Chicken Buses: A Story

We needed to travel from San Juan del Sur up to coast to another beach/town called Popoyo. It’s a long drive even in a car:

San Juan to Popoyo

There’s just no direct way to get there. This is really rural Nicaragua we’re talking. And yet, you can still get there via public bus. All we had to do was figure out where the public bus picked up on San Juan del Sur. All roads lead to Rivas. From Rivas, there was bound to be another bus to Popoyo, which there was. It was going to take us much longer than and hour and half to get there, but when you’re traveling instead of vacationing, you have a big time budget and a small money budget.

Let me explain. The buses in Nicaragua are literally North American school buses that have been painted and tricked out with lots of sayings like “Gift of God,” and “Jesus is my Savior.” There are always two people running the bus/show. A driver and a helper who yells the destinations, collects the money, shepherds people on and off the bus, throws mattress, baskets, bags, or whatever else on top of the bus, and does various other insane things. We pack on as many people and more than is actually physically possible and off we go! These buses are also all manual transmission, and some of them really get cranked while the driver changes gear, so don’t expect a smooth ride.

Our first bus out of San Juan and into Rivas was rather pleasant. It was full of a sane number of people, and the morning breeze was lovely as we made our way north along the shores of Lake Nicaragua. This bus was particularly fancy. It had a TV up front that played all kinds of fun Nicaraguan music videos featuring a fun variety of misogynistic romantic messages in a marimba beat! 10/10 for in-house entertainment, for sure.

I digress.

The bus station in Rivas is situation within the market and it is fucking insane, and I don’t use that swear lightly. Buses, people, babies, mattresses, soda, meats, pineapples, papayas bigger than my thigh, soap, chickens, etc, etc. all mashed into a small square, yelling all the time. As a pale person I am picked out immediately. “Gringa” gets thrown at me a few times. That’s what I get for disliking the music videos earlier. It costs two dollar to go to the bathroom, but we manage to get some of the first seats on a bus to “Las Salinas.”

We actually caught the bus as it was pulling into the station and it still had to park and let the rest of the passengers on. There we were, peacefully sitting in our seats on the back of the bus, totally unaware of what was about to happen. The bus backed into a dock while a large crowd of people awaited. As soon as it stopped, someone ripped open the back door and a literal tide of people pushed its way by us and onto the bus. I have never seen so much flesh move that quickly and aggressively. We all looked at each other wide-eyed in disbelief of what was going on.

What followed was two and a half hours of relentless heat, jerking movement and bodies pressing in on either side. And I was lucky, I had a seat! But now I had a problem: I was supposed to go to Granada to meet a work exchange host the very next day. I had no idea that it was going to be this hard to get to Popoyo. I started getting very anxious and the bus situation started to get worse.

As my stress built, I was on the verge of totally freaking out. I started having visions of punching out the window just to get a little more air, of pushing people aside in a mad dash for escape. Finally, I said to my friend Alvaro in the seat next to me, “I have to stand up!” and leveraged myself over him and out of the seat. Nauseous, I made my way to the front of the bus where there was a little more room and air. The people around me looked curiously at me, but I was finally able to breath a little bit.

We were dropped off at our lodging a little while later, a brand new surf camp in the middle of nowhere Costa Rica. The dorm there was beautiful, the shower, the toilet, everything brand new. Our hosts were incredibly gracious, but I was still freaking out a little about the idea of leaving the next day.

Finally, my companions and I hitched a ride to the beach. We were staying about a 45 minute walk from the beach through a huge set of “salinas,” or salt beds, which were things I had never seen before. You can see them on the map:


It was about two hours before sunset when we arrived at the beach. There was no electricity anywhere (because….Nicaragua) so we couldn’t reach Wifi, but I was determined to contact my host the minute I could and tell him that I would have to postpone arriving for one day.

The beach was impressive. Massive waves crashed at the mouth of a river. Waves three times as big as the ones in Playa Tamarindo. There are homes and hostels along the beach, but nothing to the scale or population of the other beaches either. It’s a place that you can sense is on the verge of erupting with development. But for now, it was quiet.

After jumping in the cold water and playing around a bit, we found a bar that was using a generator. We got some beers, and I used the Wifi there to message my host. He was perfectly amenable to the change. In one day I had gone from the height of my stress levels to the height of my happiness, and the chicken bus had played a major role. As I watched the sun sink under the Pacific once again, I gave thanks for the friends who supported me and brought me to this amazing place.



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