Busing Around Central America

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Chicken Bus In Quepos, Costa Rica

Chicken Bus In Quepos, Costa Rica

How do we get around when backpacking in Central America? By bus, of course!

But busing around in Central America is not that straightforward. First of all, we have to agree on the definition of a bus. If it has no windows and no doors, it is still a bus? What if it is painted in flamboyant colors, like bright red and yellow, and has words of wisdom such as “no pain, no gain“, or “dio bendigo mi alma” written on the windows? And if it takes 5 hours to drive 20 kilometers? Is it still a bus?

Welcome to Latin America. Most of the buses here are called “chicken buses” by travelers, because they carry not only passengers but the occasional livestock as well. So sharing your seat with a chicken or a goat is pretty common, especially if it´s market day. These old customized US school buses are often extremely packed, therefore backpacks are stored either at the back (piled up) or even on the roof of the bus. You’d be surprised to see how many people can fit in the bus — I am constantly amazed. If you can still move your arms around you without hitting too many people, there is room for more passengers.

Long distances buses are a bit better. I mean, the windows can close and the driver doesn´t seem to be on drug or clinically insane. But these buses are still going to stop whenever they feel like it to pick up passengers (i.e the middle of a field) and they are quite slow. Nonetheless, they are cheap — about 1$ per hour. For example, for a 6 hours trip (i.e Playa Tamarindo to San Jose), you will pay US$6. Can´t beat that! We crossed Panama for $30…

Buses are never ever on time. Whenever I ask “¿a qué hora sale el bus y a qué hora llega?”, the answers is always “más o menos…“. More or less, yes, this is the key word. It also takes ages to buy a ticket because no matter what time we go to the bus station, there always seems to be a hundred of people queuing to go somewhere. Buying a ticket from the driver is often the best option, but you may have to stand for the whole trip (may it be 30 minutes or 12 hours) because all of the seats will be taken by the courageous souls who did queue at the station.

Trips are usually pretty chaotic. People get on and get off pretty much anywhere, and then fight for a seat. Latino music is blasting though the bus’ speakers, preventing any of us to doze off (or to listen to Ipods…). Once in a while, vendors climb in the bus and sell drinks, platanos (fried banana chips), pipas (coconut water in a bag), Christian crosses, newspapers… they walk up and down the crowded isle and fight their way to the back of the bus, just in case someone didn’t hear them coming.
Buses are still the best way to travel around. I just wished more roads were paved in Costa Rica…

Bus Station In Boquete, Panamá

Bus Station In Boquete, Panamá

Bus To David, Panamá

Bus To David, Panamá

Waiting For The Bus, Costa Rica

Waiting For The Bus, Costa Rica

Reading While Waiting...

Reading While Waiting...

Bus Station In Filadelfia, Costa Rica

Bus Station In Filadelfia, Costa Rica

Bus Station In Santa Cruz, Costa Rica

Bus Station In Santa Cruz, Costa Rica


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. I bet it is dusty as well huh? You did well and you get to see more remote places which would be far more interesting 🙂

    Have fun, be safe and Happy New Year Zhu 😀

  2. Oh ho you are truly brave at heart…going native and all. I see in my head the bus in the film Romancing the Stone….and think that must be fairly accurate hehehe.

  3. I don’t think I can survive there…a lot of work must be done before enjoying oneself. I don’t mind sitting next to a goat though.

  4. If ever you find yourself in the Philippines, try riding the jeepneys. That’s our version of the chicken bus. They’re also US-vehicle-inspired, and they are never on time since there’s no schedule at all!

  5. I want a bus experience like that…más o menos.

    Plantain chips, coconut water, salsa music and sharing a seat with a goat?? Where’s the bus stop?? 😉

  6. @shionge – Yeah, I swallowed so much dust in this trip! But it still worth it 🙂

    @Khengsiong – Nah, because there are no windows, you can barely smell a thing!

    @DianeCA – Brave, nah, just… in need of an adventure!

    @Bluefish – It´s easier than it sounds, and it´s a lot of fun!

    @Tanya – Thank you!

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – I have heard of them, the local version of chicken bus. Must be a similar experience.

    @Scarlet – Oh, the bus stops pretty much anywhere, that´s why it is so damn slow! 😆

  7. Hmm…you never told us what book you were reading!

    Btw, my website is now http://www.argee.org, there is nothing there right now – but there will be, I promise.

    I’ll pester you to change the link from Deep Sarcasm to Argee when there’s actually something there 😛

  8. Salut Zhu,
    I will catch up with your last few days during my “blog break”.
    I wanted to wish you and your comapnion a very Happy and healthy New Year !! You started a new year on the road, just the way you like it !
    Wishing you safety and many enjoyable moments.

    Bises and big hugs

  9. @Final_Transit – I think they find these rides funny too actually… not as much as us though.

    @RG – I think I was reading a French book, Maléfices, that I have picked up somewhere. Good luck with the new site, come and bug me to visit whenever you start it!

    @barbara – Wish you the same! And keep warm, I have heard France was very cold… have some hot chocolate!

    @kyh – New year was quiet because we were in a small village, but we enjoyed January 1st with a big adrenaline rush!

    @Mardé – I would not want to ride these bus with icy roads, for sure!

  10. This post reminded me of traveling around Southeast Asia on buses. There they had different levels of buses. First class was more expensive but had air conditioning and nice comfortable seats. Third class was an “orange popcicle bus”. “Orange” because that was the color the buses were painted and “popcicle” because they were so slow. I believe it was an expression similar to the english expression “slow as cold molasses”.

    The Third class buses may have been slow but well worth the experience. You see more of the “real” country and get to talk with the other people on the bus. Things you just can’t get through a tour group.

    I am so totally envious of you travelling and enjoying the experience. I am back to work on Monday. 🙁

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