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