Backpackers travelling through Central America will hardly have any chance to skip a ride on a chicken bus. They are very common in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama – but not in the super-modern Costa Rica. Here are a few questions and answers that may help you make your mind on whether to hop on one of these crazy buses when having to move around the country.
What are chicken buses? Imagine an old US school bus, that has been sold for cheap and is now used to transport passengers other than students. But what is so special about them, aside from the fact that they are sometimes rotten old and terribly polluting? Despite being so impossibly old and falling to pieces, the average bus has a flat screen tv and a great stereo installation to entertain its passengers – loud and possibly louzy music is guaranteed. The bus is creatively decorated on the outside – from colours and graffiti to lights so bright that from afar, at night, you may think you are seeing a huge, running, Christmas tree.
Are chicken buses expensive? No, they are very cheap to ride, and they are extensively used by locals for this reason. Travellers on a tight budget will find them very convenient (not to mention that in some cases, they are the only means of transportation!).
Chicken buses in Guatemala – photo courtesy of J. Stephen Conn (Flickr)
Do many people ride them? Yes! They get packed with passengers. So impossibly packed that you easily figure out why they are called “chicken buses”.
What is their normal schedule? Buses only leave from the station when they are full. Really, REALLY full. You would think that if the bus sits 50 persons, it will leave when all seats are taken. Wrong! If the bus should comfortably sit 50 persons, you can bet that at least 70 or 80 will get on. Seats meant to be for 2, will accommodate 3. Plus there will be people standing, and chairs added in the central (walking row). Is this safe? Not really, but locals seem not to mind, and when this is the only way you have to reach a specific place, you will also not really mind. You may end up being squashed, fighting for some air, and finding it impossible to move. Or you may have to sit next to a cute child who stares at you with a lot of interest, wanting to hear where you are from. Here is your chance to practice your Spanish!
“Tastefully” decorated chicken bus in Antigua bus station – photo courtesy of roaming-the-planet (flickr)
What makes the ride superinteresting (aside from the cheesy and poorly dubbed movie you will get to see on longer rides, or the terribly lousy music that won’t give a break to your ears) is that in that mayhem of people, vendors will come on board trying to sell anything from ice-cream to candies, from fresh fruit to fried platains, from water to soft drinks (just in case you are hungry or thirsty), to the most incredible sales of books, pencils and pens, and even sleeping pills. The ticket man will find his way through all the people to collect money for the ride. Finally, top this off with the presence of ladies coming back from the market with their daily purchase of live chickens, which they will lovingly hold to themselves. This makes it an incredible cultural experience.
Are chicken buses fast? Well, considering the amount of people riding them, they are. But keep in mind there are no real bus stops. Passengers will stand on the route of the bus, wave at it to stop when they see it passing and jump on. This could mean that the bus stops every ten meters. Same thing happens for those getting off: call the driver to stop, and get off. Ten seconds later, another stop to let someone else off – the bus won’t really go above the first gear.
A child staring out of the bus – photo courtesy of a.rey (flickr)
Can passenger transport lugguage on the bus? You bet! I have seen anything go on those roof: heavy backpacks and bags, huge suitcases, and even a coffin. Sometimes people sit on it.
Riding a chicken bus is an incredible experience when in Central America. A must in Guatemala. A few cents will transport you to your destination (a bit uncomfortably and with a lot of changes, but who cares?!) and you will get to learn a lot about the local culture.
Go for it, and enjoy your ride!
Read more about my crazy bus rides.
There are many places to visit in Costa Rica, but a trip to this amazing country would not be complete without a visit to Tortuguero. The name of the place is a direct reference to the turtles, which nest in the area between July and August. That’s when the park is at its best, and when the village is fully booked. Nevertheless, it is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica year round and it is possible to travel cheap if following my advice.
Costa Rica attractions: Tortuguero National Park
Reaching Tortuguero is in and of itself one of the top Costa Rica attractions. The village is completely isolated and can only be reached by boat, via Cariari (which is the most common way) or Moin. There are regular buses connecting San Jose and Cariari. All leave from the Gran Terminal de Caribe, and the trip takes roughly 3 hours. Once in Cariari, go to the estaciòn vieja, where most travellers get a Clic Clic or Coopetraca bus to the dock, and then a boat. A combination of bus and boat should cost around 5$.
The boat trip to reach the village is possibly the best (and cheapest) attraction: imagine lush nature, crocodiles, sloths, monkeys, various species of birds… My recommendation would then be to leave as early as possible from San Jose, in order to catch the boat well early in the day and have full view of the surroundings. Keep the eyes open and camera ready, because this is a “free” visit to the national park and it is possible to see more animals here than on any of the Tortuguero tours.
A gorgeous cayman in Tortuguero
The village is far off from pretty much anything, there are no cars and no banks in the village, and not many shops will accept credit cards. So, make sure to withdraw cash before getting there. There is one main dirt road and various side streets, all connecting to the beach, which is one of the best beaches in Costa Rica. The main road is home to a number of artesania shops. Tortuguero is surrounded by luxurious nature – think palm trees along the coast, rain forest and thick vegetation, and wildlife is rich. The fact that it is right in the rain forest means that it rains year round. Almost any unbearably hot, humid day will have some downpours.
The 2000 inhabitants are mostly of Jamaican descent, and speak a funny variety of Creole English, mixed with Spanish, that is really lovely to listen to. They are very friendly and relaxed (too relaxed at times, as seen in certain local businesses), but keep in mind that this is a tourist destination, that the village lives off tourism, so the locals will often engage in an open battle with other villagers to offer their services to tourists.
It wouldn’t be Tortuguero without turtles
Costa Rica attractions:
Once in Tortuguero, right on the dock there is the main information office and tourist agency, where it is possible to ask for organised tours of the park. Visiting Tortuguero National Park is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica. Keep in mind that there are many agencies in the village that attract tourists by offering “free” information, as signs hanging outside would say. This is just a way to attract paying customers. There are day or night tours, kayak or boat tours. For extra adventure, there are canopy tours (zip lines).
By all means, the park can be seen independently, without a guide but just paying the entrance fee (10$), which is the best and even the most reasonable option for those travelling to Costa Rica on a budget. Whichever mode one picks to visit the park, make sure to rent rain boots, as the paths are extremely muddy and boots protect in case to be unfortunate enough to be bitten by a snake. Also bring insect repellent. Needless to say, in such humid weather, mosquitoes will attempt to feast on any living creature.
A walking tour of the park with a guide costs around 20$ per person, including the entrance fee. A guide can point out animals and plants, but remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean seeing all (or any!) of them. Some are night creatures – so is the jaguar (of which the guide can point footprints, at most, and which has been spotted 4 times in the last few years) or the various species of frogs that live in the park (which by the way can also be spotted in the village by an expert eye). Sloths and monkeys live high up in the trees and with that thick vegetation they are hard to spot. Snakes hide in the vegetation and sometimes not even guides can recognise them.
The beach can be a pleasant place to cool off in the evening, but keep in mind that it is highly recommended NOT to swim in the sea, although it is considered one of the best beaches in Costa Rica. Shark attacks have been reported and the currents are very strong.
The beach in Tortuguero – nobody swims. It is too dangerous!
Where to stay and where to eat:
The village offers many options to sleep and eat, for almost any budget. The average price for a double room with a private bathroom is 15$ per person, but take some time to walk around the village to be able to find similar options for as little as 9$ per person. Arriving early is a good way to have sufficient daylight time to walk around and the cheapest accommodation. The most convenient places to eat are called “sodas”, basic eateries that tend to close quite earlier than most restaurants. Local specialties include seafood. Try the local “gallo pinto” – rice and beans – a national staple and accompaniment to any meal, that in Tortuguero is made with coconut milk/oil. Freshly made juices and fruit are abundant and delicious.
For more information on places to visit in Costa Rica, click here!
A beautiful sunset in Tortuguero
Chepe, as Ticos lovingly call their capital, is the heart of Costa Rica. While most travellers do not spare it negative comments, I find that despite its messy architectural style, due to the economic boom and urban expansion, this modern city is a cool place to hang out for a few days and it offers some of the best things to do in Costa Rica. And even people who live in Costa Rica actually enjoy it, such as Samantha of My Tan Feet, who clearly states in her post on 50 things to do in Costa Rica that visiting San Jose should be one.
I suppose the bad reputation of San Jose is partially due to the fact that the lush nature of the rest of the country – with its sloths, crocodiles, volcanoes and rain forest – fascinates visitors and is unfound here. Yet, since most backpackers follow the gringo route and foreign residents opt to visit and stay in other regions where they can enjoy the nature of the country, this ends up being the best place to experience the true Costa Rican identity.
The city was founded in 1737 and it was originally called Villanueva de la Boca del Monde del Valle de Abra. The name was then changed to remember that of its saint patron. Interestingly, for a long time it was only of secondary importance to the bigger Cartago. After Spain took everyone by surprise by abandoning its colonies in Central America, Cartago and San Jose signed a number of treaties while preparing for war in secret. On 5 April 1823 San Jose won the battle of Ochomongo and became the capital of the country. Later on, Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela attempted to ransack the city in a siege known as La Guerra de la Liga, but the capital managed to win and confirmed its status.
San Pedro is among the nicest neighborhoods of San Jose – photo courtesy of Alquiler de Caches (flickr)
In more recent times, San Jose has undergone a vast urban development, as many Ticos and Nicaraguans moved to the capital in search of a better life. This has led to the creation of vast shantytowns and to the increase in criminality rates.
Chepe is a modern town, with a functioning transportation system, and compared to other cities in Central America, it will feel extremely European with its shopping malls, traffic lights, modern buildings and trendy restaurants. Despite being a large city, the atmosphere is relaxed and the people are very friendly (a typical scene would be meeting someone, asking for information and eventually be greeted with a “Pura Vida!”) and ready to give a hand and directions to lost backpackers.
It is said that certain areas, especially in the city centre, may be dangerous especially at night, but I did not encounter any problems while visiting. Of course, it is important to always keep one’s wits about and pay extra attention.
Another reason to spend a few days in the city? Compared to the rest of the country, temperatures here are milder, giving backpackers a nice break from the extreme heat of the coastal areas.
Best things to do in San Jose Costa Rica
Costa Rica is by far the richest and most advanced country in Central America (certainly much more than Nicaragua), making it the most expensive too. But, since I like walking and don’t mind using public transportation, I was able to save my pennies and still enjoy the city.
There are a good bunch of places to visit in San Jose. The most interesting areas to visit are in the city centre, where I took a nice, long (and free) walk through Avenida Central, Plaza de la Cultura and Calle 8, as well as Boulevard Ricardo Jimenez south of Parque Nacional. The nicest “barrio” to visit is Barrio Amon, a colonial district which is still the residence of “cafétaleros” (coffee producers), with homes built between the 19th and the 20th centuries. Some of the buildings have been recently restored and turned into hotels, restaurants and offices, making it extremely pleasant to walk around. This is by far the most popular area among tourists.
Another charming visit may be that of the Mercado Central. Sure it may not be as great as the markets in Peru or Guatemala, but it is a good introduction to Central America culture, and it is lively and busy and has a great selection of fresh produce.
The center of San Jose – photo courtesy of Alquiler de Caches (flickr)
At the top of Paseo Colon, Parque Metropolitano La Sabana is the best place to escape the greyness of the city and it hosts two museums, a lagoon, a fountain and a number of sports courts and swimming pools for those wanting to keep fit. On the east side of the Parque there is the Museo de Arte Costarricense, with a permanent exhibition of Costa Rican art of the 19th and 20th centuries and located in a nice colonial building. On the south west side there is the Museo de Ciencias Naturales La Salle, for those wanting to see embalmed animals and butterflies.
Plaza de la Cultura is considered by Ticos as the geographic heart of Costa Rica, and it hosts the Museo de Oro Precolombino.
Finally, San Jose is a good place to do a Spanish Course, and some travellers may want to couple the experience with volunteering.
Street life in San Jose – photo courtesy of Jean-François Schmitz (flickr)
At a 45 minutes bus ride from San Jose, Cartago may be an interesting city to visit for its religious significance and its conservative charm. Highlights include the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles, a byzantine style church which has been renovated in 1926 following the 1910 earthquake and where I could admire the famous statue of La Negrita (a black Virgin statue) and Las Ruinas de la Parroquia, the ruins of the Iglesia del Convento built in 1575 in honour of San Juan and destroyed by an earthquake in 1841. Reconstruction works were interrupted in 1910 after the earthquake.
Where to stay:
My choice in San Jose is Hostel Urbano, in the heart of the student and residential area of San Pedro. This is a great choice for backpackers on a budget, with dorms at $ 14 per night: beds are comfortable and have great lockers, rooms are spacious and clean, with large wardrobes; bathrooms are spotless; a pancakes and fruit breakfast is served daily; there is a very well equipped kitchen, a lovely backyard, a great common area, a game room and book exchange; the staff is incredibly helpful and friendly and will provide plenty of information on restaurants, transportations, courses, activities and what not, and the overall atmosphere of the hostel is so great that it made me want to stay longer just to enjoy it.
Not far from it, the cheaper Castle Tam is an option if one can bare its dirty dorms, a messy kitchen, the stench of cigarette smoke, a grumpy atmosphere and a moody owner and staff who change the prices of accommodation as quickly as their mood.
Where to eat, drink and enjoy nightlife:
Save some pennies by shopping in one of the many supermarkets – some of them are so upperscale that I could prepare a gourmet meal. This is especially true if lodging in Hostel Urbano: backpackers will find that great kitchen and cozy dining room will be perfect to enjoy their meals. If not, this student area offers plenty of budget eateries with set meals for as little as 4 US dollars.
Not far from the hostels, there is a very busy street packed with bars where students like having a drink. Pick any, they are all busy!
In Avenida Central in San Pedro there is the Jazz Cafè, the best bet for quality live music with bands that play from jazz to salsa. Going to the Jazz Café is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica!
The beautiful national theater in San Jose – photo courtesy of Randall Elizondo López (flickr)
How to get to San Jose
There is no real public bus system and no central terminal, but a number of private companies operate from hubs scattered through the city. The biggest stations serve entire regions: Gran Terminal de Caribe has buses to the Caribbean Coast; Terminal Coca Cola connects to the Central Valley and the Pacific Coast. Terminal San Carlos serves Monteverde, La Fortuna and Sarapiquì. Tracopa links to San Isidro de General and the South.
Tica Bus and Transnica are the best long distance, international companies that connect Costa Rica to Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Book the ticket in advance to ensure a seat.
If in Nicaragua, catch a Tica or Transnica bus from Managua through Rivas all the way to San Jose. The advantage is that it is much easier to go to through immigration if on one of these international buses, with the staff that clearly explains everything there is to do. For more border crossing information, check my other post.
Here it is possible to find complete information on the bus services and timetables in Costa Rica.
If wishing to explore an off the beaten place in Costa Rica, this would have to be my pick. Easily reached from San Jose through Cartago, not many visitors venture in this mellow yet appealing town, famous for its mountain air, strong coffee and what is known as Central America’s best white water rafting. The area is also great for mountain biking, kayaking, and canyoning. These activities may blow a daily budget (costing up to 100 dollars for the whole day), but they are worth a try!
Rio Reventazon has the most difficult rafts in the country: 65 km to keep your adrenaline going. Rio Pacuare has the most scenic rafting in Costa Rica, with a view of spectacular canyons, rainforest, and it goes past indigenous villages and will give anybody a chance to take a view at the great Costa Rican wildlife.
Want to find out more about Costa Rica? Click here for more posts.
Puerto Viejo is the perfect place to be a beach bum or to practice one’s surfing abilities in the pristine Caribbean waters of Costa Rica. It has some of the best beaches in Costa Rica. The lush nature around town, its dusty streets, artesania shops, good bars and seafood restaurants and its relaxed rastafarian community (be prepared to listen to reggae music all day long, see the typical colours of rastafarians all around town and being served by a waitress who will laughingly admit to having smoked marjiuana) make this place charming and therefore one of Costa Rica attractions. The good news is that there are plenty of cheap accommodation, eating options and activities not to blow anyone’s travel budget.
Waves and wildlife are among Costa Rica attractions
Things to do in Costa Rica:
Surf and snorkel
Salsa Brava is thought to have the best waves of the country and is among the best beaches of Costa Rica for surfing. The coral reef almost emerges from the waters, so make sure to catch that wave unless willing to crash on the reef: in other words, it is only good for experts. Playa Cocles, about 2 km east of Puerto Viejo, has great but less dangerous waves, usually in the first hours of day. To catch the best ones, go between December and March. Not a surfer but willing to give it a try? Enroll in one of the surf camps.
Playa Negra is a great beach for swimming and body board. Snorkelling is best enjoyed in the areas between Cahuita and Manzanillo – for better visibility go when there are no waves. For scuba diving, there are over 20 good sites in the area where it is possible admire various species of fish. For information, the best option is Reef Runner Divers – it is even possible dive with a temporary permission for those who do not have a patent.
Sand, coral reef and forest in one of the best beaches in Costa Rica
Hike and bike
Puerto Viejo is a great starting point for other things to do in Costa Rica, such as a hike in the rain forest, kayaking, walking. And then go back to town to enjoy a delicious rondon soup (a traditional fish soup with vegetables and spices typical of the area). There are organised tours of the parks, but it is easy to hike around (and for free) independently in the Parque Nacional Cahuita and in the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo where toucans and sloths can be spotted. South-east of town the jungle meets the sea, contoured by palm trees and inhabited by toucans, sloths and monkeys: it all gives this a special aura. Carry lunch and plenty of water.
For those who want to be extra lazy, the best option is to just walk around, browse the artesania shops, enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and mingle with the local artists.
Biking around? One of the many things to do in Costa Rica
Where to stay and eat:
Backpackers looking for cheap accommodation in Puerto Viejo will find Hostel Pagalù a great quality option: comfortable beds (dorms are 12 US dollars), rooms and bathrooms are spotless, there is a cozy common area with books, wifi and computers, a well equipped kitchen to prepare meals. No reservations are accepted but those lucky enough to find a bed, will never be kicked out unless they decide to leave!
There are good supermarkets to buy and prepare meals. Those too lazy to cook who would rather eat out shoudl go to Soda Mirna, in the main street, as it is the best budget option with its set meals and large portions. Bread and Chocolate is perfect for a very filling breakfast, and everything is organic and prepared from scratch, not to mention delicious.
Various bars have live music at night.
Getting to Puerto Viejo and away:
It is possible to get here by catching a bus from the Gran Terminal de Caribe in San Jose. From Tortuguero, catch a bus from Cariari to Guapiles and then hop on another bus to Puerto Viejo.
To reach Panama get a direct bus to Sixaola (they leave several times a day) and then cross the border in Guabito.
For more things to do in Costa Rica click here.
My baby, Minnie – the face I miss the most when I am away from home
What to do when you are on the road and miss your canine or feline companion
I know there are many animal lovers among backpackers. I recently saw a video about the story of a dog in Brazil who, every night, risks her life to carry food to her friends. That got me thinking… Hardly any human being would do that, and we have a lesson to learn from this amazing dog. I don’t have dogs at home in Italy – I have several cats, all adopted. I have volunteered at a cat shelter for years, and I keep helping local shelters with donations, or searching for a home for their guests. I always campaign in favour of sterilisation of pets and strays, to reduce the risk of spreading letal diseases (such as feline HIV or leukemia which are spread through bites and scratches during fights, to give just one example) and to minimize the chances that new puppies or kitties are born for which no family can be found. I am convinced that sterilisation is the best way to ensure cats and dogs don’t end up living in crowded shelters or, even worst, in the streets of city jungles, where they desperately search for food and shelter against the heat or rain or cold weather; with nobody to take care of them if they get sick.
Believe it or not, whenever I travel, the face I miss the most is that of my cat Minnie, closely followed by that of my other cats. It breaks my heart not seeing them every day, not listening to their soft purrs, not being there to play. Yet, I somehow end up meeting lovely cats and dogs. Many hostels have their own, so it happened a few times that I shared my bed with one of them (although this meant breaking the rules as I was not supposed to let them in, but shhhh don’t tell anybody!). While travelling in Argentina in 2012, a couple of dogs followed me around El Calafate. I eventually went to a pet shop to buy them food, and each night, after dinner, I would carry my leftovers (and at times the leftovers of the whole restaurant) to feed the strays. I know giving human food to animals is not great, but at least it was something. Through the hostel, I even made a donation to a local shelter.
Mono looks so much like my cat Arturo I could not help but let him on my bed!
A rather funny scene I saw in November 2013 was that of two dogs who, in Flores (Guatemala), jumped in the lake. At first I thought they wanted to just cool down a bit, but then I noticed that they started swimming towards the other side of the lake. The one in the front kept looking back to make sure his friend was following. It took them about 15 minutes to get to the other side. But then, we all know dogs are good swimmers.
He also enjoyed the view from the Volcano Pacaya
Last February, I was walking around aimlessly in Cartagena, Colombia, at night, enjoying the cool breeze after the daily heat. A dog started to follow me around. I thought she may be hungry so I stopped to buy her food. I fed her but she did not seem really interested. Eventually a lady who observed the scene told me: “no busca comida, busca familia!” “She is not looking for food, she is looking for a family”. I wish I could be her family! Eventually, she decided other travellers were more interesting to follow, so she abandoned me.
A Peruvian naked dog in Trujillo
However, the top of my experience with dogs on the road was in Peru. I went on a hike to Marcahuasi, the most remote place you can imagine. The main village in the area, San Pedro de Casta, is very small and there are many dogs around. One even walked me to the hospedaje municipal (the only accommodation for travellers in the area), right to my room. I guess he wanted to make sure it was clean and everything worked ok. When I started my hike, at 6:00 am the day after, a dog started following me. I thought he would leave eventually, as the trek was tiring. He actually joined me all the way up, and then down, for a full 8 hours of huffing and puffing. It was a lonely but enjoyable walk (I met 3 peasants on the way, a lady with a donkey, and a lonely donkey, and that was it), so Barbon (that’s how I named him) was my only company. Each time I stopped for breath, he stopped too, and if he thought I was taking too long a break, he’d yelp to encourage me to keep on walking. When I reached the top of Marcahuasi, I shared my snacks with him, and we posed for pictures together. He then guided me back down. I later learned from other friends who went on the same hike that he also followed them (I had asked them specifically to look for him!). I will always carry him in my heart.
Posing with Barbon in Marcahuasi
So, what can backpackers living on a budget do to help animals they meet during their wanders? The first and most logical thing would be feeding them. At some point or another, you will have leftovers, you won’t be able to finish your meal. So take them and make a dog happy – as I have already said, human food is not great for dogs, but strays end up having bad food in the street anyways, and they have to fight for it too. The other thing you can do is giving them fresh, clean water. Donations to local shelters and associations are an easy way to help: ask locally or search the web, make sure the association is a genuine one you can trust, and not working for profit – the cat shelter I volunteered for in Italy devoted 100% of the donations it received to the cure of its animals, whether it was for health care or food. Even if you can spare just a few dollars, it helps. Last but not least… Have you thought about voluntourism? This means, quite literally, taking volunteer vacations: the same association you can donate money to will most likely need a hand, either to take care of their animals or to raise more funds. One example? If you are a good photographer, take pictures of the cats and dogs living at the shelter, and put together a calendar with a very short story of them and of the association. In most countries, many calendars are sold over the Christmas period to be given as presents. If you find a tipography that prints them for a reasonable price and sponsors which in exchange for some publicity on the calendar give you some of the funds, you can be more than sure to make profits for the shelter. This is a great way to put together your love for animals and your passion for wandering the world. I will definitely do it on my next trip. What about you?