Travel Tips: Xela, Guatemala to San Salvador, El Salvador

If there were seatbelts in chicken buses, I would tell you right now to buckle them, but since there aren’t, hang on to whatever you can.  It might be a bumpy couple of days.  If you’re looking to make this journey in one day, as we initially were, my recommendation is to not.  It might save you an unexpected and frantic run around at the border trying to find a hotel when you realize you won’t make it in time.  Technically, it is possible to do this trip in one day, but I heavily caution against it.  It would be a long day.  Even split into two days, it was long.

Parque Central to Minerva Bus Terminal: Q1.25 each, 5 minutes

A few blocks from Xela’s central park, you’ll find the stop for the microbus that will take you to Xela's main bus terminal, or the Minerva Bus Terminal.  This stop isn’t well marked, or marked at all for that matter, so it’s easiest just to ask locals for the general area and flag down a bus when you see it.  The microbus stops somewhere around the corner of 5a calle and 14 avenida A, but again, it’s pretty imprecise with the exact stop.  

The ride only takes a few minutes and is extremely cheap.  The microbus will drop you off on the main street outside the terminal and market.  Keep walking along the sidewalk in the direction of the bus, then turn right into market.  Outdoor markets in Central America are always a little bit on the crazy side, but this one takes the cake.  Maybe it was just because it was early in the morning, but we could hardly walk the two hundred yards from the market entrance to the bus terminal without getting plowed over by men hauling heavy carts, attempting to maneuver five feet wide loads through three feet wide spaces.  It takes a while to move through the chaos and it can be very overwhelming so early in the morning.  Once you manage to break free from the crowd, you’ll find yourself in a pretty crazy bus terminal, but there will be someone waiting to guide anyone who looks a little lost.  The second we got out of the market, someone asked us where we were going and pointed us in the direction of the “Mazate” bus. 

Xela to Mazatenango: Q20 each, 1 hour

If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a direct bus straight to Esquintla, but buses to Mazatenango run much more frequently, and since the bus station is chaotic enough to just want to get the hell out, you’ll probably just end up on of those.  It’s no big deal and the change over is fast and easy.  Just take note: If you tell the payment collector you’re going to Escuintla, he may charge you for the entire ride.  If this happens, made sure you get him to write you a ticket to show to the next driver proving that you paid for the entire journey.  We didn’t want to deal with this hassle and just told the money collector we were going to Mazate and paid the fares separately.

Mazatenango to Escuintla: Q25 each, 2 hours

Once you change buses, you have another two hour ride that isn’t altogether unpleasant.  Unless you're us, that is; then it’s miserable.  Then again, we were outliers.  Our misery was a byproduct of our still active traveler’s diarrhea, rearing its head with a boiling vengeance almost the entire time.

People, especially travelers on online forums, will tell you that Escuintla is a dangerous town with a poor reputation.  Don’t let that scare you.  According to the internet, everything is dangerous is Central America.  We bailed off the bus in Escuintla and immediately began wandering around the side streets in search of a place to eat and, most importantly, a toilet on which we could let our bowels explode once again.  In our wanderings around, we never once felt in danger, though maybe that was because the more pressing danger was that of us shitting our pants.  But no, in reality, there are plenty of people and police that it’s not a big deal.  In fact, a police officer was the one who eventually directed us to a small mall with a foodcourt just down the street to the left of where the next bus would pick us up.

If you’re not in danger of finding yourself with a new soft brown cushion on your next bus ride, then by all means, walk straight to the next bus stop.  It’s right up the street from where you are dropped off to pretty much the first major corner.  There’s a payphone there.  Double check with the locals, but that should be where the bus to la frontera stops.

Escuintla to La Frontera: Q40, 3 hours

This was quite possible the weirdest chicken bus ride we had ever experienced, but again, that has more to do with our circumstantial luck as opposed to the ride itself.  As we were waiting for the bus at the corner in Escuintla, a strange young man started talking to us.  We politely nodded and pretended we knew what he was saying, secretly sighing in relief when the bus pulled up.  Naturally, he also boarded the bus and where did he sit?  Right in front of us.  He started talking to us and I found myself unable to understand a single word he was saying.  I know my Spanish isn’t great, but I can at least usually pick up some words when people talk to me.  His speech just sounded like gibberish.  Finally, I understood that was asking our names and we told him.  When he tried to pronounce“Amber”, he couldn’t really do it, as if he had some sort of speech impediment.  That made more sense.  Finally, he began typing things into his phone and showing us them.  Sometimes, we could answer and other times, we simply said, “No entientdo."  I don't understand.  He insisted we answer, and we got more and frustrated by his unwillingness to leave us alone and his weird questions, such as, “How much doesn't an America visa cost?”  Hell if I know.

Eventually, we both took an opportunity when he turned away to put in our headphones and try to make it clear that we didn’t want to talk.  I turned on a podcast, only to have him pluck an earbud right from my ear and put it in his.  I was stunned to complacency.  Travel guidebooks and blogs are unfortunately bereft on matters of what to do if a crazy guy won’t leave you alone.  

While we were less than amused, the same could not be said of the two men sitting across the aisle from us.  They were having a jolly good laugh at the two tortured gringos and when I gave them a help me look, one of them laughed and made a twirled his finger around his temple.  Loco.  Great, so they knew this was there town cook and they were completely unwilling to do anything about it.  Eventually, we got to the point of just ignoring him as best as we could.  It felt rude, but we also weren’t going to humor him for two hours before the bus change.

That's right: this is also not a direct bus, and you’ll need to change over somewhere between Escuintla and the border. The town is so small and insignificant that I don’t remember the name.  Either way, it doesn't matter.  Just get on the bus at Escuintla, tell them you want to go to the border, and ride this bus to the end of the line.  The change over is quick and painless, as they usher you right off one bus and directly onto one waiting to take you to the border. This change was actually good for us because it meant we got to ditch our strange companion, though he did initially get on the next bus, causing us to worry a bit, before getting off and disappearing in the rearview as the bus pulled away.  Weird.  And considering pretty much no one stopped to get off in that little town, we became pretty sure that he had just gotten on that first bus solely to follow us.

La Frontera: $0 each, Who Knows How Long?

By the time we got to the border, we were exhausted.  Twilight had set in and we still had such a long way to go.  Even worse, the queue at the border was nightmarishly long and it we estimated it would be at least another hour before we could even get through.  Assessing the situation, we decided the best course of action would be to stay in a hotel right there on the Guatemalan side of the border and make the move to El Salvador the next day.  There were plenty of hotels to choose from along the small dirt strip and we settled on one called Hotel Pasabien.  Aside from the numerous truckers parked in the large dirt lot in front, it looked relatively nice.  For only $20, we got a private room nicer than pretty much anything we had stayed in thus far with our own bathroom.  Not too shabby.  We walked down the strip away from the border to another hotel that had a restaurant attached where we ate dinner, attended by a very crabby waitress who clearly did not want us there.

Despite the bad service the night before, we returned there for breakfast simply because it was familiar.  Then we packed up and made a move toward the border.  Our hope was that the crowds would be smaller earlier in the morning, but as we found ourself in the back of a line equally as long as the night before, those hopes were dashed.  Despite the long line of at least one hundred people, there was exactly one window that was stamping passports.  Factor in the fact that locals have zero sense of courtesy and cut into directly into the front of the line almost constantly, it takes forever.  One elderly woman was slowly sneaking up the line and by the time she ended up behind us, we had pretty much decided that she wasn’t going to get any farther.  Just because you’re old, doesn’t mean you get a free pass to be an asshole.  As she kept slyly placing her bag in front of my feet, I would simply thrust out my arm to lean on the wall, completely cutting her off from bypassing us.  The closer we got to the window, the less subtle I became about my determination not to let her pass and eventually, she seemed to get the idea.  A small fact about me: One of my biggest pet peeves is people who queue cut, so that border was pretty much the prefect recipe for a very cranky Amber.  In the end, we waited just over an hour with our heavy packs before finally coming to the window.  Guatemala doesn’t have an exit fee so the man simply stamped our passports and sent us on our way.  All that waiting for such a simple process.

Once you walk away from the window, be prepared to be immediately bombarded by men driving bicycle taxis.  They’ll all tell you it’s too far to walk, but it really isn’t. The dead zone between borders is maybe one kilometer in total.  However, it was hot and we had been standing in line with our packs for a very long time already, so we opted to just pay the minimal Q15 and have the man cycle us across.  These bicycle taxis are definitely something to experience at least once in Central America.  You sit on a covered bench seat attached to the front of the bicycle, while the driver pedals behind you.  More than once, we felt like our weight in combination with the bumpy ground was going to send us over on our heads, but it never happened.  At the other border, we handed the tired driver a Q20 and told him to keep the change.  His face lit up, and we suddenly realized the true gravity of monetary privilege.  The Q5 tip was less than a dollar for us and yet it seemed to truly make his day.

Once you get to the El Salvador border, there will be a man waiting in the street to take a look at your passports.  He asked us a couple questions: Where are you coming from?  When did you arrive in Central America?  Where did you come from before Central America?  Etc.  Basically just making sure we hadn’t overstayed our 90 day visa in the Central American visa pact.  He handed us our passports back without a stamp and sent us on our way.  Don’t worry, this is normal.  El Salvador doesn’t stamp your passport either when you enter or leave.  We knew some people felt like that would be problematic when they went to leave, but it’s not.

La Frontera to Sonsonate: $0.90 each, 1.5 hours

Once in El Salvador, simply walk down the street from the border, past a few food vendors (where we chugged some cold water and juice), and turn right into a dirt lot past a few shanty vendors.  There might be a bus in the lot already, but if not, just take a seat on the cement edging and wait for them.  Be warned: If you’re white like us, you’ll definitely attract a lot of attention here, but it’s not malicious, just curious. 

One of the first things we noticed was that the buses were much more organized in El Salvador than they had been in Guatemala.  Even though they still operate out of the retired school buses, all buses in El Salvador are numbered, with certain numbers corresponding to certain routes.  Both the number and the route are printed on the top of the bus’ windshield, so there’s no chance of getting on the wrong because someone tried to trick you.  There’s even a turnstile at the front door acting as a traffic control device so vendors can’t quite storm the bus as much.

From the dirt lot at the border, you’ll need the #259 bus to Sonsonate.  Sonsonate is the best transport hub from the border, regardless of whether you are going inland to the capital, like we were, or to the coast.  Even though it’s a little out of the way of the coast, it’s definitely your easiest option to get there.

Sonsonate to San Salvador: $1 each, 2 hours

As with Escuintla, people will tell you Sonsonate isn’t safe, and I guess there’s reason behind that.  Sonsonate is named the most violent region of the most violent country in the world, mainly because it lies directly on a major drug route connecting El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  It’s not a big deal though.  Provided you’re arriving in the daytime, it’s pretty safe and the transfer doesn’t require you to walk very far.  The bus will drop you off at the main bus station in Sonsonate, where we took the opportunity to grab some food in the food court.  Sure, the armed guards holding shotguns around the foodcourt is a little unnerving, but still probably less dangerous than the chicken sandwich I ate with mayonnaise that was just sitting out on the counter.  

For the most part, any connection you need will be well marked.  The station has signs hanging over all the bus ports advertising their destination.  If you’re going to San Salvador, however, as we were, finding the stop is a little more difficult; it’s outside the bus terminal. You have to walk across the street of the back side of the terminal, turn right and catch the #205 bus to San Salvador at the corner just before the overpass.

Getting into San Salvador is a little scary, mainly because it’s a big city with several bus terminals.  Since buses are generally not good at informing passengers of what terminal they’ll be taking you to, we were nervous and unsure about where to even get off.  The bus from Sonsonate takes you to the Terminal de Occidente, which is near Barrio la Flores and relatively close to center city.  This was lucky for us because Barrio la Flores was conveniently the same district of the city as our hostel, Hostal Tropicana.