My first stop in Peru was Trujillo, in the North. The city, which is surrounded by the desert, is very lively and interesting. I visited the nearby site of Chan Chan. A long bus journey across the desert took me to Lima, the incredible capital, where I visited the main attractions around Plaza de Armas and in Miraflores. Not far from Lima (although it is a long ride), I hiked Marcahuasi.
I then went south, to explored the Islas Ballestas, Paracas, sandboard in Huacachina and finally reach Nazca, where I took a bumpy place to fly over the lines and where I visited the many surrounding archeological sites. From Nazca, I made my way to Arequipa, the white city, from where I hiked the Canyon del Colca.
My next stop was Puno, which I used as the starting point to visit the islands of Lake Titicaca. A flight then took me to Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire, and an incredible city altogether: it offers so many attractions and even its surroundings are packed with archeological sites, such as Saksaywaman and Pucapucara. I further visited the Sacred Valley – the sites of Moray, Pisac and Ollantaytambo, which was my stop before embarking on the incredible experience of the Inca Trail. I got to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku, I explored all of the site and even hiked mountain Huayna Picchu.
Cusco was my last stop before having to fly back to Italy.
Read more about Peru!
Are you ever tired of having to travel by bus? Well, I must say I am and each time I get to a place, I need a long time to work up the courage to jump on another bus. Travelling up to Nicaragua was a real adventure, despite being very uncomfortable it was an interesting experience, and very funny – those chicken buses are really filled up to extremes, to the point that due to the heat, the amount of people, the way the drive (insane! Speeding like mad even uphill, overtaking in curves, hills and what not) you really can’t wait to get off. Yet, I enjoyed it as I got to sit next to the locals, chat, ask for information, they would ask about what I am doing, and I got to see a lot of their culture and way of life. There isn’t a real bus timetable. Buses leave when full, which means that you may be lucky and leave almost immediately after boarding, or you may have to wait for hours while the assistant driver/ticket seller calls people around the bus station, yelling the destination (“dale Granada Granada Granada!”). There are no real bus stops either. People just wait along the bus route, and wave at it to stop. Same thing to get off. Whenever somebody wants to get off, he yells at the driver. People get off wherever, so the bus may stop 10 times within 200 meters as people really want to get off in front of their homes!
Traveling by bus in Central America is no joke – photo courtesy of Zhu (flickr)
Buses are a bit more comfortable in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, where they may even exceed European standards. On some of them, seats are so comfortable that they can be reclined almost entirely, leaving plenty of room for the legs. So, if you have had a rough night in a terrible hostel, you may actually rest on the bus. The only problem is that, for some reason which I fail to understand, air conditioning is kept so so low that, when it is 35 degrees outside, you may have 18 inside and have to wear a sweater, a jacket, scarf and, if you are travelling a long distance, carry on board a blanket or sleeping bag. I have asked around why they do this, but received no real explanation.
Safety is apparently an issue on certain bus routes in Colombia, at night, and indeed passengers are searched for weapons before boarding, seats are assigned and a security officer gets on board to snap pictures of all passengers before leaving. Sleeping is apparently the best thing one can do, unless willing to get terribly scared. If asleep, you do not enjoy the amazing views, but you may also be spared to experience the bad driving, with drivers overtaking on hills, on curves, overtaking dangerous trucks when really there is no distance to allow it, and speeding-breaking all the time. Drivers behave like they are driving a Ferrari! I should know something about crazy drivers, I am from Italy and we are world (in)famous for being terrible drivers. But it does get really scary in Colombia, to the point that backpackers may get discouraged from going to certain places they would otherwise like to see, because too afraid of the long distance, dangerous road and crazy drivers.
Traveling comfortably is not a thing in Latin America – photo courtesy of John Barie (flickr)
The funny part though is that people are supposed to express an opinion on the drivers. Indeed on each bus, cab, minivan there is a sign asking “como conduzco?” or “how do I drive?”, which refers to an application through which you can judge. I have no taste for apps, but at times I get so scared that I really feel like yelling to the driver “tienen buses super-lindos, pero conducen como locos” or “your buses are amazing, but you drive like crazy!”
Then there are the unexpected incidents – getting a flat tire. While in some places drivers immediately stop and check what the sound is. This happened on my bus from Santiago to Baracoa in Cuba, where we stopped in the middle of nowhere so the tire could be changed – passengers took the chance to walk out, take pictures, and chat along (this is actually how I have met one of my best friends!); and on my ride from Flores to El Florido in Guatemala (where on the other hand we all had to stay on the bus as the tire was being changed, and it was tremendously hot inside). However, at times passengers have to protest and the drivers will keep on driving for kilometers without bothering to check what has happened. In Ecuador, on a 10 hours bus ride from Quito to Guayaquil, we all had to stand and scream, as the assistant driver said we had only hit a can while we all did hear the explosion of the tire and the bus was shaking! Eventually, we stopped and changed that tire.
All in all, I really can’t understand why drivers all over Latin America play with peoples’ lives like that; at times, seeing how there are even children and babies on the bus, I end up thinking that in these countries life is too cheap for them to care at all. Most of all, drivers do behave like real Kamikazes!
Want to know more about travelling by bus in Central America? Read my post on chicken buses!
Latin America is incredibly easy, I must admit. Talking to people is fairly easy too. With a few exceptions that only confirm the rule, people are truly friendly. At times shy, yet friendly and ready to help if you need a hand. A lady followed me around in Ipiales, Colombia, after she realised I did not understand her directions. Yet, at times they confuse me. It is not just a matter of understanding the language, which in theory I do. They speak Spanish all over, but words change between countries so each time I cross the border I have to switch my listening mode, pay more attention, learn new words and get to understand the accent. I have been learning ways of saying “cool”. In Colombia and Ecuador, they say “chevere”. In Costa Rica they say “pura vida” and the equivalent in Colombia is “buena onda”. Words for “parking” change, and so words for “rent” – some say “alquilar”, in other countries “arrendar”.
Imagine having to ask directions in Spanish, in Costa Rica – photo courtesy of Alquiler de Caches (flickr)
The hardest Spanish to understand was by far that spoken by Nicaraguans – could be because they are very reserved and hardly talked to us or because they speak so very fast? Easiest were the Costa Ricans. In Colombia, accent varies greatly from place to place, but this is normal, the country is simply huge; and at times I have to ask them to speak more slowly! But when they do, you will manage to listen to all sort of wonderful stories. I was sitting in a square in Getsemani, one of the oldest “barrios” in Cartagena. It is a gathering place at night, for children who play football, residents who want to have a chat and enjoy the fresh breeze coming from the sea, and travellers who want to enjoy local action. I remember just asking the man sitting on a bench whether he minded if I sat next to him. He did not, and in fact he told me he used to be the mayor of the barrio, and started recollecting the history of it, explaining about its secrets, its renovation, and telling me a bit about the culture and way of life of the inhabitants. I have thus learned that Cartagena was built specifically to allow the breeze from the sea, and that at around 2 pm all locals sit on chairs outside of their homes to cool down a bit, and sometimes they rent those chairs to passers by (or so I understood). How funny!
Turtles won’t talk!
However, imagine getting lost in Central or South America. Any time I ask for directions, I get confused. In all Central America, whenever they mean to say “go straight”, they use the expression “todo recto”. In Colombia, they say “derecho” which I automatically confuse with “derecha” (right). Add to this the fact that at times they speak incredibly fast, that they start stopping and asking other people and get talking even faster, each with a different opinion and each eager to help, and here you have me, getting even more lost but having a great time seeing how people are so nice!
Surely, something that all Latin America shares is a sense of timing and distance that to Europeans is hardly understandable. You may ask the same question, ie “how far is…?” to ten different persons within 2 minutes and they would give you all different estimates. Somebody would tell you “ohhhh it is very far” and when you ask “ok, how far” they reply “very far!”. If you ask for an estimate in chilometers (“far” to Europeans means almost nothing!), they would just as easily give you different views. The same distance, to some would be 5 km, to others 10 or even 15! And surely they never recommend walking there, “porque està lejo!” – because it is far (even though it may be no more than 15 minutes walk). Estimates of timing are not different. The person selling you a bus ticket may tell you that travelling to your destination is only 2 hours, then the bus driver would tell you 3, and surely, you will get there in possibly 4.
Lesson learned: always allow plenty of time to travel even the shortest distances and enjoy the ride.
Check my other posts on communication.
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.
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.