Backpacking nightmares: bus travel in Latin America

Backpacking South America and Central America

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!

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.

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!


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  • Shailesh Kshirsagar
    26 November 2015 at 6:21

    It is a very nice blog, I am a regular reader and I am inspired due to this, to travel across the world.
    Are public buses available in Nicaragua? Can a foreign national (I am an Indian) get a permission to cross border between
    1) Nicaragua – Costa Rica and 2) Costa Rica – Panama in a Public Bus?
    Are there 1) Nicaragua-Costa Rica & 2) Costa Rica – Panama buses travelling into the countries?
    Will be thankful for your valuable guidance
    and IMP– is Nicaragua safe to travel for a solo traveller?

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      26 November 2015 at 8:39

      You ask many questions! Let’s see if I can help!

      1) Nicaragua is safe. It is safe for solo travelers and for solo female travelers too. I find it to be the safest country in Central America.
      2) I am not sure what you mean by public bus. BUT: the regular public buses (called chicken buses) from Nicaragua do not cross into Costa Rica. The long distance buses (like those of Transnica and Tica) do.
      3) In terms of you being able to cross the border: I think you need to check the visa requirements for Indian nationals. I am Italian, so I would not be able to tell you. Generally speaking, anybody entering Costa Rica or Panama will be asked proof of onward travel (you can read my post on crossing borders in Latin America to find out more info on this).
      Hope this helps!

      • Shailesh Kshirsagar
        26 November 2015 at 9:21

        Thanks for the reply…
        I will check out for rules of visa and permits
        About too many questions, will keep in mind 🙂

        • Claudia Tavani
          Claudia Tavani
          26 November 2015 at 9:24

          🙂 ask away! I will always reply, to the best of my abilities!


Who is Claudia?

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Hello, nice to meet you!

Hi, my name is Claudia. One day I packed my life and started travelling... except I packed too much. Follow me as I fill my life with dreams, drop the weight and inspire you to live your dreams. Learn more about me here...


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