Following our torrid time at Lake Atitlan we headed back to our Guatemalan hub, Antigua. In need of a bit of relaxation we booked into a fantastic Airbnb at the top of town. Unlike the San Pedro Airbnb, this one was superb, spacious and cozy.
In Antigua I finished off the last of my Spanish lessons and began to plan our trip to El Salvador. Initially we were planning to spend a week there, hopping from beach to beach and then bypassing Honduras on the way to Nicaragua.
However, after chatting to Manolo, my Spanish teacher, my view on El Salvador was changed. He recommended completely skipping the country altogether, citing it’s dubios safety record as the main reason.
When a local person gives you advice like this, along with some pretty gruesome examples, it’s wise to heed it. So we began to look at alternatives. Firstly we researched flying, which we quickly ruled out when we saw the price. £250 seemed to be the cheapest airfare from Guatemala to Nicaragua. Oops!
Then we remembered that we’d seen a bus advertised in Matiox. £45 was the price, which seemed pretty reasonable for a 16-hour bus ride spanning a total of 4 countries. So we packed our bags and readied ourselves for the 4am pickup.
16 hours is a very long time to be on a bus, especially a Guatemalan bus, which tend to resemble small vans rather than buses. But hey, it was the price we had to pay to get to Nicaragua and avoid the unsafe destinations of El Salvador and Honduras.
Before I get on to describing the bus journey in detail, here are some of the reasons we decided to skip El Salvador & Honduras.
El Salvador: The country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, with 80.94 per 100,000 residents been killed every year. In 2016 the US state department of travel issued a warning to all US Citizens about traveling to the country.
From a backpackers perspective, the only thing of interest to do here is visit the black sand beaches. Having visited Monterrico and other beaches on our travels, we decided the risk didn’t justify the reward.
Also, try as we might we couldn’t plot an adequate route that avoided the capital, San Salvador, and that’s where most of the violence occurs.
Honduras: Similarly to El Salvador, Honduras has incredibly high homicide and violent crime figures. Attacks on tourists seem to be on the rise, and when we were planning our travel, there was significant political unrest in the country.
In early December, 2017 Martial Law was declared in Honduras, so we think we made the right choice.
The Journey Begins
So those were the reasons behind our choice to get the shuttle. Now, onto the actual journey itself. It’s pretty terrible, there’s no way around that. We were the first to be picked up before two Irish girls hopped on at another hostel.
Then it was just the four of us for the first leg of the trip, Antigua to the El Salvadorian border. One of the girls seemed on edge and anxious every time there was a vehicle in front of our shuttle. We asked her why she was so anxious, and she said we were better off not knowing. Great.
That’s on a par with your girlfriend saying she’s ‘fine’ when she’s clearly not. So we pushed her more and she revealed something pretty terrifying. In her thorough research she’d stumbled across this Australian news article.
The news story describes how a shuttle bus from Antigua to Leon was targeted by armed robbers. Three gunmen lay under a sheet in the back of a pick-up truck which drove in front of the shuttle. When the time was right, they jumped from under the sheet and shot out the tyres.
Then they took the bus to a secluded dirt-track, tied up the tourists, stole all their belongings and sexually assaulted the women in the group. Finally, after 2 hours the thugs got bored and abandoned the tourists on the track, tied and shaken.
Eventually one of the girls managed to free herself and the others. No-one suffered life-threatening injuries, but they were all understandably shaken. No wonder the Irish girl on our bus was on edge the entire time.
In response to this attack, the departure time of the bus has been altered from 2am to 4am. Meaning the shuttle travels the most dangerous Guatemalan roads in daylight. Luckily we had no bother and arrived at the border safely, if not a little tired.
As far as borders go, El Salvador was fairly straightforward. Our driver handled most of it and in 15 minutes we were through. The only downside was that there was no stamp, but alas.
The next stop was the beach destination of El Tunco where we had breakfast and picked up a lot more people. The bus was full apart from one space, which we were to fill by going on a 2 hour detour. A portly Lithuanian hopped on in a small town, and we all eyed him with disdain, knowing that he was responsible for adding two hours to our already long journey.
At around 2pm we pulled over at a service station just short of the Honduran border and changed buses. This bus would take us the rest of the way, and was equally small and pokey.
This was the moment that our patience began to wear thin. Just outside the border we were ordered to pull over and wait for an hour whilst other vehicles went ahead of us. When the time finally came to cross, we were ordered off the bus and made to walk through customs.
The process was incredibly tedious. At the first window our passports were examined with meticulous scrutiny. We were questioned as to our final destination and our intentions in Honduras.
After this palaver we marched over a bridge to a strange building, where we were again questioned by immigration. After answering cursory questions we gave our fingerprints and got our stamps.
It wasn’t a comfortable experience and it had everyone in the group on edge. Especially as we were surrounded by dodgy looking characters for the entirety of it. This experience further confirmed to us that we’d made the right choice by skipping the country.
The bus journey through Honduras was horrible. The El Salvadorian border was only 80 miles from the Nicaraguan one, but the drive took just over 5 hours. There were several roadblocks, and the final 15 miles of the journey is made on a road that resembles a pumice stone.
It’s not for the faint-hearted. The bus never goes more than 15mph yet it weaves and winds ever more dangerously to avoid the gaping potholes in the road. We were all feeling queasy when we arrived at the Nicaraguan border.
Time was pushing on when we arrived here. After negotiating our exit from Honduras we were made to hand over our passports to Nicaraguan border patrol. Then we sat on the bus and waited for them to come back. We waited, and waited, and waited, and waited.
Finally a woman came on board and handed our passports back to us. Then we had to take our bags from the bus and pass them through the security scanners. In Europe, we’re used to having our luggage thoroughly examined. In Nicaragua, you pass your bag through the scanner whilst the security staff stand outside having a smoke. They cast an occasional glance the way of the scanner, but are largely uninterested.
Luckily in Nicaragua, you get a cool new stamp on your passport. You also get a teeny-tiny piece of paper with a stamp on too. Don’t lose this. You have to show it at the border when you leave for Costa Rica. If you don’t have it, you’ll have to pay a fine which is largely up to the discretion of the border staff. So you have been warned.
One Last Push
The last part of the journey is around 70 miles and on the face of it should be pretty straightforward. But guess what? It isn’t. Surprise, surprise. These 70 miles took 3 hours and we arrived in Leon at 1.30 am. That’s 21 and a half hours after we’d set off from Antigua. So much for it being a 16 hour journey.
We hopped off and walked the short distance to Hostel Serendipity. Strangely I couldn’t sleep when we arrived, so I sat and drank a few beers in the hostel whilst contemplating the meaning of life, and what had just happened.
Anyway, that’s it for the journey. Apologies for the long, rambling nature of this blog, but I feel like it perfectly represents the bus journey. Next up we’ll be taking you through the highs and lows of a loud and hot Leon.