Overland Travel in Central America
Tips for Independent Travelers
Central America is a fairly small region of seven countries with a total area comparable to the size of France or about twice the size of the state of Colorado. Despite its small size overland travel in Central America is much more time-consuming than a map would suggest. The region is dissected by highways, among them the Pan-American Highway, but most roads are just two-lane, often badly in need of repair. Most Central American countries have just one major highway connecting its major cities, which means that they are often 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. Bus travel, on the other hand, is how the vast majority of Central America’s population gets around. Taking a bus is not only much cheaper than flying but it provides foreign travelers with a fascinating, though often challenging cultural experience.
Colorfully painted old school buses from the U.S. are the most common form of public transportation in Central America. 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 mini vans, which only travel when full. Intended to transport school children on short routes the benches are small and uncomfortable for adults. 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 mostly transport poor locals, they are very cheap, but they take a very long time to get to 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, but you need quite a bit of patience and you should be prepared for a crowded ride.
Minivans travel on the same routes as chicken buses, but they are often owner-operated and rarely follow a schedule. There is a simple rule that 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 mini vans in Central America has grown enormously in the past few years, mostly due to improving road conditions that allow these low-clearance vehicles to travel on routes previously only traveled 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 mini vans inside city limits altogether and move them to new terminals just outside the city limits. This can be inconvenient for travelers at times but it drastically cuts back on congestion in Central American towns, where narrow streets often don’t allow for large amounts of vehicle traffic. Since mini vans compete with chicken buses the fares are comparable. During my three-month long Central America trip I could never decide if chicken buses or mini vans are a better way to travel. Both are crowded and stop everywhere for passengers. I usually traveled on the next available transport, and since there are so many buses and vans competing for passengers, I never had a very long layover. In the end I realized that it was best to switch between mini vans and buses. After several hours on a chicken bus it was always a pleasant change to continue in a mini van, and vice versa.
Long-Distance Bus Travel
Since most of the locals in Central America travel only short distances there are very few direct long-distance bus routes. However there are several large companies that operate buses across Central America, from Southern Mexico all the way to Panama City, providing comfortable and direct long-distance services for travelers. Long distance buses mostly connect large cities and towns, but they also travel to popular tourist destinations such as the Tikal Ruins and the colonial town of Antigua in Guatemala, as well as the Copán Ruins in Honduras, just to name a few. Traveling with a long-distance bus company is quite a bit more expensive than traveling the same route in a chicken bus, but you save a lot of time, and will be able to enjoy the ride in an air-conditioned cabin with comfortable seats. Most of these buses are equipped with bathrooms, adding another level of comfort to long-distance travel. Many first-class buses have security checks before boarding passengers—to avoid on-board robberies—and security guards are present at bus terminals and sometimes at gas stations as well. Some luxury bus services across Central America even have secure doors that are 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)
In addition to public buses and mini vans there are many companies in Central America that operate direct shuttle services for tourists. Fares are two to four times higher than on public buses but 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 several rest stops on the way and drivers don’t mind pulling over for a bathroom break, which is advantage on long rides. These shuttles are a great alternative if you have trouble speaking Spanish or if you have little time, but once I got used to traveling in Mini vans and chicken buses, the tourist shuttles seemed a stale and boring alternative to the much more interesting experience of traveling with the locals, sharing conversations and peanuts along the way. Traveling in mini buses from the Guatemalan town of Cobán to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, it 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 sometimes used for travel between towns as well. Most taxis in Central America operate as “collectives” or collective taxis, which means that 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 useful 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 are motorcycle taxis (also known as 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 particularly popular 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 don’t travel too far out of town.
There are few passenger trains still operating in Central America. The region was once crisscrossed by railroads to transport bananas and other export goods but today most of the cargo is transported by trucks. Railroads in Central America have generally fallen into decay.
Since public transportation is cheap and plentiful renting a car in Central America does not have any great advantages other than added flexibility. Considering the road and safety conditions in Central America renting a car can be a risky undertaking. Major rental car agencies such as Alamo, Budget, Dollar Rent a Car, and Hertz, all 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, and in a week you could see the country’s most popular attractions while traveling on the country’s best roads. But other than the main tourist circuit, driving a rental car in Guatemala is very challenging and dangerous, mostly due to the road conditions and the unfamiliar and often unusual driving habits of the locals. This applies to Central America in general, where roads are badly maintained, vehicles are often in a bad state of repair, and drivers make up their own rules of the road. Before renting a car make sure you find out the details about both 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 but connections to islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific are much cheaper by ferry than by airplane. There are several main ferry routes in Central America and most of them are on the Caribbean Sea. There are also several inland lakes and rivers that are serviced by passenger ferries. 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, 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.
Since ferry rides are generally short in Central America there is not much for travelers to prepare. 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 close to shore there is generally little concern for seasickness. However, when the sea is rough the ferries get tossed around quite a bit. Bring some medication if you are prone to seasickness.
In addition to commercial ferryboats there are a number of privately owned boats that connect coastal villages and take passengers up and down the larger rivers in Central America. An expensive option in remote areas is to charter a boat. Fuel prices are high in Central America and motorboats use much more fuel per mile compared to road travel.
While road travel has replaced many old routes previously served by ferries, the Mosquito Coast in Honduras and Nicaragua remains inaccessible by road. 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 boat in the Mosquito Coast is not only time-consuming, but also 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
There are many remote areas in Central America that are difficult to reach by public transportation. Trucks, pick-ups, and cargo boats are often the only means of transportation to reach remote areas 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.