Tag Archives: public transport

Santiago Metro

I’ve always been a big fan of the Santiago metro.  It get you most of the places you want to go – especially if you are a tourist – it’s clean, it’s pretty cheap and efficient.   OK – it gets bloody crowded during peak hour, but then which public transport system doesn’t suffer under these circumstances.

The main problem is during summer – especially on Line 1 (the main line) – where they really struggle to keep it cool.   Love their “solution” for the platforms – spray mist over passengers 🙂

Santiago Metro

Photo clearly not taken during peak hours

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Hello Huaraz – Peru!

I still have a few blog posts to come from Ecuador, but I have already crossed over the border to Peru.  Just had to tell you about that epic trip!

Yes, I finally sat down the other day and figured out a plan for Peru after procrastinating about it for a long time.  I knew I really wanted to spend a lot of time hiking near Huaraz and I was dead keen to do a vegetarian cooking and yoga retreat that I’d found online some time ago.  Enquiries revealed that I could do the cooking/yoga retreat starting 19th September at the earliest, and that there was a group doing the 10-day Huayhuash trek that I wanted to do starting the 4th September.  There were a couple of “buggers” about this:

  1. I would have loved to have spent another week in Ecuador in Vilcabamba (love Ecuador)
  2. Huaraz is a lot further south than Tarapota (near where the cooking retreat is). I would have to go south, backtrack significantly to the north (~20 hrs on bus) and then re-backtrack to the south in order to do both.

In the end, I decided to bite the bullet, suck it up and spend inordinate amounts of time on buses (at least it saves on accommodation costs!).    Here’s a summary of my last 2 days:

Tuesday, 4:15am – wake up in Cuenca and get to the bus station.   Only to find out that they’d just sold the last seat on the 5am bus and I would have to wait another 45 minutes to get the next one.  It’s too early for this crap!

4hrs Cuenca – Guayaquil.  Was supposed to be 5hrs and we even stopped for ½ hour for a baños break.  We were absolutely flying down the mountains to the point where it was hard to stay in your seat!

On the road from Cuenca - Guayaquil

On the road from Cuenca – Guayaquil. There’s an ocean (not of clouds) down there somewhere…

4hrs wait Guayaquil bus terminal.   One of the most amazing bus terminals I’ve ever been in.  It is HUGE and right next to the airport (yay for logistics)!  OK, so the WiFi only kind of works (actually it stopped working for me after ½ hour – it’s an open network and it wouldn’t let me back on for fear of security attacks), and there aren’t very many powerpoints, and you can’t exchange money to buy Peruvian Nuevo Soles (seriously Ecuador – you need more money exchange places or get your banks to do it – it was impossible in Cuenca too!), but it has a big food court as well as other little places to eat, and lots of (not terribly interesting) shopping.  I was really impressed with the terminal.  I was really not impressed with the Pizza Hut Express girl who insisted that a supreme personal pizza cost 4x the price of a salami one.  Yes, I admit it, I crave crappy pizza when sitting in airport or bus terminals.   I ended up with soup and roast chicken and fried rice (which was surprisingly good and no doubt much healthier).

4hrs Guayaquil – Ecuador-Peru border.   Listening to music and musing while staring out the window from the luxury of my full-cama (full bed) seat 🙂  It’s kind of equivalent to between 1st class and business class on a plane (the seat doesn’t quite lay flat, but almost).  Gotta love how Peru and Chile (at least) have this long-distance bus thing figured out!

full-cama bus

If you are going to be stuck on a bus for >24 hours, full-cama is the only way to go!

2hrs Ecuador-Peru border crossing.  It was actually very efficient, even though this timing doesn’t make it sound so.   You lined up to exit Ecuador, then moved about 10 metres to your right to line up and enter Peru.  Not sure why we were stopped for so long given we’d all done our bits and pieces quite quickly.

14hrs Ecuador-Peru border – Chimbote.   WiFi kicked in on the Peruvian side of the border … but I couldn’t get it to work no matter how many times I tried 🙁

I discovered bus meals are even worse than airline meals – even when you are in 1st class.  Vaguely luke-warm meal with not a vegetable in sight and a gelatinous dessert with apple that would have been fine if it were completely solid, and fine if it were completely runny … but I could not bring myself to eat it when the texture was in the middle. And it takes a LOT for me not to eat a dessert!

2 hrs after the border crossing, we all had to get off the bus again and do another border check.  No idea why.  After that, I didn’t know much else about this part of the trip – thank you once again full-cama buses in South America!  Slept really well actually 🙂

Unfortunately, breakfast was even more disappointing than dinner – a packet of biscuits and a small white bread roll with 1 slice of ham on it!

2hrs waiting in Chimbote.  At least it wasn’t 14hrs waiting, which was my fear (only buses I could find online left at 11pm)!  Also sorted out how I’m going to do the 20hrs bus trip back to the north of Peru for the cooking retreat when I’m done with the 10 day hike 🙂

6hrs Chimbote – Huaraz.  Went semi-cama this time given it was the afternoon and I was wide awake.  Bus was almost empty – more listening to music and staring out the window musing.  It really is a very, very impressive trip up the Andes!  Saw a bus that must have literally just overturned before we passed (there were still shell-shocked passengers there).  At least it overturned away from the side of the road with the sheer drop down about 1000m!   I decided to re-buckle my seatbelt at that point!

Wednesday 5:30pm – arrived Huaraz.   ~38hr epic bus trip – Done!    And to be honest, it wasn’t that bad, and I arrived feeling quite lively (I’m sure it wasn’t delirium)!  Have I mentioned how much I appreciate full-cama buses?

And this is what I’ve come to experience — I hope I get some clear weather on this hike!

Huaraz - Peru

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Trinidad – Viñales in Collectivo

One would think that taking a collectivo taxi (ie a taxi that follows a fixed route but takes more than one passenger) from Trinidad – Viñales would be faster than taking the bus.   One could also be very, very wrong!

I was the last person to be collected from my Casa Particular in Trinidad and the first trick was to get the bags of 4 travellers into the back of the oldsmobile.

collectivo - Cuba

Then it was trying to get comfortable on the huge sofa-like back seat of car for the 5 hour trip to La Habana.  Was quite soft and bouncy but – just like an an old couch – I could definitely feel the springs and it tended to sag in the middle.  This meant that after about 3 hours I started to get a cramp in my butt because I was not evenly distributed — much wriggling ensued.

collectivo - Cuba

We stopped off about 2 hours into the trip to get more petrol, but rather than heading to the petrol station just ahead of us, we took a detour down a dirt road and pulled into someone’s house.   Out came the funnel and the black-market petrol so that we could continue on our journey to the capital.

collectivo - Cuba

At La Habana it was meant to be quick and painless for me to swap from one collectivo to the next collectivo that would take me to Viñales.  However, another of the passengers was catching a flight and was running very, very late to check in (seriously who cuts it this close?!) so we headed straight to the airport and not to my transfer place.   There is no way he made his flight, and it meant that my transfer was screwed up as well.

We ended up heading to the ViAzul terminal where the driver tried to get me on a bus to Viñales.  There were no seats – so that didn’t work.  There were also no other collectivos going to Viñales so we dropped the other passengers off at their Casa Particular and returned to the ViAzul terminal to wait.  Ended up waiting 3 hours (I love my Kindle) before being bundled into a clapped-out Peugeot.

collectivo - cuba

But first we had to pick up 2 other passengers.  They weren’t ready when we arrived so we had to wait while they took forever to get organised (turns out they weren’t expecting the collectivo for another hour and they weren’t told that I was waiting in the car).  Finally, 4 hours after arriving in La Habana, we headed out on the road to Viñales.  This scene is quite common in Cuba – huge multi-lane road with no traffic.

Cuban roads

Cuba has several multi-lane highways that are essentially empty

About an hour out of La Habana we hit a massive storm (Cuba does really, really good storms!).  The problem was that the windscreen wipers of the car didn’t work, and given how torrential the rain was, we actually asked the driver to pull over to the side of the road so we didn’t end up dying.

Cuban storm

Torrential rain + no windscreen wipers. This was actually better visibility than when we asked our driver to pull over so we didn’t die

We sat that out for about 1/2 hour and then took off with still marginal visibility that gradually became better.    We’d already had a little car trouble, but 20 minutes up the road, we stopped for the 4th time while our driver fiddled around under the hood.

collectivo - cuba

The eventual verdict was that he thought we’d probably run out of petrol, so to sit tight while he went to get some.  Now, petrol stations in Cuba are not dime-a-dozen and we sat there for about 1.5 hours waiting for him to return.   We had just reached the point of deciding to wave down the next bus or other form of public transport when he reappeared muttering “nothing is ever easy in Cuba”.    Fortunately, the petrol did the trick and we didn’t have further drama to Viñales.

So what should have been a 7 hour trip, turned into a 12 hour trip for me (with ViAzul it would have been 9 hours) and I was pretty done once we arrived.  The only saving grace was that all of these delays meant that I got to see one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve seen in a while – huge columns of clouds lit up externally by the setting sun and also internally with lightning.

sunset - cuba

 

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Getting around in Cuba

There are no chicken buses in Cuba.   There are many forms of transportation, but not a single chicken bus – I guess the United States embargoed the sale of their old school buses along with everything else.

That being said, foreigners are very limited in which long-distance public transport they can actually take – and several (admittedly uncomfortable) forms are reserved exclusively for Cubans.

cuban transport

If you are on a package tour (which many visitors seem to be), you get ferried around in exclusive air-conditioned coaches by Transtur or Transgaviota.  However, for those of us travelling independently, there are essentially 2 options.

Option 1 – ViAzul Coach

There are at least 2 long distance coach companies, but it is almost impossible for foreigners to take the Omnibus Nacionales.  They simply refuse to sell you a ticket.

cuban transport

Instead, you have to take the ViAzul coaches (much more expensive and incredibly expensive compared with a chicken bus), which are reasonably modern, air-conditioned and made in China.

cuban transport - viazul

The slogan for ViAzul is:

Punctual – if the trip starts from where you are getting on, then yes, they are punctual in starting out.  But as the journey goes on, the timing slips further and further and further behind as the bus driver stops to pick up other unscheduled passengers, stops to do his grocery shopping, stops for who knows what other reason.  The worst case of this was from Baracoa to Santiago de Cuba – a 5-hour bus trip that took us 6 because of all the unscheduled stoppages.

Comfortable – yes, the seats aren’t bad, but the air-con is turned up so high it is ridiculously cold, especially given the moment you step out the door it is at least 36 degrees and 90% humid.   I had long pants, socks, shoes, t-shirt, hoodie (with hood pulled up) and windstopper jacket on during the 16-hour trip from La Habana to Santiago de Cuba and my feet were ice blocks when I stepped out into the heat of the day.

cuban transport

In addition, although most of the buses have toilets on board, I have yet to be on one where it works.   At least, unlike chicken buses in Central America, they do stop for toilet breaks every 2-3 hours, but make sure you have some Moneda Nacional for the bathroom!

Safe – have to admit, they are pretty good about overtaking and driving responsibly.   Despite the fact that there are many very, very slow frustrations on the road including horse-and-cart, ox-and-cart, people-on-bicycles, people-on-low-cc-motorcycles, cars-that-barely-go, etc (see first image in post).

They are also pretty good with the luggage – insisting on luggage tags (most of the time) and checking off against the luggage tags when you arrive at your destination.   Infinitely nicer than having to lug your bag onto a chicken bus and keep an eye on it the whole trip, but really don’t appreciate the extra 1 CUC “tip” they ask of all foreigners (not locals) for actually putting the bag on the bus.

Another useful tip if you are going to use ViAzul (learned through much confusion and bafflement) –  book your ViAzul ticket more than 1 day in advance so that you get a piece of paper that looks like this:

cuban transport

This you swap during check-in for a piece of paper that looks like a boarding pass (though generally seating numbers mean nothing).

cuban transport

If you book the day before they put you on a “list” – which is essentially a waiting list.   If you are on the list but don’t have the piece of paper – they will check everyone with a piece of paper in first and only if there are seats remaining sell you a ticket.  They never explain this to you though – very, very important if you are doing long trips (e.g. La Habana to Santiago de Cuba).

Oh, and if you organize your Casa Particular in advance – they usually send someone with your name on a piece of paper to pick you up at the bus station.  It’s generally a little more expensive than just grabbing a “taxi” when you arrive, but it is easy and they absolutely know where the casa is.

cuban transport

Option 2 – Collectivo Taxi

In the western, more touristy part of Cuba at least, there is another option of taking a Collectivo Taxi from one place to the next.  As the name suggests, this is a taxi that takes several passengers (who are not necessarily travelling together) along a certain route.    I did this twice – from Trinidad to Viñales and from Viñales to La Habana.  It is slightly more expensive than ViAzul (usually 2-3 CUC) but the advantage is that you don’t have all the intermediate stops that the bus has to make and the taxi picks you up and drops you off at your Casa Particular.   This is really important in La Habana where the ViAzul terminal is out in woop woop and it would cost at least another 10 CUC on top of the bus fare to get to where you were staying.

My experiences with Collectivo Taxis were 2/3 good.  2/3 were in oldsmobiles and went relatively smoothly.  1/3 was in a clapped out Peugeot and a total a disaster – I’ll write more about that another time.

cuban transport - collectivo taxi

Had an interesting revelation during my long trips here in Cuba.   For 5 months in Central America on the chicken buses, I never once put my earphones in to listen to music.  Never felt the desire.  But within ½ hour of being on a ViAzul bus – my earphones were in and I spent the entire trip connected to music.   My thinking is that in a chicken bus, you have to live in the moment and you can’t escape from being part of your surroundings, no matter how uncomfortable you might be.  Therefore, music just doesn’t fit.   However, in ViAzul, you are in a hermetically sealed capsule with no connection to your surroundings, so music works well to keep you entertained.  I’m sure not all travelers feel this way, but that seems to be how it works for me at least.  Even in the Collectivo Taxis here in Cuba where there was no air-con and the windows were down – I never even thought to put my music on.

 

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Final thoughts – public transport in Nicaragua

As I leave Nicaragua for El Salvador, some final Nicaraguan public transport observations.

Micros

I actually promised a blog post about this ages ago and am now finally getting around to it.

On certain routes in Nicaragua (most notably around the Pueblos Blancos where La Mariposa Spanish School and Eco-Hotel is located) there are not so many chicken buses, but rather “micros” or microbuses. These are essentially minivans that ply the routes between the towns, and in my opinion, they are actually much worse than chicken buses!

The main reason being that although they are designed to seat ~14 people, they more often than not have upward of 20, my record being 35 people jammed into one of these things.  Yes – there are actually 3 people hanging out of the door as the micro takes off in the image below!

nicaraguan public transport micros

This next image is what it looks like with about 20 people inside – so you can imagine with 35! Add in that there are a lot of obese people here in Nicaragua and you will start to get some idea of how incredibly packed these things are.

nicaraguan public transport micros

The person with the worst of it though (I have to admit) is the guy who is in charge of calling out the route to passengers waiting on the side of the road (usually 3 times in quick succession e.g. La UCA, La UCA, La UCA), opening and closing the sliding door, and collecting the money from passengers.   This is his standard position.

nicaraguan public transport micros

But he’s also one of the ones hanging on the outside if he manages to entice 35 people into the micro.  It’s hot and very uncomfortable work!

Chicken Buses

Nicaraguan bus

Thoughts from my last chicken bus trip in Nicaragua from Chinandega to Potosí:

  • It really pains me to see people throw rubbish out the windows of the buses – especially since most of the bus companies have provided rubbish bins just above their heads. I know this was common in Australia 30 years ago as well, and hope it doesn’t take that long to change in Nicaragua.
  • Many women travel with a cloth about the size of a face washer. Discovered that this is a very smart idea if the bus traverses dirt roads, because every time the bus stops to pick someone up or drop someone off (and this is quite often!) the bus fills with dust.
  • You’ll never go hungry on a Nicaraguan bus – provided you are happy to eat fried or processed food. At every major stop, the bus is swarmed by food sellers who enter the front of the bus and move down the aisle shouting (quite literally, some of them have VERY loud and piercing voices) their wares.  Sometimes they depart by the back door.  Sometimes they have to push past each other to return to the front of the bus to depart.    In addition, the bus will pick up other food sellers along the way.  There may be only one, but they follow the same pattern.  It’s incredible to see how many of the passengers actually buy something to eat each time!
  • The majority of these sellers are women, and almost without fail they are very, very large women who often take up the entire aisle with their bulk as they move down it.
  • In fact, a great percentage of Nicaraguan women are very large – I don’t know how they can stand the heat, nor the discomfort of squeezing into bus seats that are designed to fit 2 children (remember, all the buses are ex-US-school-buses) rather than 2 large adults.  Or squeezing into the micros for that matter (see above).  I wonder whether this phenomenon of obesity is relatively recent?  It’s very easy to buy processed food, food with lots of sugar, and food with lots of carbohydrates in Nicaragua.  Much less easy to find something healthy to eat.
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Typical playlist of a Nicaraguan bus driver

I mentioned in my post about surviving a chicken bus trip that Nicaraguan bus drivers have a soft spot for either latin romantica or 80’s power ballads.   To give you an indication of what I’m talking about, here’s the actual playlist for the 2 hour bus trip from Rivas to Managua (yes, I sat there noting down each song as it came on).   Enjoy!

  • “Total Eclipse of the Heart” – Bonnie Tyler
  • “Without You” – Mariah Carey
  • “Reunited” – Peaches and Herbs
  • “Making Love out of Nothing At All” – Air Supply
  • “Horse with No Name” – America
  • “Torn Between Two Lovers” – Mary MacGregor
  • “I Want to Make it with You” – Bread
  • “Never Going to Let You Go” – Sergio Mendes
  • “Woman in Love” – Barbara Streisand
  • “Mandy” – Barry Manilow
  • “Forever and Ever” – Demis Roussos
  • “Because I Love You” – Stevie B
  • “Call Me” – Blondie
  • “Heart of Glass” – Blondie
  • “Its a Heartache” – Bonnie Tyler
  • “Holding Back the Years” – Simply Red
  • “Love is in the Air” – John Paul Young
  • “Seasons in the Sun” – Terry Jacks

For those of you who are Air Supply fans, I can highly recommend coming to Nicaragua and riding the buses. You will invariably hear at least one of their songs and apparently they toured here a few months ago!  There was even a question about Air Supply in the Trivia Quiz I did in León a month or so ago!

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Chicken buses – 5 survival tips

Central America is well renowned for its “chicken buses”, essentially old, worn-out school buses from the US that get a second lease on life transporting the good folk of Central America and their produce (including animals, hence the name) from one place to another.   They are all dilapidated (though brightly coloured) without any creature comforts (think bathroom, air-conditioning) and cover very long routes, much to the eternal discomfort of their passengers.

chicken buses at the terminal

Chicken buses at the terminal. Thanks for the photo Pedro!

Leaving Ometepe, the chicken bus trip from Rivas to Managua is only a short one – just over two hours, but it did demonstrate many of the high points of the experience.   Here are some tips for young players:

Tip 1.  Make sure you get there early to get a seat.  Although it is illegal (in Nicaragua) to have people standing on the buses, it seems every bus company is more prepared to pay the fine than follow the rule.

chicken bus

Tip 2.  Don’t drink too much before your trip.  Although Tip 1 is important, it creates an issue as there are no bathrooms on the buses, and they don’t stop for bathroom breaks either.  If you are on a really long trip like the one I did from Managua to San Carlos it helps to dehydrate yourself a bit beforehand – 7 hours without a pee-break is a very, very long time!   It goes without saying that if you do have a bathroom opportunity mid-journey – take it!  Even though you will likely have to pay (a very small amount) to do so.  You never know when the next opportunity will arise.

Tip 3.  Make sure you choose the correct side of the bus to sit on.  There is no air-conditioning on chicken buses and rarely any curtains, so if you are sitting on the sunny side of the bus – you are going to suffer (and probably get sunburned)!

Tip 4. Try to sit in the middle-front of the bus.  As you can probably imagine, chicken buses don’t have the greatest suspension and sitting in the back of the bus is a very bouncy affair.   The speakers for the sound-system also tend to be in the back of the bus and the driver cranks up the music so that he can hear it.  This tends to be very loud when you are sitting a metre away from the speaker, and not great when you are suffering from a dehydration headache (see Tip 2).

Tip 5.  Develop a fondness for latin romantica and 80s power ballads.  These are the tunes of choice for Nicaraguan bus drivers.  Or, I guess you could put in your own headphones…

No, catching chicken buses is not comfortable, but it is an amazing experience – every time.   They are also unbelievably cheap and they really do go everywhere.

And I just want to do a shout out to all the central american kids I’ve ever encountered on chicken buses.  You guys are unbelievably well behaved and truly amazing!    There is a lot that Australian kids could learn from the way you travel.

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From San Carlos to Ometepe

My last night on the Río San Juan was spent in luxury in San Carlos – I had air-conditioning!   Lapped that up for as long as I could (11:30am the next morning) and then headed out to San Carlos airport to catch my La Costeña flight to Ometepe.

The airport building was quite literally a concrete hot-box with a couple of fans that did absolutely nothing to mitigate the heat.  And the worst thing is that you have to get to the airport at least 2 hours early as La Costeña is not renowned for taking off on time … it usually takes of early!

I was first to arrive, my checked baggage was weighed and tagged as expected, and then they weighed my hand luggage.  But the twist was that they weighed the hand luggage with the person – so I had to get on the scale as well!  Obviously I haven’t put on too much weight because they didn’t say anything (and my hand luggage is heavy with camera gear, computer, etc), and sat down to wait eating the rest of the cake I’d bought at the bakery the evening before (yes, I had cake for dinner and for lunch – and it was good!)

Airport guy told me a little while later that we would be leaving an hour early and flying from San Carlos to San Juan del Norte (Greytown) first, and then onto Ometepe, rather than flying direct.   Essentially a free flight over the Indio-Maiz Reserve 🙂

La Costeña is a very small airline with a very small plane (I’m actually not sure they have more than one!)   It’s a 12-seater and hops around between Managua, San Carlos, San Juan del Norte and Ometepe – seemingly in random order.

La Costeña

I sat right up the front of the plane so I could also see out the front windscreen of the plane and have a clear view out my window.  There were no safety instructions (either written or spoken) and for the first time ever, they didn’t insist that carryon luggage needed to go under the seat in front of you.  There were seatbelts – but no instructions to put them on.  Pretty relaxed!

La Costeña cockpit

The flight was incredible!  What an unbelievable bonus!  Thank you to the one guy who needed to go to San Juan del Norte!  Took off from the dirt airstrip in San Carlos and followed the Río San Juan for the first little bit.  Very depressing to see the amount of deforestation in the area – you get a bit of a sense of it from the river, but nothing like seeing it from the air.

deforestation

After about 10 minutes, started to see more and more trees, and more and more fires as these trees too were being cleared for further farms.

deforestation

A short time later, we were over the Indio-Maíz Reserve and there was nothing but trees as far as the eye could see.  I have never seen anything like it.  Not a single man-made scar marred the sea of green, and the trees were so densely packed together that they almost looked like florets of broccoli.  And it went on, and on, and on.  I was absolutely mesmerized!  Incredible to think that this is what our planet should look like.  Beautiful!

Indio-Maíz Reserve

Indio-Maíz Reserve

Fascinating being able to see what the pilot sees coming in to land, and really amazed by the airport in San Juan del Norte!  For such a remote and small place, it had a sealed runway and a super-fancy looking terminal.  I bet it was even air-conditioned!   Not sure why San Carlos airport was so under-developed in comparison.

San Juan del Norte airstrip

Dropped our one passenger off and headed back over the Indio-Maíz Reserve – essentially re-tracing out flight path, but a little further to the north.   Really disheartening when the fires at the edge of the Reserve came back into view – how is this progress?  There were so many fires that the smoke haze sitting underneath the cloud layer was really, really thick.

Eventually reached the eastern edge of Lake Nicaragua and flew over the Solentiname Islands on the way to Ometepe.  It’s clear from any map of Nicaragua that Lake Nicaragua is huge.  But you can only really get the sense of how huge it is from the air – it really does look like an ocean.

aerial view solentiname

Approaching Ometepe, the internal instruments of the plane quite clearly showed the two volcanos and we were below the summit of both as we jumped around the sky due to the thermals.  Ometepe airstrip basically heads straight towards Volcán Concepción and is one of very few strips in the world that has a public road cutting across it.

ometepe airstrip

It was a bumpy landing but what an incredible flight!  It’s the first commercial flight I’ve ever taken where I was wishing it would last a lot longer.

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From La Mariposa to San Carlos

Getting around in Nicaragua is both easy and difficult.

What is easy:  there is public transport to pretty much everywhere and it is really cheap

What is difficult:  said public transport is

  • slow as a wet week
  • crowded as sardines in a tin
  • without aircon (Nicaragua is a hot country, especially in April)
  • without a bathroom (or bathroom breaks!)
  • lacking a well documented timetable – quite often you just have to rock up and hope you aren’t waiting too long

To get from La Mariposa Spanish School and EcoHotel to San Carlos on the Río San Juan, first you have to take a microbus to Managua.

However, it turns out the buses to San Carlos leave from El Mayoreo bus terminal and none of the microbuses that pass by the school terminate there (though they do terminate in every other terminal in Managua).    Best bet was to catch the Huembes micro (which, of course, is the rarest of all the micros that pass by the school) and then take a taxi from Huembes to El Mayoreo.

Stood outside the access road to La Mariposa waiting for the Huembes micro and had just made the decision to take the next micro – regardless of where it was going in Managua – when it turned out it was going to Huembes!   And – even more miraculous – it wasn’t already full/overcrowded!   So I shuffled my way into the back corner and I set about maneuvering my bags so that I only occupied a single seat in the micro.  Otherwise I would have to pay double the amount – which I usually do (after all it is a grand total of AUD$3.50), but was keen to see if I could avoid it today.

Arrived at Huembes, took a taxi to El Mayoreo (US$10 – no, taxis aren’t particularly cheap) and the bus to San Carlos was pulling into the bay just as I arrived.   I asked whether there was another bus at 11am (the timetable I found online said there was, but I’d heard from others that there wasn’t) – the answer was no, only at 1pm.  It was 10:00am.   I asked if it was an express bus.  They said it was.  I asked how long it would take.  They said 5 hours.  I have to admit I was dubious (it was a chicken bus after all), but 1pm was a long way away so I bought my ticket (AUD$7.50), and found my seat.

It was not an express bus.  We stopped an uncounted number of times at random points along the highway to pick up additional passengers and, of course, the ubiquitous food and beverage vendors that swarm the bus every time it comes to a halt.  Even before we left Managua there were people standing in the aisle, and I’d heard 2 spiels from 2 different guys trying to sell people vitamins (in the first instance – his spiel went for 15 minutes),  and Ginkgo Biloba (in the second instance – a mercifully short spiel) as the answer to whatever heath problem my fellow travelers had.  Weight loss (there are a surprisingly large number of obese people in Nicaragua, one of which was sitting next to me at the time), kidney stones, arthritis – you name it, these magic pills could fix it!

It did not take 5 hours.   Between all the random stops to pick up and let off passengers and the 20 minute lunch break for the driver in Juigalpa which left all the passengers sweating to death in the bus for fear of losing their seat (if they had one) or being left behind – it ended up taking 6.5 hours to reach San Carlos.   6.5 hours to travel 300km.

Fortunately I had dehydrated myself to such a point that even once I’d arrived in San Carlos I still didn’t need to go to the bathroom.   Obviously this is not a good thing, but its what you do when you have a long bus trip with no breaks.    The incredible heat also helped in this endeavour.  While it wasn’t too bad while we were moving, every time we stopped I could immediately feel beads of sweat roll down my back, my front and down my legs from the backs of my knees.  It was so hot I ended up sleeping more than 1/2 the time, and what was interesting is that even those who were in the aisle were sleeping standing up!   They were pretty packed together so there was no chance they would actually fall down, and every time I started feeling sorry for myself, I just looked at the crush standing in the aisle and realised it could have been a whole lot worse…

Checked into Cabinas Leyko after arriving, though they didn’t seem to have my booking.  It’s fine for 1 night and has decent WiFi.   Started the rehydration process and then went for a walk down to the Malecón – the walkway that fronts onto Lake Nicaragua and the river.   Amazing view – I’m so excited about being here!

San Carlos Rio San Juan

Watched a gorgeous sunset while drinking Coke Zero (desperately needed something icy cold) and eating an icy-pole (again, icy cold).  Did I mention the heat at all?   Was a long time before I saw another Chele (Nicaraguan equivalent to “gringo”) but eventually discovered I wasn’t the only one in town.  Cabinas Leyko seems to be full of Nicaraguans.

San Carlos Rio San Juan

San Carlos Rio San Juan

Ate at the fritanga near the open area on the Malecón that the young guys use to play soccer when it finally starts to cool down in the evening (love the Nicaragua and FSLN – Sandinista flag in the photo).   Wasn’t particularly hungry, but given I didn’t have any lunch either – figured it was probably a good idea.

San Carlos Rio San Juan

Tomorrow I’m off to La Esquina del Lago Jungle River Lodge for several days and its not clear whether I’ll have internet for the rest of my stay down here (the next 2 weeks).   If not – there’ll be plenty more blog posts published once I come out the other side!

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