Buses and shuttles
Buses and shuttles are the most common mode of transportation and inexpensive but can take a very long time. Here are the typical options.
1. “Chicken buses” are retired US school buses painted with neat designs, chromed out, and full the brim with people, luggage, and sometimes chickens. These buses stop regularly so progress is slow but they are very cheap like $.50 USD per hour of travel. Fares are sometimes posted but if you get on or off mid route, are negotiable. There’s typically one person on the bus in charge of money who watches for folks getting on and then gives them a price for where they want to go. They may try to take advantage of you and charge much more than is reasonable to see what they can get away with. Watch how much the locals pay to not get taken to the cleaners. Folks may try to charge you extra for large bags or for random reasons like being tall. That’s a bunch of malarkey as long as your bag fits in the overhead rack or in your lap. The language barrier can be a challenge though so keep the overall cost in perspective and pick your battles. Don’t sweat a dollar or two because you’ll be on the bus with everyone for a while!
2. “Tica buses” are traditional tour buses with AC, reclining seats, and multiple stops. These buses range in quality, comfort, and reliability and are rather inexpensive overall but some routes can be oddly expensive. Try to avoid the back of the bus since the bathroom stinks worse after each hour of travel. If those are the only seats left as was always the case for us, there is sometimes a window in the bathroom that you can open up which helps tremendously. Bathroom doors tended to not close well so give it a good slam. Also, if it rains, the back of the bus has the highest chance of leaks in the ceiling. Overall, try to board the bus at its point of origin rather than jumping on halfway through a route for a chance at a better seat.
3. “Shuttles” are large 15 passenger vans that tend to make straight shot trips from one backpacker hub to another. These range in quality as well, some with AC and movies, and tend to be the fastest since they are usually straight-shot transportation with stops only for gas and food breaks. They are more expensive at about $5 USD per hour. They tend to have great movie selections as well!
We used all three types but preferred shuttles since they were more reliable and quicker and we’ve got a lot of ground to cover with a short time to do it.
Booking ground transportation
Booking transportation is easy and can be done at the plethora of travel agencies in towns or through the front desks at hostels. You don’t have to stay at a hostel to book transportation through them. Generally, there are only a few companies with the vehicles while the hostels and travel agencies act as the middle men to consolidate travelers onto the same shuttle, and they get a small kickback for bringing in the traveler. Sometimes you can book directly with the shuttle company for cheaper and some companies offer discounts to repeat travelers (10% discount). Be sure to ask whether you’ll have to switch vehicles or drivers along the route. Switching vehicles can add many hours to your travel time because it means you will get dumped off in a random town probably in the opposite direction from where you want to go where you’ll have to hope the next shuttle comes through to pick you up. One of our hostels did this to us and a 7 hour trip became 15 hours. If you’re going off the beaten path, this maneuver becomes more common unless you are traveling with a big enough group (4+ people) to warrant hiring a dedicated van.
Regardless of vehicle, we learned the hard way that you are at the mercy of the state of roads, fickle traffic, and inefficient borders. We learned to double the estimated travel time that Google Maps gives you. Guatemala was particularly difficult because there are just not many roads so you only have a couple routes between regions. They have trouble with landslides and erosion in the mountains and I heard one route was no longer safe to travel due to highway robberies. Some roads were so bumpy that our fitbit registered the potholes as steps! Land border crossings can take 15 minutes or 4 hours. It helps to have a knowledgeable driver to get you to the right people and tell you what to expect. In Nicaragua for instance, we had to have our temperature taken, the bus sprayed down with a mystery chemical, and money exchanged with some shady guys with fanny packs. Our driver made the process much smoother than it could’ve been. Also, expect long delays for random security checkpoints and expect your driver to be pulled over for miscellaneous “fines” which happened twice on different trips for us.
While on the shuttle, your butt and back will hurt. We found these handy therma-rest style foam pads to sit on which help some. It’s also rather difficult to sleep since the roads are windy and many vehicles have choppy manual transmissions. Regardless of what you try, you’ll likely need some recovery time the next day to get your legs and head back to normal.
Our two best shuttle rides were with a company called Roneey. They were very fast to respond online and through Whatsapp and by far the most efficient transportation service. They wave at all the police, border agents, and friends in the towns they go through which I could tell greased the wheels a bit for how smoothly we were able to travel across countries.
Flights can be quite expensive in Central America. It seems like a few budget airlines dominate certain cities and routes which makes flights reasonable in cost and simplicity whereas other origin or destination points can be three times more expensive with many transfers and long layovers. Flights can save you days of bus travel and come out to a similar cost to a multi-leg vehicle trip with overnight lodging in towns along the road. They’re worth considering but require you to be flexible with origin, destination, and dates. Flights can also be a welcome, well-deserved respite from brutal bus rides.
Ubers are very rare in Central America. The only city we found any was in San Jose, Costa Rica and they were cheap, reliable, and had nice cars. Overall, the cities in Central America are small so there’s not much need for ubers or taxis. Spanish urban planning was consistent in Central America’s colonial towns so you have consistent grid formats from city to city making navigation easier as well. You don’t have the same suburban sprawl as in many US cities so urban areas are dense with places to stay, eat, and be entertained. Taxis are useful when you get caught in a flash thunderstorm but prices can be all over the place. Try to get the price before setting off in the taxi otherwise you’re at the mercy of whatever the driver thinks of you since few taxis seemed to have meters. In general, it’s not as bad as online forums and hotels lead you to believe.
Good ol’ fashioned walking
We felt safe walking around the streets of all the Central American towns we visited. Like in the US, be conscientious of your surroundings and don’t go down dark alleys at night. You can’t text and walk in colonial towns because you will fall in a hole. Sidewalks are a patchwork of driveways, steps, and wooden planks and the mysterious holes leading to the sewer can be ankle or even waist deep. Also, signs for street names are rare. We relied heavily on Google Maps and zen navigation. Asking for directions was only somewhat successful because, particularly in Costa Rica, folks don’t want to seem like they don’t know so they sometimes make up an answer and send you on a wild goose chase. When in doubt, ask a couple of people and compare those directions. Lastly, the plentiful stray dogs seemed quite nice and somebody must watch out for them. They’re good at begging and play the poor puppy dog card well. They were even picky about the treats you snuck them!
Written by: Sara
There are 2 options to get from Granada to San José. You can (1) take a shuttle with Easy Ride (shuttles usually have A/C and might have movies playing as well), or (2) do it the budget traveler's way (more complicated, but can save you US$37 - US$67 per person). You'll find that there are other bus companies in Nicaragua, but they don't leave from Granada -- they all leave from Managua.
(1) Shuttle with Easy Ride (2 options): US$52 - $82
(2) Budget Traveler's Way (explained in detail below): US$15 ($12 + $3 to cross the border)
If you decide to go the budget traveler's way, you'll need to take "chicken buses" to the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica (chicken buses are old U.S. school buses that have been painted fun colors... they call them chicken buses because sometimes you will see people traveling on them with chickens and other animals), and then you continue from the border to San José on a regular bus.
Here is how you do it:
Step 1: Find the chicken bus in Granada to take you to Rivas
It wasn't easy to find the buses that will take you from Granada to Rivas. We walked around the day before to find them, and I'm glad we did it without our backpacks on. We ended up asking someone at a nearby hostel who pointed us in the right direction. Once we got to the bus station, I could tell that there were buses at the same station that took you to other cities. However, I've also read that there are other bus stations in Granada with buses to other cities. I wanted to make sure we got to the correct one.
See Exhibit A below with a map that will help you locate the bus station for buses to Rivas. You'll need to walk through the municipal market to get there, so be prepared to get your feet wet and muddy if it has rained recently.
Step 2: Travel from Granada to Rivas on a chicken bus (2 hours)
There are about 8 buses that leave every day from Granada to Rivas. That being said, I've seen a couple of blogs that say they don't all run every day. I highly suggest finding the bus station the day before and asking someone what the bus schedule is for the next day. They may not know the exact times though (when we asked, we were told different times), so I also suggest arriving for one of the earlier buses if possible.
Our driver (who seemed to know what he was talking about at least) told us that the buses run from Granada to Rivas at the following times: 5:45 AM, 6:30 AM, 8:00 AM, 9:30 AM, 11:30 AM, 12:30 PM, 1:30 PM, and 3:10 PM.
Our bus left at 8:02 AM, so be on time for the one you want! I do suspect that they may wait a little bit though if the bus isn't full yet. The bus ride wasn't too bad. It was a little hot, but since we were traveling in the morning, it wasn't too bad.
The cost is C$32 (about 1 US dollar) per person (there was a sign posted in the bus with the price) + they charged us C$32 per big backpack since they each took up an entire seat (this seems like a normal practice as I've heard this from other travelers). This can be avoided if your bags fit in the overhead area. Partially through the ride, someone tried to make us put our bags in the aisle, but Colin said no since we'd already paid for seats for them (haha).
We arrived 2 hours later at the bus station in Rivas at 10:00 AM.
Step 3: Find the chicken bus in Rivas to take you to Peñas Blancas (the border)
This isn't hard at all since the bus from Granada takes you right to the bus station in Rivas with the buses to Peñas Blancas. You will get a bunch of people coming up to you yelling "frontera!" which means border. They all want you on their bus, but keep asking around. You'll find people telling you that the soonest bus leaving is theirs in an hour, but then you'll find one leaving in 2 minutes. You'll also get people telling you that you can take a shuttle (for about US$10), but I suggest continuing on with the chicken buses since it's only 30 - 45 minutes to the border from Rivas.
Step 4: Travel from Rivas to the border at Peñas Blancas on a chicken bus
Like I said before, this ride is pretty short. We left around 10:05 AM and arrived at the border about 10:35 AM. On this chicken bus, I was able to fit my bags in the racks above out seats, and Colin sat with his bag in his lap. For whatever reason (probably because we are white), the man collecting money on the bus tried to charge us C$75 per person. However, I'd seen the woman in front of us hand him about C$20, so we refused to pay him that much. In the end, we paid C$25 per person.
Step 5: Exit Nicaragua
After the chicken bus drops you off, you'll enter the immigration office to exit Nicaragua. There is a booth on the left where you pay a US$1 (or C$30) exit tax (see Exhibit C below for a picture of the receipt they give you). Then, you walk to one of the 4 desks and pay an additional US$2 to get an exit stamp in your passport. The US$2 for the exit stamp apparently cannot be paid in Nicaraguan córdobas. We had USD to pay with, but I am unsure of the legitimate rules on this. There are people to exchange money with, so if you don't have USD, I believe you can get it with them.
Step 6 / 7: Get a "normal" bus to travel from Peñas Blancas to San José
This can either be done before or after you enter Costa Rica (see below). We did this as step 6.
There are a few buses that are at the border already with other passengers. These are the "normal" buses like Tica or NicaExpress. They are air conditioned and have movies playing for the ride (although sometimes all in Spanish). They each cost US$10 (you can also pay in Nicaraguan córdobas or Costa Rican colónes).
Notes on this: there are already passengers on these buses, and you will only get the seats that no one else wanted. Our seats happened to be together (which is not always the case), but they were at the very back where you not only feel every bump, but it also smells like shit for the entire ride because it's right next to the bathroom.
We also exchanged all of our leftover Nicaraguan córdobas at this point for Costa Rican colónes.
Step 6 / 7: Enter Costa Rica
This can either be done before or after you get a "normal" bus from Peñas Blancas to San José (see above). We did this as step 7.
Someone somewhere will hand you 2 forms to fill out for immigration and customs into Costa Rica. Our bus driver handed them to us, but you can also get them somewhere inside the office. You stand in line to get your passport stamped for entry to Costa Rica (which was free, but there is a departure tax that you will have to pay). Important note: Sometimes, the immigration officer will ask you for proof of onward travel out of Costa Rica. We had plane tickets to Colombia, and we showed them the confirmation on our phone. After immigration is customs: you put your bags through a scanner and enter into Costa Rica!
If you choose to do so, you can walk over the border into Costa Rica instead of taking a bus across. I'm not sure the benefits of doing this since we didn't do it, but if you don't find a bus on the Nicaraguan side, do not fear! There are several booths on the Costa Rican side that will help you get a bus to where you are going.
Steps 5 through 7 took almost 2 hours. I don't think this is normal, but be prepared that it can take this long (or possibly longer I'd guess). We left the border at 12:20 PM (remember we arrived at 10:35 AM).
Step 8: Arrive in San José
There was traffic on our way; plus, our bus stopped at the airport on our way to the city center. We arrived at the bus stop in the city center around 7:00 PM. It was a long day with nearly 13 hours of travel, but I think that usually it does not take this long. You never know though with traffic! I will point out that the chicken buses did not add time to our journey. I believe that if we had taken a bus from Granada to San José, it would have taken the same amount of time since what added the most time was border crossing and traffic.
Exhibit A: Map to find the chicken bus in Granada that will take you to Rivas
Colin's head is the location where you find the bus station for buses to Rivas. Picture on the left is zoomed out, and picture on the right is pretty zoomed in.
Exhibit B: Pictures of chicken buses
Exhibit C: Receipt you'll get for the $1 you pay to exit Nicaragua
Written by: Sara
I got this question pretty often before we left, and it's something I asked (and still ask) myself often as well. Colin and I read several blogs about what to pack, and I even have an entire Pinterest board dedicated to packing for travel (never used Pinterest for travel suggestions? Rethink your whole life!)
When I backpacked in college, I didn't have any nice gear or special hiking clothes. I got my first travel backpack for my trip to Tanzania in 2010 on eBay for $30, and I continued to use it for the next 7 years. It was great, but definitely a $30 eBay backpack. Since this trip was for much longer, I wanted to do more research and spend a little more money on gear in the beginning to (hopefully) be more comfortable in the long run.
To me, packing is a personal decision. The big question is what can you live without? It's different for everyone, so I can really only give you suggestions and tell you what we did. Hopefully it will help :) Also remember though that we are traveling for 21 months on this trip, and we need clothes and gear for both warm weather and cold weather. You can pack way less if you only need items for one or the other.
The two most important things when choosing what to pack:
Sometimes when I meet other backpackers, it seems as though it's a competition -- who can travel with the least amount of stuff? Sometimes I catch myself getting drawn into the competition too. The truth is, in the "real" world when I'm not traveling, I'm a little high maintenance. I loved getting my nails done every 2 weeks. I loved buying new Lululemon. I loved expensive coffee after my barre or spin workout at my gym. But when I'm traveling, simplicity is key. I'm trying to find a balance between cost, comfort, and cuteness. Sometimes I have the least amount of stuff in a group, and sometimes I have the most. I'm learning to live and let live :)
Ok, so let's jump into the details! Sections below are: 1) Sara's Stuff, 2) Colin's Stuff, 3) Gear & Electronics, and 4) Stuff we use to pack it all up (backpacks, packing cubes, etc.).
1) Sara's Stuff:
The blue and white toiletry bag is for all of my shower supplies:
The big black Sephora toiletry bag is for all of my personal toiletries:
2) Colin's Stuff:
3) Gear & Electronics:
4) Stuff we use to pack it all up:
On a travel day, I have 3 bags: My big backpack, my little backpack, and my purse. Colin has his big backpack, his little backpack, and his hat (since he doesn't want it to get crushed). It's a lot to carry, but it's doable. Here's what we look like walking around the airport:
Big Backpack - Hers: Osprey Farpoint 70L
Big Backpack - His: Mystery Ranch Ravine 50L
Organizing Your Stuff
Let's talk in general about organizers. They are life changing! I have never traveled with them before, but they are amazing. What do you need and why?
Below are some links and info on everything we use.
Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter™ Compression Cube Set (S/M)
Eagle Creek Pack-It™ Compression Sac Set S/M/L
6 Piece Tresutopia Waterproof Luggage Organizer Set
YAMIU Travel Shoe Bags
Here's what my clothes look like when they are all packed up:
I've said it before, but these are all merely suggestions. You do you when it comes to packing :)
Comment below with any questions or other suggestions!
Sara & Colin
We are figuring out our travel as we go along, and we'd love to help you out with yours! If you want to read more of our travel thoughts, check out each of our personal blogs by clicking the images below.