I’ll never complain about Port Authority ever once I get back from Nicaragua. Infrastructure here is poor, to say the least.
The main form of transportation in Nicaragua is by bus. And there is no website you can easily find with the timetables, or a hotline you can call. It is all word of mouth pretty much. You ask your friends who know the routes you are traveling when the departures are and how long a route takes, and you piece your journey together. The video above is of the main bus terminal in my site of León, León. Once you arrive here, or at almost any bus terminal in Nicaragua, the bus attendants are just yelling where their bus is headed. Find your bus and hop on. Sometimes the buses are marked, but there aren’t any signs directing you around the terminals. And the buses are packed too. Once the seats fill up they just cram people into the aisle. After one relatively short bus ride from our training towns into Managua my friend Nick explained himself as “bruised and sweaty.”
The buses that leave from the terminal in León go to the other municipalities in the department of León. In addition, since León is a big city there are buses that go to other nearby large cities, like Chinandega and Managua, frequently, and some further aloft northern cities, like Matagalpa and Estelí, infrequently. There are even a few interlocales routes, which means that there are fast, occasionally air conditioned mini-buses that leave whenever the seats are full. They are sometimes a little more expensive though.
If you don’t live in a big city or along a route that connects big cities, pretty much your only shot at getting from one department to another is through Managua or stringing together buses. For instance, this weekend I was in Achuapa, which is the farthest reaches of my department. I just took a direct bus from the terminal in León (I will never stop being grateful for the amenities that my site offers, despite the prices, the heat, and the busses full of backpackers). But another Volunteer, who came from a small community in Matagalpa, had to take a bus to Matagalpa, then a bus to San Isidro, which is a major crossroads town for the northern part of Nicaragua, switch buses for a bus headed from San Isidro to León, get off that one at the highway turn-off for El Sauce, and then wait on the side of the highway for a bus headed the rest of the way to Achuapa from there. Four buses, at least as many hours.
Although from the video you may have gotten the chicken bus feeling, these really aren’t the chicken buses. The buses from this terminal are usually filled by people visiting their family members, tourists, students, and business people. The chicken buses (buses filled to the brim with people and livestock) go to smaller farming communities within the borders of the municipality of León, and these leave from two other markets in the city.
In the big cities of Nicaragua, like León, there are also rutas, which are intra-city buses. Now that I have my bike I don’t take them around the city much anymore, except to get to the bus terminal. The rutas go all over the city and take the form of actual public buses, as well as pick-up trucks with covered backs that you just hop into. They cost approximately 16 cents to ride. They can get pretty packed at certain times of the day, but again, no chickens.
This bus system is really the only option for most Nicaraguans. The poorest Nicaraguans can’t even afford them (even though I think they are subsidized by the government and I find them pretty cheap) so they never really leave their home towns. And for the richest, there is a national airline, but it is far too expensive for most and just has a few tourist flights a week to the farthest reaches of Nicaragua, including Ometepe Island, Rio San Juan on the Costa Rican border, and the Atlantic Coast. I’ll almost certainly be taking the 6 – 12 hour bus/boat rides when I visit these places (all purportedly awesome).
Other forms of infrastructure, you ask? There was a freight train, and it was apparently successful, but it got scrapped in the early 90’s. The International Airport in Managua? Needs improvement. Right now it doesn’t even have any direct flights outside of the Americas. Ports? Non-existent on the Atlantic Coast. And I’ll reserve my opinions on the inter-oceanic canal that they are trying to build for another blog post, but I will just say that I think a gas pipeline through Central America could be greatly beneficial, providing Nicaragua with a (relatively) cheap, (relatively) clean alternative to Venezuelan oil.
To any of my friends and family thinking of visiting Nicaragua: fret not. I will try to plan us a hassle free itinerary that minimizes the amount of time we have to spend on buses of any sort.