You learn a lot about yourself when you travel. When you travel extensively and for long periods of time, what you learn changes sometimes, too. On a somewhat superficial level, the types of places I crashed in when I first started backpacking in 2008 were totally fine for the time, but they seem different to the me of today. I work while I travel now, so the quality and nature of my accommodations has shifted accordingly: instead of “this looks reasonably clean, and there’s a bed,” my checklist now includes strong, reliable WiFi, an airy lounge area where I can work, and quiet surroundings. The increased comfort usually comes with a bigger price tag, but I’ve accepted this as one of the costs of having such a privileged career.
Something I’ve discovered about myself that hasn’t changed over the years is how I choose to get from point A to point B when I’m in a foreign country. Provided I’ve got ample time to get where I’m going, I’m not and have never been the type to shell out for a taxi or private driver if there’s a cheaper and more interesting way to get there. As long as it’s deemed relatively safe for female solo travellers, a country’s local forms of transportation are a cheap and easy way to get up close and personal with everyman and his everyday—which, for me, is a crucial aspect of travel (plus it helps offset the price of the fancier digs a little). Over the years I’ve ridden in everything from a motorcycle sidecar in Laos to the roof of a minibus in Indonesia to two canoes strapped together with rope (a somewhat precarious way to cross the Mekong River). Even if I didn’t know it at the time, each one became a glorious little adventure in and of itself.
Here in Nicaragua, from Managua southwest to San Juan del Sur and on to Playa Maderas is about 130 km. A taxi or chartered shuttle service would have gotten me here in a couple of hours and likely cost me somewhere in the area of $50-100 USD. Despite not having all the details, I was pretty confident I could make the trip for a fraction of the price using local transportation: Managua southeast to Rivas, Rivas west to San Juan del Sur, SJDS north to Playa Maderas.
First leg: From my guesthouse in Managua, the owner, Calvin, suggested the best way to get to the terminal to catch a bus to Rivas would be by taxi. It would take a few minutes and cost me approximately $6 USD. “Is there any other way?” I asked. “Well…you could take the chicken bus, I suppose. That costs 2.5 córdobas.” That’s the equivalent of about 13 cents Canadian. Sold.
10 am: Calvin and I stand in the street under the unforgiving sun as chicken bus after chicken bus slows down, stops, lets a few people on, and leaves again. Each time, Calvin says, “that’s not your bus.” I have no idea how he knows, as they all looked exactly the same: converted school buses repainted in Rasta colours and pimped out with chrome, lights, and blaring Reggaetón music. Decalled in multiple areas on each bus’ exterior are religious expressions like DIOS ES AMOR (“God is love”).
Finally, the moment arrived. I hauled up into the heaving crowd of locals and bullied my lunky backpack down the aisle and over toes, amidst disapproving glances. “Wow. This is a seriously full bus,” I though to myself as I sandwiched pack and self into a tiny, hot corner. Ten stops and about 50 more people later, I learned what the Managuan definition of a full bus really is.
And so our Rasta clown car stuttered and honked its way through the steaming city until we finally arrived at Roberto Huembes bus terminal 30 minutes later. I stumbled out, battered but triumphant. Ha! Who needs to pay $6 US? Not me!
Second leg: Huembes is a seething cacophony of noise and activity: part market, part bus terminal, part…well, cacophony. A man selling cheap mobile phones and cheaper sunglasses spoke enough English to direct me to the bus to Rivas. One hundred córdobas ($5 CAN) later, I was off once again in another chicken bus—only this time I got to sit down.
A relatively uneventful (but very musical) 2-hour ride found me in Rivas, dumped on a nondescript street corner in front of a Burger King. I watched my bus disappear down the road as taxi drivers swarmed around me, throwing out various rates to spirit me across to San Juan del Sur. Convinced there had to be a cheaper option somewhere, I turned them all down. As the group dissipated and I was left alone in the blazing sun with my gear, a second thought or two set in.
Third leg: A “pepano”, a type of bicycle rickshaw, cruised by and offered to take me to the bus terminal for 40 cord (about $2). At least now I knew there was a bus terminal. I had no idea how far it was from me or how much it should cost to get there but of course I turned him down, as well as his second offer of 30 cord. The person who’ll give a tourist the true price of any form of transportation is never the person behind the wheel. Yet as he pedalled away and I was left alone again, a second wave of second thoughts set in. When the next pepano rolled up and offered to take me to the terminal for only 20 cord ($1), I jumped on. Three minutes later, we arrived.
Fourth leg: Another terminal/market, another melee. I asked for the bus to SJDS. A man pointed, I jumped through an open back door and off we went. Knowing it was only about a 30-minute ride, I settled in with a smile. I was almost there!
Two hours of rutted dirt track, 200 stops and the-equivalent-of-my-body-weight-consum ed-in-dust later, my smile had waned slightly. Though I hadn’t known it at the time, I’d ended up on what is known by locals as the “Chocolata route”: a rural trundle through the countryside that picks up and drops off every farmer and school child between Rivas and SJDS. Nobody at the terminal offered me the express option. I tried to look on the bright side: it only set me back 20 cord (spot anything fishy about the price I paid for the 3-minute pepano ride in Rivas now?)
Fifth and final leg: wilted and hot, I finally arrived in SJDS at 3:45 pm—just 15 minutes before the final ($3 US) shuttle leaves for Playa Maderas. Had I missed it, since there are no chicken buses from SJDS to Maderas I would have been stuck paying $25 US for a 20-minute taxi ride, negating all of the day’s hot and dusty cost-saving efforts.
Finally at my hotel, I crumpled off the shuttle bus and headed straight to the bar—on foot—for happy hour. There, a toast to myself: The entire journey from Managua to Playa Maderas had taken a whopping 6.5 hours, but had only cost me about $12 CAD. The money I saved will keep me in rice and beans for at least a week.
Why do I do it? Why take the long, difficult route when there’s a far easier one? Because as I discovered 8 years ago when I took the first step on this whole crazy, unpredictable, challenging journey down the road less travelled, the hard route is where we learn the most about ourselves. The winding, unknown road is never short on adventure—and adventures are what stay with us and become part of us. Spending the rest of my career stuck in a cubicle would have been a far easier route, but it would never generate good and lasting memories. And I would never remember a smooth, easy, air-conditioned taxi ride down the highway in Nicaragua. But I can guarantee you I will never forget this.
Will you give it a try? Step out of your comfort zone for a few minutes today. Get on your own life’s version of a chicken bus and let yourself get shoved around a little. Get uncomfortable. Get stared at. Get dirty. Get lost. Not only will you discover that you are far stronger and more resourceful than you ever imagined, but somewhere amidst all the rutted roads and uncertainty, you’ll discover that you’re having a hell of a lot of fun, too.