t sweat a dollar or two because you’ll be on the bus with everyone for a while!
2. “Tica buses” are traditional tour buses with AC, reclining seats, and multiple stops. These buses range in quality, comfort, and reliability and are rather inexpensive overall but some routes can be oddly expensive. Try to avoid the back of the bus since the bathroom stinks worse after each hour of travel. If those are the only seats left as was always the case for us, there is sometimes a window in the bathroom that you can open up which helps tremendously. Bathroom doors tended to not close well so give it a good slam. Also, if it rains, the back of the bus has the highest chance of leaks in the ceiling. Overall, try to board the bus at its point of origin rather than jumping on halfway through a route for a chance at a better seat.
3. “Shuttles” are large 15 passenger vans that tend to make straight shot trips from one backpacker hub to another. These range in quality as well, some with AC and movies, and tend to be the fastest since they are usually straight-shot transportation with stops only for gas and food breaks. They are more expensive at about $5 USD per hour. They tend to have great movie selections as well!
We used all three types but preferred shuttles since they were more reliable and quicker and we’ve got a lot of ground to cover with a short time to do it.
Booking ground transportation
Booking transportation is easy and can be done at the plethora of travel agencies in towns or through the front desks at hostels. You don’t have to stay at a hostel to book transportation through them. Generally, there are only a few companies with the vehicles while the hostels and travel agencies act as the middle men to consolidate travelers onto the same shuttle, and they get a small kickback for bringing in the traveler. Sometimes you can book directly with the shuttle company for cheaper and some companies offer discounts to repeat travelers (10% discount). Be sure to ask whether you’ll have to switch vehicles or drivers along the route. Switching vehicles can add many hours to your travel time because it means you will get dumped off in a random town probably in the opposite direction from where you want to go where you’ll have to hope the next shuttle comes through to pick you up. One of our hostels did this to us and a 7 hour trip became 15 hours. If you’re going off the beaten path, this maneuver becomes more common unless you are traveling with a big enough group (4+ people) to warrant hiring a dedicated van.
Regardless of vehicle, we learned the hard way that you are at the mercy of the state of roads, fickle traffic, and inefficient borders. We learned to double the estimated travel time that Google Maps gives you. Guatemala was particularly difficult because there are just not many roads so you only have a couple routes between regions. They have trouble with landslides and erosion in the mountains and I heard one route was no longer safe to travel due to highway robberies. Some roads were so bumpy that our fitbit registered the potholes as steps! Land border crossings can take 15 minutes or 4 hours. It helps to have a knowledgeable driver to get you to the right people and tell you what to expect. In Nicaragua for instance, we had to have our temperature taken, the bus sprayed down with a mystery chemical, and money exchanged with some shady guys with fanny packs. Our driver made the process much smoother than it could’ve been. Also, expect long delays for random security checkpoints and expect your driver to be pulled over for miscellaneous “fines” which happened twice on different trips for us.
While on the shuttle, your butt and back will hurt. We found these handy therma-rest style foam pads to sit on which help some. It’s also rather difficult to sleep since the roads are windy and many vehicles have choppy manual transmissions. Regardless of what you try, you’ll likely need some recovery time the next day to get your legs and head back to normal.
Our two best shuttle rides were with a company called Roneey. They were very fast to respond online and through Whatsapp and by far the most efficient transportation service. They wave at all the police, border agents, and friends in the towns they go through which I could tell greased the wheels a bit for how smoothly we were able to travel across countries.
Flights can be quite expensive in Central America. It seems like a few budget airlines dominate certain cities and routes which makes flights reasonable in cost and simplicity whereas other origin or destination points can be three times more expensive with many transfers and long layovers. Flights can save you days of bus travel and come out to a similar cost to a multi-leg vehicle trip with overnight lodging in towns along the road. They’re worth considering but require you to be flexible with origin, destination, and dates. Flights can also be a welcome, well-deserved respite from brutal bus rides.
Ubers are very rare in Central America. The only city we found any was in San Jose, Costa Rica and they were cheap, reliable, and had nice cars. Overall, the cities in Central America are small so there’s not much need for ubers or taxis. Spanish urban planning was consistent in Central America’s colonial towns so you have consistent grid formats from city to city making navigation easier as well. You don’t have the same suburban sprawl as in many US cities so urban areas are dense with places to stay, eat, and be entertained. Taxis are useful when you get caught in a flash thunderstorm but prices can be all over the place. Try to get the price before setting off in the taxi otherwise you’re at the mercy of whatever the driver thinks of you since few taxis seemed to have meters. In general, it’s not as bad as online forums and hotels lead you to believe.
Good ol’ fashioned walking
We felt safe walking around the streets of all the Central American towns we visited. Like in the US, be conscientious of your surroundings and don’t go down dark alleys at night. You can’t text and walk in colonial towns because you will fall in a hole. Sidewalks are a patchwork of driveways, steps, and wooden planks and the mysterious holes leading to the sewer can be ankle or even waist deep. Also, signs for street names are rare. We relied heavily on Google Maps and zen navigation. Asking for directions was only somewhat successful because, particularly in Costa Rica, folks don’t want to seem like they don’t know so they sometimes make up an answer and send you on a wild goose chase. When in doubt, ask a couple of people and compare those directions. Lastly, the plentiful stray dogs seemed quite nice and somebody must watch out for them. They’re good at begging and play the poor puppy dog card well. They were even picky about the treats you snuck them!
Sara & Colin
We are figuring out our travel as we go along, and we'd love to help you out with yours! Here are some tips, tricks, and how-to guides.