Costa Rica Mexico Nicaragua

Public Bus Riding in Latin America

One of my most viewed posts is on subway systems, and while the underground is indeed my favorite form of public transportation, I thought it unfair to not mention the bus which is the dominant form of public transit in most Latin American countries, a region where I have spent considerable time.

From the illustrious resort areas of Cancun, Mexico to the nitty gritty Central American capital of San Jose, Costa Rica, to the dusty highways of Nicaragua, I’ve ridden public buses. While they varied greatly in terms of appearance and comfort, every one I rode had come from somewhere else as in they were de segunda mano (second hand). When buses are deemed eligible for retirement status in the United States, or in some instances, unsafe to be operating/too expensive to repair, they often end up in developing nations like Guatemala and Honduras, where parts are either sold or the bus is recommissioned.

When I visited Cancun for the first time, I ended up riding the public bus that went up and down the famed Hotel Zone and eventually into the heart of Cancun, the side where tourists never traverse but where most of the local population lives. (Although there are taxis for tourists to take them to other hotels and restaurants, they could be on the pricier side, especially if you didn’t know enough Spanish to not be taken in and had to go with the final fare the driver quoted.) Unlike in the United States buses have a precise mechanism and order of doing things (an “air tight” machine that receives your coins and bills, an electrical system that allows you to alert the driver when you want to get off), in Cancun, you simply yelled “para” as loud as you could. The other thing unlike American public buses is that music in Latin American countries is completely permitted (by the driver that is) and sometimes the driver has the music up so loud, one needs to yell over the volume in order to be heard.

Living in San Jose meant that I rode the public buses a lot. While I occasionally took inexpensive  taxis during my semester living there, I still rode the bus more. It was in Costa Rica that I saw every kind of public bus imaginable. In my first month there, I took classes at a center that was about three miles away from my host family’s house. Every morning I walked a block to the bus that would take me into the center of San Pedro, a suburb of San Jose. Some days it would be former American school buses, just like the ones I used to ride as a child (some even had the school district labeling on the side). However, unlike the golden buses from my childhood, these were completely different; some had been painted over with bright colors while others simply featured wild spray paint designs. One day to my shocking surprise, a Greyhound bus rolled up. It was comical to see a bus that big and relatively fancy (well, for a residential Central American neighborhood) being slowly driving down the pot-hole ridden streets. Unlike in American cities where exact change is required (most cities, in fact, have done away altogether with money on buses with passengers using fare cards instead), you could get change on the spot for your fare and incredibly, the money was just sitting out. Granted, while fares on Costa Rican buses were significantly less than a dollar so the money in a fare box was not comparable to what’s found in a bank safe, in a city where crime is rampant, it was still “open season” all the same.

During my visit to Nicaragua, I went with friends one day to the famous Masaya market. Getting from Granada, where we were staying to Masaya was decidedly “developing world” (we went in a “private” taxi, private in the sense that a guy on the street was drumming up business and when he deemed he had packed in enough people, he went). Getting back however, was a stereotype fulfilled. We took a public bus and, unlike in neighboring Costa Rica where fares were at least collected in the normal manner (right when you board), fares on Nicaraguan buses were collected mid-ride. Even though every seat was taken and all aisle space was occupied as well, along with a random chicken in a cage on someone’s lap, a teenage boy walked up and down the aisles collecting fares. I thought this ridiculous for a couple of reasons-1) it was dangerous 2) I didn’t know how the worker could possibly keep track of everyone considering how mobbed the bus was and 3) when he had to climb over/push into people in order to get by and collect his fares, it made the already hot ride that much more unpleasant.

I’ve not been to a Latin American country since 2008 and with the possible exception of riding public buses at the glitzy resorts there, I think my public bus riding days in Latin America are over. When you live abroad, there are just some experiences you can never replicate as a tourist. And while I cringed on many a bus ride over fears of being pickpocketed  or broke into a panic when thinking I wouldn’t be able to get off in time, bus riding in Latin America, regardless of the country is a unique experience.

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  • Reply
    January 22, 2013 at 5:57 am

    A the bus…’s taken us many places on many continents! I still prefer train travel for long distances though – especially with a sleeper!

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    January 24, 2013 at 12:01 am

    I hate overnight travel regardless of the medium! I’m a terrible sleeper and “cat nap” at best when on planes. Since train travel is so crappy in the states my train riding experiences of more significant distances were always in Europe but still only 4 hours ish. But bus travel in Latin America-ahh, the memories.

  • Reply
    January 28, 2013 at 4:39 am

    I love how colorful the buses are that you captured. It definitely must be a sight to see these old buses from the US traversing Central America.

  • Reply
    Costa Rica-a study abroad retrospective (part 2) - The Red Headed Traveler
    August 25, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    […] learned to master the San Jose bus system. Okay, this is a lie as there is no system, but I could deal with the crazy, frenetic experience […]

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