Road Rules of Central America

We’re now in Panama after travelling via chicken and Tica bus to Panama, crossing 5 borders in 3 days (check out The Gool’s new route map – top right, if your knowledge of Central American countries is as bad as mine was before this trip)! The last border crossing took over 3 hours and was particularly stressful, as a group of old Panamanic ladies kept trying to queue-jump, which especially upset the disgruntled Brits who’d been in line for hours already.

Here’s a brief summary of some of the road rules and transport we’ve experienced in Central America…

The most commonly used driving signal in Central America is use of the hazard warning lights. This can mean:

– I’m turning right
– I’m turning left
– I’m slowing down
– I’m stopping
– I’m reversing
– I’m about to overtake this truck on a blind hair-pin bend
– I appear to have gone the wrong way up this mountainside dual carriageway. Oops.

The tuk-tuk

Small three-wheeled, open-sided vehicle, used to ferry tourists with backpacks and locals with heavy bags of shopping for short distances in Panachael (the largest town at Lake Atitlan), Antigua and Flores.
We have no good explanation as to why there are so many tuk-tuks at Flores, as the whole town is about 5 streets wide each way and you can walk anywhere in 7 minutes tops. Maybe it’s a town of very lazy people!

The chicken bus

Ex-US school buses, painted in bright colours and designs, so-called because it’s not uncommon to find chickens taking up some of the seats, along with their owners on the way to/from the market. They have no air-con, are generally over-crowded and have ancient suspension. The conductor’s job, along with taking passengers’ fares, seems to be to get off the bus at each stop, yelling the destination over and over (“Guate! Guate! Guate!”) and shoving passengers on, while the bus is still moving, then running along behind and jumping back on at the last minute.

On a chicken bus:

– If you feed the driver and the conductor their breakfast (tortillas with chicken and refried beans – what else?), you don’t have to pay the fare.
– Don’t be surprised to find yourself sharing a 2-person seat with your wife AND a flirtatious elderly lady, especially if you look like The Gool.
– It’s perfectly acceptable for passengers to throw their sweet wrappers, newspapers, fried chicken bones etc straight out of the bus window.

The Tica bus

Long distance, Greyhound-style coaches. The Tica bus is a more luxurious mode of transport and our overnight one from Managua to Panama City even provided us with food in mini Tica bus boxes.

On a Tica bus:

– The air conditioning is set to “arctic”. Most people need at the minimum, a vest, T-shirt, long-sleeved top, fleece, scarf, long trousers and socks to prevent frostbite.
– You will usually find one nun sitting near the front on her own (I have no explanation for this).
– The film choices are those of the driver/conductor. You might get lucky and see an illegal copy of the new Harry Potter (in English!). On the other hand you might be incredibly unlucky and be subjected to endless happy-clappy born-again Christian movies where the football team wins every game/the wife gets pregnant after years of trying/cancer miraculously disappears and basically any problem can be solved as long as you truly believe and pray enough. These were played on our last bus, in Spanish (with English subtitiles) at top volume.

En-route from Lake Atitlan to Panama City we spent a night in San Salvador, but didn’t leave the bus station (there’s a hotel right there – we arrived late and had to leave early in the morning) and also a night in Managua, which was terrifying. All the traveller websites and guide books advise you to avoid Managua at all costs and if you do have to go there (as we did), to catch the next bus out as soon as you can.
We arrived after dark and took a cab to a hotel that had an okay review in the Lonely Planet, but it was filthy. Our cabbie took us to his mate’s hotel, which was not far away, cleaner and apparently in a more secure street. There was an armed guard at the entrance, so we decided to stay there. While checking in, we heard a commotion outside (a mugging we later found out) and then 2 gunshots. Needless to say, we didn’t venture out of the hotel for dinner that night and we got a taxi to the bus station in the morning. We were quite relieved to have finally got to Panama in one piece!

At the moment we’re researching boats to Colombia, via the San Blas islands, so that should be a nice change from Central American traffic..!

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6 Comments so far

  1. mum and dad C on August 25th, 2009

    Quick thought for the day (before I go to work): What do you get if you cross a chicken bus with a tica bus?

    A Tandoori bus

    Puzzle of the day: Why doesn’t a chicken bus play chicken music?

    Lots  of love, Dad C XX

  2. N 'n N on August 25th, 2009

    Is Tandoori also known as Chicken Tika? Maybe Dad
    should have gone to work earlier. Managua sounds the
    kind of place I should take Sam to?
    Nizar and I are off to Zanzibar for a week’s holiday at the end
    of September, almost as exotic as some of the places you have
    been visiting. The memories you are storing up. And what a wonderful
    thing is the blog.
    N ‘n N

  3. Gude on August 25th, 2009

    How about:  Which Johnny Cash song do you get if you cross a chicken bus with a Tica bus and sit on it for too long..?  😉  x

  4. Gude on August 25th, 2009

    Oooh, zanzibar sounds exciting!  We’ll have to add that to the list… x

  5. mum and dad C on August 30th, 2009

    I was reading this Cavafy poem and thinking of you setting sail. Happy sailing.
    Love mum xx

    Ithaca ( for the whole poem.

    Pray that the road is long.
    That the summer mornings are many, when,
    with such pleasure, with such joy
    you will enter ports seen for the first time;
    stop at Phoenician markets,
    and purchase fine merchandise,
    mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
    and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
    as many sensual perfumes as you can;
    visit many Egyptian cities,
    to learn and learn from scholars.

    Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
    To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
    But do not hurry the voyage at all.
    It is better to let it last for many years;
    and to anchor at the island when you are old,
    rich with all you have gained on the way,
    not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

  6. Stine on September 4th, 2009

    Eeeek, what a nailbiter! Sounds like an adventure and a half! glad you made it out in one piece and that you’re safely on your way! We are off to Italy for a week so hope to Skype at some point soon. missing you loads. Stay safe darlings xxx