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Overland Travel in Central America

Tips for Independent Travelers

Bus in Mexico.
A painted school-bus, or "chicken bus," in Mexico is commonly used for transportation.

Central America is a relatively small region of seven countries with a total area comparable to the size of France or about twice that of Colorado. Overland travel in Central America is much more time-consuming than a map would suggest despite its small size. The region is dissected by highways, among them the Pan-American Highway. Yet, most roads are just two-lane, often badly in need of repair. Most Central American countries have just one major highway connecting their major cities, so they are frequently overcrowded with trucks, buses, farm vehicles, and passenger vans.

With a predominantly poor population, bus travel is the most common form of transportation throughout the region. Although a few domestic flights operate in each country, they usually link just a few major cities and towns to the capital. Most of these routes are served by small passenger planes frequented mainly by tourists, government officials, and business people. On the other hand, bus travel is how the vast majority of Central America's population gets around. Taking a bus is much cheaper than flying and provides foreign travelers a fascinating, often challenging experience.

Chicken Bus

Colorfully painted old-school buses from the U.S. are Central America's most common form of public transportation. Commonly known as "chicken buses" ("camioneta" in Spanish), these buses transport everything from fruit and produce to passengers — and, of course, chickens. These buses connect even the remote settlements to the nearest town. Chicken buses operate on a fixed route with a set schedule (although delays are common), making them more reliable than minivans, which only travel when full. The benches are small and uncomfortable for adults, as they are intended to transport school children on short routes. Passengers are expected to crowd together, and the conductor usually seats three passengers on a small bench. In addition to crowding, petty theft can be a problem, especially on routes frequented by foreign travelers. Make sure you keep your valuables in a safe place and keep an eye on your belongings at all times. Since chicken buses mainly transport poor locals, they are very cheap but take a very long time to reach their destination. They stop wherever a passenger wants to get on or off the bus. My last ride in Central America before returning home was especially memorable because it took three hours to travel a distance of 65 miles. Traveling on a chicken bus is no doubt a great cultural experience. Still, it helps if you have patience and are prepared for a crowded ride.


Minivans travel on the same routes as chicken buses but are often owner-operated and rarely follow a schedule. A simple rule determines the departure time: the van leaves when it is full, and full means anywhere from 12 to 20 passengers in a vehicle equipped with twelve 12-15 seats. The fleet of minivans in Central America has grown enormously in the past few years, primarily due to improving road conditions that allow these low-clearance vehicles to travel on routes previously only by the sturdy high-clearance chicken buses. The growing fleet of minivans has led several Central American cities to limit their city routes or to ban minivans inside city limits and move them to new terminals just outside the city limits. This can be inconvenient for travelers sometimes, but it drastically reduces congestion in Central American towns, where narrow streets often need to allow for large amounts of vehicle traffic. Since minivans compete with chicken buses, the fares are comparable. During my three-month-long Central America trip, I could never decide if chicken buses or minivans were a better way to travel. Both are crowded and stop everywhere for passengers. I usually traveled using the subsequent available transport. Since so many buses and vans compete for passengers, I only had a short layover. Ultimately, I realized that switching between minivans and buses was best. After several hours on a chicken bus, continuing in a minivan was always a pleasant change, and vice versa.

Long-Distance Bus Travel

Since most locals in Central America travel only short distances, there are very few direct long-distance bus routes. However, several large companies operate buses across Central America, from Southern Mexico to Panama City, providing travelers with comfortable and direct long-distance services. Long-distance buses mainly connect large cities and towns. Yet, they also travel to popular tourist destinations such as the Tikal Ruins, the colonial town of Antigua in Guatemala, and the Copán Ruins in Honduras, to name a few. Traveling with a long-distance bus company is much more expensive than traveling the same route on a chicken bus. Still, you save a lot of time and can enjoy the ride in an air-conditioned cabin with comfortable seats. Most of these buses have bathrooms, adding another comfort to long-distance travel. Many first-class buses have security checks before boarding passengers — to avoid onboard robberies — and security guards are present at bus terminals and sometimes at gas stations. Some luxury bus services across Central America even have secure doors locked from the outside before departure to avert highway robberies.

Here is a selection of bus companies with direct long-distance routes across Central America:

Ticabus (Southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama)

Pullmantur (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras)

Transnica (Costa Rica-Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras)

Tourist Shuttle Buses in Central America

In addition to public buses and minivans, many companies in Central America operate direct shuttle services for tourists. Fares are two to four times higher than on public buses. Still, the shuttles pick you up at your hotel and drop you off at your destination without interruption. These shuttles are much faster than regular buses or vans, and each passenger has a guaranteed seat. There are usually rest stops on the way, and drivers are okay with pulling over for a bathroom break, which is an advantage on long rides. These shuttles are a great alternative if you have trouble speaking Spanish or have little time. Nevertheless, once I got used to traveling in Minivans and chicken buses, the tourist shuttles seemed a stale and boring alternative to the much more compelling experience of traveling with the locals, sharing conversations and peanuts. Traveling in minibusses from the Guatemalan town of Cobán to the Mayan ruins of Tikal only took me an hour longer than the tourist shuttle, and I paid half the price.


Although taxis operate mainly in cities and towns, they are also sometimes used for travel between towns. Most taxis in Central America operate as "collectives" or collective taxis, meaning they take on as many passengers as they can pick up, provided they travel in the same general direction. Locals often take advantage of collective taxis on market days when they can travel cheaply to the market town by filling up all the seats in a taxi. Collective taxis can also be a helpful alternative to chicken buses on routes to nearby villages and towns since they often run on very limited schedules. Taxi fares within city and town limits are regulated by the government, and before taking a cab, always find out the going rate.

An alternative to automobile taxis is motorcycle taxis (like a tuk-tuk), which operate in many smaller towns across Central America. Since they are cheaper to buy and maintain and use much less fuel than a car, fares are very low. Motorcycle taxis are prevalent in small towns where even the impoverished rural population can afford to travel by motorcycle taxi. Due to their speed limitations and small number of seats, motorcycle taxis usually only travel a little bit out of town.


Few passenger trains are still operating in Central America. Railroads once crisscrossed the region to transport bananas and other export goods. Yet, today, most of the cargo is transported by trucks. Railroads in Central America have generally fallen into decay.

Rental Cars

Since public transportation is cheap and plentiful, renting a car in Central America has no significant advantages other than added flexibility. Considering Central America's road and safety conditions, renting a car can be risky. Major rental car agencies such as Alamo, Budget, Dollar Rent a Car, and Hertz have offices in Central American countries. Most rental agencies are located at major international airports or popular tourist destinations. In Guatemala, for example, you could rent a car in Antigua. In a week, you could see the country's most popular attractions while traveling on the country's best roads. However, other than the primary tourist circuit, driving a rental car in Guatemala is challenging and dangerous, primarily due to the road conditions and the locals' unfamiliar and often unusual driving habits. This applies to Central America in general, where roads are poorly maintained, vehicles are usually in a bad state of repair, and drivers make up their own rules. Before renting a car, ensure you find out the details about the security deposit and your deductible in case of an accident.

Travel By Boat

Boat Travel is only a minor form of transportation in Central America. Nevertheless, connections to the Caribbean and Pacific islands are much cheaper by ferry than by airplane. Central America has several main ferry routes, most of which are on the Caribbean Sea. Passenger ferries also service several inland lakes and rivers. Among them are Lake Atitlán and the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua in Nicaragua, and the Darien province in Panama.

Most ferry rides are short, up to a few hours, but the size and speed of boats and passenger comfort vary considerably. Boats that carry predominantly local passengers are smaller and slower and make more stops than ferries to tourist destinations. Transportation for the locals is cheap by necessity; you won't find speedboats with dual outboard engines cruising at 40 mph on routes traveled by the locals.

Ferry rides are generally short in Central America. Make sure you have sunscreen, and since the canopies offer some protection from the sun but not from rain, make sure you have a rain jacket and a backpack cover handy if you travel on an overcast day. Also, watch out for spray that could get you and your baggage soaked if the sea is rough. Since most ferry rides are near shore, there is generally little concern for seasickness. However, the ferries get tossed around quite a bit when the sea is rough. Bring some medication if you are prone to seasickness.

In addition to commercial ferryboats, several privately owned boats connect coastal villages and take passengers up and down the larger rivers in Central America. Chartering a boat is an expensive option in remote areas. Central America has high fuel prices, and motorboats use more fuel per mile than road travel.

While road travel has replaced many old routes previously served by ferries, the Mosquito Coast in Honduras and Nicaragua remains inaccessible. There aren't even any scheduled ferryboats that travel between the coastal settlements and small hamlets upriver, and travelers depend on cargo boats and small private motorboats that take on passengers. Traveling by ship on the Mosquito Coast is time-consuming and expensive since distances are enormous, and travelers might have to hire both a boat and skipper if no other transportation is available.

Off the Beaten Track

Many remote areas in Central America are difficult to reach by public transportation. Trucks, pick-ups, and cargo boats are often the only means of transportation to reach remote places in the mountains, rainforests, and along the Mosquito Coast in Honduras and Nicaragua. In general, passengers are expected to pay, even if they are picked up hitchhiking. Drivers are usually very honest, and no fare was ever demanded of me that seemed unreasonable. Much of the time, foreign travelers who share rides on trucks, small motorboats, or cargo boats pay the same as local travelers.

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