Two of the most important travel lessons you will learn in Nicaragua:
1) The whole world is a bus stop.
2) No bus is ever full.
There are few things in Nicaragua that will give you a bigger dose of culture shock than the bus system. There is nothing to compare it to in the United States. It’s chaotic, sweaty, confusing and, once you get the hang of it, a hell of a lot of fun.
I’ll start with the stations themselves, which are only semi-necessary. First off, you need to know which bus station has the bus you are looking for. There’s no Port Authority here. Even in small towns, busses heading in different directions leave from different places. Your bus might be anything from a deluxe express model that puts Greyhound to shame to (very commonly) an old Blue Bird school bus with the school district it used to service still painted on the side.
What you are looking for is your destination, which is usually painted in bright, garish lettering across the windshield. There will probably be someone shouting the destination at you and everyone else within earshot, and there will be several busses lined up next to yours with the same thing going on.
Once you find your bus, you jump on and take a seat. Remember, these were school busses, so they are not designed with adults in mind, which means the seating can be cramped. Your bag might be stowed on the roof (very common and nothing to worry about—these guys are pros), in the back by the emergency exit, or in the overhead racks. And if there aren’t any seats, there will be two rails going down the center for you to grab onto. And if that fails, there is occasionally space on the roof. I rode the last few miles into Jinotega holding onto the ladder at the rear of the bus.
The next step is for the vendors to come through. People climb on board and work from the back of the bus to the front, shouting their wares.
“Elotes! Elotes! Elotes!”
“Auga fria! Gaseosas!”
“Tamales! Tamales! Tamales!”
There are bags of food, plate lunches wrapped in cellophane. One guy sold ice cream cones on the hot bus using an old bank drawer to keep the ice cream from melting. And if you’re really lucky, you get what I like to call The Medicine Show. This is when a man or woman gets on the bus, introduces themselves with a prepared speech, and proceeds to rattle off a five minute spiel about the wonder pills they are carrying in their bag. It’s good for your stomach. It improves memory. It eliminates migraines. And on and on. You’d be amazed how many people snap them up.
The vendors aren’t just at the station, either. Anytime you pass a market, on they come. This is actually very convenient, particularly if you skipped breakfast to catch the bus just as it pulled out of the station.
Fares are also unique. You rarely buy the ticket in advance. That’s only for deluxe busses. On a regular bus, you wait for the conductor to come to you. This can get tricky on full busses, as he’ll have to squeeze by a small army of people to reach everyone who just got on.
But that’s not true, because I called the bus full. And that violates the rule that THE BUS IS NEVER FULL EVER. If you feel like a sardine, there’s still room for one more. It rarely comes to that, but everyone always finds a way to make room for someone else. Nobody ever complains. They just wedge themselves around and still manage to make room for the guy coming through to collect the money. When someone wants a stop, out comes this high pitched, piercing whistle that everyone in the country seems to know how to do. The driver knows to stop, and when the person is off, the conductor whistles again and away we go.
And that brings me back to the other rule, which is that the whole world is a bus stop. Boarding is a form of hitchhiking, really. When the bus rolls by, you wave your hand, and the bus slows down enough for you to jump on. This is how I caught my first bus of the day yesterday. The place I was staying at was just outside Jinotega. So I sat on the roadside for twenty minutes until a Matagalpa-bound bus rolled by and I jumped in the back. We pulled into the Matagalpa station just in time for me to jump on a Managua-bound bus, and on I went.
Yesterday was one of the better days of pure adventure I’ve had in a while, in part because everything was very loosely planned. But I also shifted my destinations around to some parts of the country that don’t get much play in the guidebooks. I’m way off the trail here, and the first big announcement of this was when I was let off to visit Hacienda San Jacinto, site of the battle against William Walker’s American forces on the date from which the country honors its independence.
Hacienda San Jacinto is required viewing for every Nicaraguan high school student. But other than that, it rarely gets visited. The hacienda sits at the end of a two-mile stretch of road off the Pan-American Highway, which means that when the bus let me off, I was standing in the middle of nowhere. I threw on my bag and started walking down the road, ending up, at one point, in the middle of a herd of cattle some vaqueros were driving out of a neighboring field. I got some points when I helped them find one of the cows that got separated from the group (it was hiding behind a tree).
Hacienda San Jacinto plays a role in the book I’m working on, so I felt it was important to visit. I spent an hour on the grounds, examining the small museum and taking in the surrounding area. I tried to imagine a bloody battle there, but the place was too peaceful for my imagination to get much work. When I felt I’d absorbed what I could from the place, I started on the half-hour walk back to the highway.
About halfway down, a couple cowboys in a pickup truck took pity on me and offered me a ride to San Benito, about fifteen minutes away. I threw my bag in and jumped in the back. And I’m here to tell you that you really haven’t lived until you’ve ridden through Nicaragua on the Pan-American Highway in the bed of a pickup truck with no rear gate. It’s an experience I highly recommend.
It was close to sunset when the cowboys dropped me off, and there was a bus for Boaco (pronounced BWAH-koh) about to round the corner. I dashed across the Pan American and hopped in the back, and found myself—about an hour later—in a small district capitol set into the side of a hill that features stairs to get to its different levels of streets, a church that seems to have been transplanted from Kiev, and a completely landlocked lighthouse where young couples go to steal a few kisses after dark.
As I say, it was a good day for pure adventure. I had no intention of going to Boaco when I walked down the hill to catch a bus out of Jinotega, and if those cowboys hadn’t picked me up, I might have made for another town before night fell. As it was, I ended up with my own room across from the central park in a town I’d never even heard of until shortly before I got there.
This is the kind of thing I came here for. It’s good to have days like this. They remind you what you are capable of, and also remind you that, with the help of a few school busses and kindly vaqueros, there’s nowhere you can’t go in your travels.