Travel Tips: San Salvador, El Salvador to Leon, Nicaragua

Despite the better bus quality of El Salvadorian buses (at least if you’re coming from Guatemala) travel across El Salvador and Honduras into Nicaragua is miserable, because it is a damn long and slow journey.  If you think it’ll take you a short amount of time given that the distance isn’t all that much, consider that the average speed of any vehicle in Central America is about 25 miles per hour.  Be prepared for bad roads and a long journey.

Center San Salvador to Terminal Oriente: $6 for 2, 15 minutes

If coming from the Guatemalan border, the bus terminal at which you arrived in San Salvador will not be the terminal through which you’ll want to leave if you’re trying to go anywhere far in the east, whether it be Santa Rosa de Lima or San Miguel.  Unfortunately, the terminal you do want, Terminal Oriente, is far in the eastern division of the city and is completely unwalkable from anywhere near the historic center.  We found this our the hard way by showing up to the first bus terminal only to get told we would need to take a taxi to the other one.

While buses do apparently run from the center districts to Terminal Oriente, we already had enough experience getting lost with San Salvador’s public transportation system, so we just opted for the taxi.  The price is a little steep, but for two people, you can get to the other terminal for $6.  There, look for the 301, 304, 305, 306, or 346 bus to San Miguel.  If you want to make straight for the border, take a bus to Santa Rose de Lima instead.  We knew the route all the way to Nicaragua would be too long to do in one day, so we opted to stay the night in San Miguel instead.

Initially, we went to the wrong bus terminal.  When I asked for the bus San Miguel, I was redirected to Terminal Oriente, though not verbally, but rather by a kind old man grabbing my hand and writing all the instructions I needed there.  Too bad it was so hot in San Salvador that it started to sweat off almost immediately.

San Salvador to San Miguel: $2 each, 3 hours

If you’re used to Guatemalan chicken buses, this bus will feel first class.  Rather than a retired school bus, this bus was a real charter bus, complete with fabric seats that reclined and air conditioning.  By far, this was the most pleasant bus ride we had experienced so far in Central America.

San Miguel

San Miguel is a relatively small town with not much to do.  Luckily, we weren’t there to do much, just sleep.  The bus terminal you’ll get dropped off at is in a prime location and if you don’t have anywhere lined up to stay, all you need to do is turn once fully around and you’ll see about five different hotels and hostels.  We immediately spotted one net to the terminal that looked a little sketchy, so instead, we crossed the street to the Kings Palace Hotel.  It would cost us $32 a night, but it also had a pool.  Since there was nothing else for us to do in the city, we decided to splurge just a little and spring for the nice hotel where we spent the evening swimming until a fast approaching thunderstorm drove us inside our air conditioned room.  Meals in town are also cheap, and Chris and I ate a massive amount of chicken at Pollo Campero for $10.89 and got breakfast the next morning for $2.75.

San Miguel to Santa Rosa de Lima: $1 each, 1 hour

To leave San Miguel, go right back to the bus station you were dropped off at before.  Buses leave frequently to Santa Rose de Lima.  This is your long day so my recommendation is to start early.  We left at 10am and still didn’t get into León until well dark 10pm.

Santa Rosa de Lima to El Amatillo: $1 each, 20 minutes

In Santa Rosa de Lima, you’ll get dropped off on the side of the road, with no real civilization around you.  Just wait there for five to ten minutes for the next bus, the #330 to El Amatillo, the border town you need to get into Honduras.

El Amatillo: $3 each, 20 minutes

This border was actually one of the less busy borders we had visited and passing through the queue hardly took any time at all.  When we reached the front of the line, we surrendered our passports for a stamp and a $3 entrance fee each.  That’s right, even though you’ll be in Honduras for a matter of hours, you still need to pay an entrance fee.  A summary of Central America, my friends.

Immediately after walking out of the Honduran border office, you’ll come out to a large dirt lot.  To the sides, there are a couple dingy restaurants in which you can eat, which I recommend because it might be your last opportunity for quite a while.  Then you jut need to wait for a bus.  There are two options: a $4 school bus or a $6 “express” minibus.  We opted for the school bus not only because it was cheaper, but because we would have a little more space and wouldn’t have to stow our luggage on the top rack.

El Amatillo to Guasaule: $4 each, 3 hours

This is the stretch that will take you all the way across Honduras, from one border to the next.  But man does it take forever.  We were starting to wish we had taken the express bus when our bus decided to stop constantly.  One time, it stopped for nearly a half an hour in a seemingly pointless town.  Another time, it stopped for twenty minutes behind a driver-less bus before finally decided to pull around it.  We were starting to worry we wouldn’t make it to the border in time for the last bus leaving to Leon at 5:30pm.

Guasaule: $12+ each, 1 hour

The name of this border name may be Guasaule, but you can call it Hell for short.  Since we were already running low on time, with just about one hour until the last bus would leave to Leon, we opted to hop on a bike taxi as soon as we got off the bus, hoping it would save us some time.   A word of caution: Don’t.  The bike taxi drivers here are scum and it saves you no time.  He told us the distance was 3km when it is maybe 1km altogether.  The driver who snagged us was, of course, a grotesquely obese man that made me question how he could possibly move us on the bicycle when I doubted he could even move himself.

First, you’ll need to go to the Honduran exit office, just down the road and to the right from the bus stop, where you’ll wait in line for a stamp.  After waiting for 20 minutes because there was only one officer working, we got back on the bike taxi.  Next stop was a small office we would have missed had it not been for our driver where we picked up a slip of paper with a stamp on it.  We walked that over to the main migration office where we gave them the slip of paper and paid the steep $12 entrance fee to Nicaragua.  While you can technically pay in either USD or Nicaraguan Cordobas, my recommendation is to pay in Cordobas if you can find a currency exchange.  The border officials were grossly unprepared to make change for us in USD, taking yet another 15 minutes we did not have to spare.  It was during this time that I had a bit of a meltdown and started screeching to the official behind the thick pane of glass that we needed to catch the last bus so we needed our change now.  He shrugged at me and muttered something that I couldn’t even hear because the goddamn glass was so thick.   Practical.  Well done, Nicaragua.

Once you finally managed to get out of there, you’ll still need to walk (ride) across a large dead zone filled with lines of stopped 18-wheelers to the dirt lot where the buses stop.  Our driver was fully winded trying to pedal us through here as I was staring at the second hand on my watch, counting away the last few minutes until the bus should be leaving.  Sadly enough, people were walking as fast as he was pedaling. 

Finally, when we reached the bus stop, we prepared to pay the taxi man the $5 he had originally quoted us, when suddenly he demanded $10.   “Oh no, $5 was to back there.  Here it is $10.”  Like I said: scum.  Avoid the hassle.  We were furious, but we were also incredibly stressed that the bus was about to leave so we threw over $10, not making any effort to hide our anger and disgust at the man, and got on the cramped bus.

And then we waited.  Because nothing in Central America is ever on time. If you’re worried about not catching this 5:30pm bus, don’t worry, you have until about 6pm. 

Guasaule to León: C50 ($2) each, 3 hours

We were so cranky and exhausted when we got on this bus.  We had been stressing about the time unnecessarily, had gotten ripped off, and were now seated on the broken seat on a shitty bus that made my butt bones dig painfully into an iron bar for the entirely of the ride.  And the ride takes forever.  The stretch of road between the border and Leon was under construction and thus we had to stop for long stretches of time every fifteen minutes or so.  What should have been a one hour ride turned to three.  If you’re lucky, they’ll at least play a hilarious movie for you in Spanish that you won’t be able to understand.  We were graced with Shaolin Soccer, a cheesy movie about kung fu soccer players, but it at least took our mind off the situation at hand. 

León bus terminal to center city

Once you arrive in León, you’ll still need to find a hostel, and more than likely, you’ll be doing it in the dark as we were.  Even worse, we had nothing booked, so we weren’t even looking for a particular hostel, just any one that would take us.  The journey from the bus station to the area where most hostels are located is an easy enough walk in the day (maybe a couple kilometers), but at night, it’s easiest just to take one of the bicycle taxis that will be waiting to snag you as soon as you exit the bus.  We were a little reluctant to hop back on one, but we also just really wanted to go to sleep.  These taxis should cost $1 per person, maybe a little more for night rates.  DO NOT LET THEM CHARGE YOU MORE.  They will try, and it must work for them enough that they are motivated to keep doing it.  Our taxi driver was particularly bad and tried to charge us $20 when we arrived to the first hostel (which ended up not having any room anyway).  We balked at the price and I was done with being taken advantage of that day.  Having no patience left, I simply told him, “No.  Es mas caro.  El precio es dos dollars,” in a very stern I may be a fucking gringo but I am not stupid and I am not to be messed with sort of voice.  He shrugged and accepted C40 from us, or just over $1.  The moral of the story is that just because you’re a gringo doesn’t mean you’re powerless.  Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself.