Saturday, April 14, 2012

Eight Chicken Buses (Or Somoto, Nicaragua to Alegría, El Salvador, In A Day)

So it wasn't eight chicken buses.  It was one colectivo taxi, two microbuses, four chicken buses, and one pullman bus.   It was also 200 miles across 3 countries, 12 hours of travel, 2 Southern Baptist gringo missionaries, 2 uncommonly kind border guards, and 1 very happy corn farmer.

I had checked with the University of Google whether other travelers had reported going from Somoto, Nicaragua to Alegría, El Salvador, in one day.  I read rumors of people making the trip from León in Nicaragua, including mentions of efficient border crossings and an express minibus across Honduras.  I figured I'd give it a go.  What's the worst that could happen, right?

Here's what it looked like:

Red: start and finish. Blue: transport transfer points. Orange: border crossings.    View Somoto to Alegría in a larger map.  

Along the way, I took some notes on the travel times, costs, and random happenings.  I've put key details in bold, if you're thinking of making the same trip. If you're not...  well, you're smarter (or more sane) than the person who is.

And we're off!

From Somoto, Nicaragua to Honduras:
6:15 am:  Someone inexplicably walks into my cell-like, cockaroach-infested guesthouse room.  Someone with a key, but also someone who did not expect to see me sleeping in bed.  She made a hasty exit.  I decide to do the same.  Sun's up, it's time to get the f*** outta dodge.
6:45 am:  I'm standing at the Somoto bus stop.  I ask when the next bus will arrive.  I'm told that "bus se quemó."  The bus caught on fire?!  Jimminy Crickets, I hope I've lost something in translation.  I'm told to walk up to the hospital, where I will find transport.
7:00 am:  Arrive at hospital.  It's just up the Panamerican Highway, on the northbound side.  Easy walk, there's even a sidewalk.
7:15 am:  Confusion.  Apparently there are no buses or even microbuses from this point.
7:20 am:  One of the Nica guys hanging out at the bus stop has fallen in love with me.  I wish I didn't understand Spanish.  I perfect my hundred-yard stare.
7:45 am:  I realize that I'm supposed to take a collective taxi, un colectivo, from this point to the border at El Espino.  The colectivo costs C20.  Me and my six new best friends pile into a car smaller than a Honda Civic.  One border guard in front with a guy missing a finger, the six-foot tall taxi driver folded behind the wheel, another border guard in back with me and two other women.  Border guard's knees are in my back the whole way.  Random observation:  every car/ taxi I've seen in this country has the check engine light illuminated.  With the horrific scraping and roaring sounds coming from the engine, I'm not surprised.
8:05 am:  I pay C23 to the municipality of El Espino and receive a receipt (not sure for what--there doesn't seem to be much of anything around).  It costs another C45 to exit Nicaragua, but I don't receive an exit stamp.  It costs L60 (USD$3) to enter Honduras, and I receive both an exit stamp and a yellow piece of paper which I must keep with my passport.
8:08 am:  I change USD$20 into Honduran Lempiras to pay for transport across Honduras.  Get a surprisingly good exchange rate and briefly wonder whether I'm given counterfeit bills.

Across Honduras to El Salvador:
8:13 am:  I walk up the road and into Honduras.  I sit in a little bus shelter hut.  There's no one else around.
8:31 am:  A cheerful older man with a round nose and a parcel swaddled in a tattered Mickey Mouse bag waddles up to the hut.  He sits himself down and says that he will keep me company.  His voice is coarse and his Spanish is difficult to understand.
8:45 am:  A chicken wanders across the road.  Otherwise, nothing.
9:00 am:  A man wearing a uniform approaches the hut, sits down next to me, and asks to see my passport and papers. He looks through my stamps, reads the papers, checks the dates, and looks pleased with me.
9:04 am:  Other people have arrived in the hut, including a jolly farmer with a tobacco-stained voice, a toothless grin, and a cowboy hat at least 15 gallons too big for his head.  The farmer pulls ears of corn out of a woven plastic sack, and with his long fingernails peels back the husk to reveal the kernels to the appreciative crowd.  Everyone roars with laughter, especially the kind border guard.
9:08 am:  The border guard pats my arm and leaves me with "que te vaya bien."
9:14 am:  A microbus!  The crowd piles in.  But we can't leave until the microbus is full--we'll need to wait for another eight people.
9:24 am:  Mercifully, the microbus pulls away after another two people cross the border.  The microbus goes to San Marcos de Colon and costs L15.  (Note: I've heard horror stories about finding transport in the opposite direction, like getting totally ripped off in a shared pick-up truck. This border crossing apparently sees little traffic, and consequently has little transit serving it.)
9:44 am:  We roll into San Marcos and there's the chicken bus to Choluteca (L30) on the other side of the road!  Round-nosed man helps me out of the microbus and I scamper onto the bus as it pulls away.
10:24 am:  My butt already hurts.
10:54 am:  We arrive in Choluteca, and I climb on a bus labeled Amatillo.  Some guy in a red shirt has taken the same route as me since the border crossing.  Apparently he really wants to sit near me, which makes me uncomfortable.  I change seats and so does he.  I change back to my original seat, but fortunately he stays put.
10:59 am:  There are two gringos on this bus, older men in khakis and polo shirts.  One of them has a southern drawl.  I don't want to be associated with them--they are obvious targets for touts, hustlers, and thieves.
11:04 am:  And we're off!  The chicken bus to Amatillo costs L54.
where old american school buses go when they die... to live again!
11:28 am:  Wow, this bus is FULL.
11:58 am:  My back hurts.  I don't usually have back problems.  Now I do.
12:03 pm:  A really big guy is taking up most of the seat.
12:25 pm:  Inexplicably, the bus stops for 25 minutes.  Without the rush of moving air through the bus, it is soon stifling.
12:40 pm:  Two other people squashed into the seat with me, a guy and a woman in their 40s.  The guy gives his phone number to the woman.  She asks for my pen and writes it on her arm.  Nice going, dude.
12:52 pm:  This trip will never end.  I despair.
1:20 pm:  How can it be so hot?  My legs stick to my skirt, my skirt sticks to the seat, and my back feels like I'm laying on a grill.
1:45 pm:  We arrive at what is clearly the border.  I stand up to get off the bus.  The nice men in khakis and polos thank me for alerting them to the border--they would have stayed on the bus if I hadn't asked them where they were going.  They are missionaries.  Sigh.
1:51 pm:  I'm not sure if I need to get stamped out of Honduras.  I think so, because I have that slip of yellow paper with my passport.  But there's someone behind the window for "entrada," and no one behind "salida."
1:53 pm:  Ok, all of the action is at the same window.  I get stamped out of Honduras; there is no charge to exit.

El Salvador Border to Alegría
1:55 pm:  Walk across the bridge and into El Salvador.
1:59 pm:  Give my passport to the woman at El Sal immigration.  She takes a long time with it, and I'm starting to get nervous until I realize that she's smiling as she's looking through all of my stamps and visas.  She's actually interested in where I've been.
2:02 pm:  The immigration officer gives me directions to the bus and sends me off with a smile and a complimentary tourist map of the country.  What?  Another friendly, happy border official?  What the hell is going on today?!  No stamp to enter El Salvador, and there is no entry charge.
2:10 pm:  I'm on a bus to Santa Rosa ($0.90).  Apparently there are no buses direct to San Salvador, much less a direct bus to San Miguel (Lonely Planet is wrong).
2:36 pm:  In Santa Rosa, there's a nicer Pullman coach-style bus, #301E, that will go straight through to San Salvador.  It has air conditioning and the driver agrees to let me off at Triunfo, before San Salvador, for $5.  It's worth it for the air conditioning alone.  I haven't had any water to drink at all today, since I don't want to worry about finding bathrooms.
2:46 pm:  We wait to depart.
2:56 pm:  And wait.
3:06 pm:  And wait.  I'm freaking out, because I have three hours of daylight and I'm still within spitting distance of the Honduran border...  not half-way across the country and up in the mountains where I need to be.  I should have taken one of the regular buses.  A half-dozen have come and gone in the time we've been waiting.  Express...  my ass.
3:10 pm:  We finally depart.  One of the missionaries is sitting next to me.  I'm too tired to care.  He was in the Air Force back in the day.
3:26 pm:  Ok, it was totally worth the wait to have air conditioning, even if it doesn't work well.
3:29 pm:  Apparently we almost hit someone in the road, because the bus swerved like whoa and a few people standing in the aisle went flying.  Scary shit.
4:00 pm:  I've zoned out for the rest of the ride.  I've got two hours of daylight and two more transfers.  I have little hope that I'll make it in time.  I consider going to San Vincente, on the highway before San Salvador, to avoid the transfers and to find a place to stay before dark.
4:40 pm:  We arrive at El Triunfo.  The driver assures me that I will make my transfers.  Ojala.
4:41 pm:  With the help of a very helpful and friendly and random guy who approaches me to make sure I'm ok, I cross the highway at the road leading to Santiago de Maria where the microbus is waiting.
4:44 pm:  The microbus to Santiago de Maria ($0.28) leaves.  I am feeling more optimistic that I'll make it before night.
5:01 pm:  Arrive in Santiago de Maria.  A very nice young woman walks me to the corner from which I can see the final bus to Alegría.  There it is, in all of its green and gold and battered glory!
5:05 pm:  I'm on the bus!  I'm going to make it tonight!
5:12 pm:  There are so many little kids on the bus, and they're all charming.  Everyone is smiling.  This is such a nice place.  Every single interaction I've had with El Salvadoreans so far has been so great.  Sigh...  I'm falling in love.
5:28 pm:  These kids are so cute it's making my heart ache.  And all of the adults obviously love interacting with them.
5:30 pm:  Someone bumped my knee and genuinely apologized.  Apparently I'm in Happy Land!
5:40 pm:  The final chicken bus to Alegría departs ($0.35).
hang on tight, we're going around a corner!
5:55 pm:  We arrive in Alegría much earlier than I expected (Lonely Planet, wrong again).  By the grace of who-knows-what and against the odds, I'm here just before sunset.  And wow...  it's a lovely place.
6:00 pm:  Sunset.  Alegría--joy--indeed.


  1. I truly loved reading your post, I hope one day I will make it to that side of El Salvador.

  2. Writing from Guatemala... I definitely, definitely miss El Salvador. I truly can't understand why more tourists don't visit there.