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Sailing Cruiser's Take a Tica Bus ... It's Harder Than Cruising!

Sailboat cruiser's relay their experiences while taking the Tica Bus thru Central America.

Editors Note:  Frequently cruisers in the Rio Dulce choose to take a Tica Bus tour while waiting out the hurricane season.  George & Mecca were the first owners of Sailabout.  They had an interesting take on their experience.  Following is an email that Mecca sent to their friends and family after taking a Tica Bus trip through Central America in 2006. 

George & Meca, s/v Sailaboutby George & Mecca, formerly sailing vessel Sailabout

Hi everyone,  Hope you are well.  Below is our latest update.  It is a long one, so go get another cup of coffee; sit back and enjoy.

Yes, there is something harder than cruising!  Having just spent the last 30 days backpacking thru Central America (from Guatemala to Panama and back – 18 bus trips, 27 taxi rides, 6 airplane flights, 3 nights sleeping on buses, 16 nights in hotels, 10 nights aboard our friends’ sailboat Sand Dollar, 33 restaurant meals, 18 border crossings, and 6 different currencies), we feel qualified to declare that backpacking is a harder mode of travel than cruising.  We also now understand why most backpackers are in their 20’s!

Of course, cruising has never been portrayed as hard.  Instead, it conjures up images of a gorgeous couple lying in a hammock on the bow of yacht, drinking Mai Tai’s and saluting a picture perfect sunset.  But, those of us who have been cruising know very well the fallacy of that image . . . we know the truth.  We know that weather is King.  We know we must respect the sea and dare not tempt Mother Nature, lest she unleash her wrath of power upon us.  We know about dragging anchor in the middle of the night; engine breakdowns and electrical problems; trying to repair sails in stormy seas.  We know what it is like to run out of drinking water, propane, fresh vegetables.  We accept life aboard as not often being comfortable . . . scorching sun, cold rain, dark nights, salt and sand and feeling grubby.  Wishing for a hot shower and an ice cold beer.  But, at least we have our home with us; we can fix a steaming cup of coffee when we want to; we can use the toilet when we need to; we can generally travel at our own pace; and we can go just about anywhere we want to go.

Backpacking is a different story.  You have no home.  All your belongings (and anything you accumulate along the way) must be carried on your back or mailed home.  We started out with 1 medium and 1 small back pack each – carrying a total of about 40 lbs.  It’s amazing how things add up . . . water, books, cameras, binoculars, raingear, toiletries, clothes.  Then we mailed a large 15 lb. box from Panama City to our home in MN (filled with wooden, paper mache and straw masks, paintings, baskets, and other items we picked up along the way).  We returned with one large bag and 3 backpacks – carrying a total of about 90 lbs. It’s amazing how we accumulate things . . . pottery, straw baskets, more masks, molas (hand sewn reverse appliquéd cloth from the Kuna Indians of the San Blas Islands, Panama), and a hammock!

Bus travel is by far the most popular mode of transportation throughout Central America.

While “chicken buses” are fine for local travel, one would not want to go long distance or international this way.  There are a few international bus lines that offer “luxury” buses (air conditioning, movies, sometimes food).  We chose Tica Bus and were able to travel from Guatemala City to Panama City for $78 each; quite a deal considering the distance, and the alternatives (flying one way, would have been about $350 each).

Bus travel is nice in that you can sit back and let someone else do the driving (we would not have wanted to drive our own van . . . between the paperwork hassles at each border, the lack of signage for finding our way thru cities and towns, and the cost of gas – it would have made the trip unbearable).  By busing, you get to see much of the countryside, small towns, people and local scenery that you miss if you fly.  And, of course, you are sometimes forced to “stop and smell the roses” along the way.  For instance, when we left Guatemala City, they didn’t have seats available for us to go straight to Panama City; so we got tickets only to El Salvador.  That meant we had to stay “overnight” in a terribly decrepit part of old San Salvador; stay in a dank and dingy hotel and then wake up at 1:30 to catch our 2:30 a.m. bus!  Lovely memory.

Admittedly, bus travel has its disadvantages.  For instance, you have little to say about when you travel . . . if the bus leaves at 3:00 a.m. then that is when you go (the worst buses we had to catch were at 2:30 a.m., 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m.).  If the bus doesn’t stop overnight, then you sleep in your seat, in a contorted position.  We had two, 18 hour bus trips and one 25 hour trip – stiff necks are just part of the bargain; seems the buses think they are carrying frozen fish and therefore, keep the air conditioning on full blast.  Despite our jeans, long sleeved shirts, jackets and a throw over us, we froze.  Of course, the minute we got off the bus in the blazing heat (at the border crossings – which often took 1-2 hours); we sweltered in our long pants and shirts!  Meals are often “iffy”  . . . if the bus doesn’t stop for breakfast or lunch or dinner, then you get none.  But, there are small things to be thankful for . . . the long-distance buses had toilets.  Of course, they were only to be used for #1, so if you had to do #2, well then you were just SOL (pun intended).

Perhaps the worst part of being at the mercy of the buses, their routes and schedules was being dumped in the middle of a large city in the middle of the night.  The taxi drivers know the routine, so the minute you step off the bus they are like vultures going in for the kill.  They each have a “deal” for a hotel (of course, they get a commission for getting you to that hotel).  And, of course, because it is oh, maybe 1:00 a.m. or so, you don’t dare take your chances at suggesting the taxi drive to a hotel that you’ve chosen in your travel guide to see if there is a vacancy – because who knows where he may take you.  And, since you don’t know what the price is for a typical taxi ride in that city, they get twice as much as usual – but, after all, it is the middle of the night.  And if the hotel happens to be only 2 blocks away (like the one we ended up at in San Jose, Costa Rica), you don’t dare walk it because, first of all, you probably don’t know it is that close, and second, the bus stations are in the worst part of every city and you just might not make it there.

George & Mecca s/v Sailabout in NicaraguaIn fact, in Managua, Nicaragua, the bus station is in such a bad section of town that even tho our hotel was only 1 ½  blocks away, we hired an escort (for $2) to walk with us to the bus terminal at 4:00 a.m.  We were quite glad we did – as we walked down the middle of the street; a man appeared out of the shadows and entered the intersection.  As we passed, he whistled and at the next intersection, another man appeared.  Looking at them, we could not tell if they were there to harm us or protect us - as no harm came to us, we suspect it was because we had an escort. 

Ah, taxis . . . in Managua, taxi drivers didn’t necessarily want to take us where we wanted to go - they wanted to take us where they wanted us to go.  For instance, we wanted to go to an artesians’ market in the center of the city – but, two different taxi’s wanted to take us to a similar market 30 minutes outside of the city.  When we said “no”, they wanted us to hire them for the hour or the day and wanted to take us on a tour of the city.  When we said “no”, they started driving us out of town to take us to the out of town market.  After much discussion, we finally ended up at the market in the city.  But, we had many moments where we wanted to say “what part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

Back to Managua, many of the streets have no names and those that do have names don’t have any signs; consequently, taxi drivers often have no idea where they are going.  Of course, even with a map of the city, you don’t know where they are going either because there is no way to communicate where you are or where you are going.

Of all the countries we visited, Nicaragua was the most depressing.  War and oppression have taken their toll.  You can see it in the faces of the people.  Poverty is prominent; jobs are difficult to come by.  The 21 year old grounds keeper at the hotel we stayed in is the oldest of 10 children.  He is very thankful and lucky to have a job; but he works 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, 30 days a month.  His total pay for the entire month is $8.50.  He works to help his mother support their family.  He really wants to learn computers so he can get a better job, but he cannot imagine how this will ever happen.  He has no hope.

As experienced travelers, we are accustomed to “going with the flow”, but border crossings challenge even the most experienced.  We had a record crossing thru 4 countries in one day – El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Imagine, 6 times off and on the bus, 6 times standing in lines for our passports to be stamped out and then in, 4 times going thru customs – agents rummaging thru our belongings.

Leaving Panama was a scene . . . at the border they unloaded all the passengers (54 of us) and stuffed us into a round room.  They placed all our luggage in the center of the room on the floor; 3 mean-looking agents brought in a dog; for 10 minutes the dog sniffed all the bags; he didn’t find anything.  The agents then bounced a ball over the luggage while the dog chased the ball and sniffed different parts of the luggage for another 10 minutes; the dog still didn’t find anything.  The agents randomly searched back packs and hand bags of several people and finally let us go.  They were not interested in us gringos. . . it was obviously a local they were after.  Back aboard the bus, police stopped the bus four times within one hour and checked all passports.  They questioned one woman, but didn’t take her off the bus.  Newspapers the next day said something about two fugitives - a man and a woman on the run – drugs and money.  Guess they thought the woman looked a lot like one of the fugitives.

Customs in Nicaragua had a unique approach.  They made each of us get our checked luggage and drag it over to the customs desk.  The customs agent stood beside a large traffic light (red and green) with a big yellow button to press; each passenger had to press the button (actually you had to bang it with your fist) . . . if the light turned green, you were free to go; if the light turned red, your bags were searched.

Valle de Angeles, HondurasNo long distance travel thru so many borders would be complete without at least one good scam.  Depending on the border and the arrangement with the bus company, you either stand in the immigration line yourself or the bus operators take passports and money and do the paperwork for the entire bus.  Several times going south, the Tica Bus operators did the paperwork for the entire bus; so, we didn’t think it unusual when they did it on our return trip north thru Honduras.  However, this time, it appears, the operators pocketed all the money and failed to get any of our passports stamped.  Of course, none of us realized this at the time.

The operators didn’t return passports until we were an hour away from the border (they stapled the old yellow tourist visa for Nicaragua making it look like it was for Honduras).  Anyway, to make a long story short, without knowing it, we illegally traveled thru Honduras for several days, going to a lovely town in a valley near Tegucigalpa and then cross-country to the Guatemalan border.  Upon presentation of our passports leaving Honduras, the immigration officers were puzzled because there was no stamp for entry . . . we explained that the Tica bus operators were “ladrones” (thieves) and the officers simply waved us thru.  Really, they could have given us a hard time, but they just shook their heads and waved for us to pass on thru.  Guatemala never questioned anything and gladly stamped us into the country.  Happiness is.

At least we didn’t get scammed by the money-changers.  At the borders, the money-changers are the equivalent of the taxi vultures . . . swooping in for the kill.  No matter how many times you tell them you don’t need or want to change money, they ask again.  Oh well, they have to make a living too.  Fortunately, every country accepted U.S. Dollars.  In fact, we never changed money.  We used dollars and would receive change in the local currency.  For the most part even local businesses gave us good exchange rates.  The only difficult part was keeping the conversion rates straight and remembering what country we were in.. . . 7.5 Quetzales to the dollar in Guatemala; in El Salvador they only used dollars; 18.5 Limpera to the dollar in Honduras; 15 Cordobas to the dollar in Nicaragua; 500 Colones to the dollar in Costa Rica; 1 Balboa to the dollar in Panama.

The women of the San Blas Islands.On to the highlight of our adventure . . . the San Blas Islands of Panama and the Kuna Yala Indians.  Since George’s cruise thru the San Blas Islands around 1990; we have been trying to return to that magical part of the world.  In fact, that was the goal when we left the U.S. in 2001. . . we wanted to get Sailabout back to the San Blas Islands.  Well, as you all know, we got stuck in Guatemala.  We blame our friends, Cade and Lisa Johnson aboard Sand Dollar for this.  They were the ones who got us involved at Casa Guatemala orphanage.  They sailed on . . . but, we stayed behind and built the bunk beds; and then we fell in love with the country.  So, it is only fitting that they are the ones who now provided the opportunity for us to visit the San Blas.

Our trip to the San Blas has to be the most spontaneous travel we have ever done.  Within hours of a quick email, we taxied to the airport, bought plane tickets for 6:00 a.m. the next morning and hit the grocery store (to take sacred fresh vegetables with us to the boat).  Four flights later (island hopping in a 16 person plane), we were sailing aboard Sand Dollar to the Cocoa Banderas Islands – idyllic white sand beaches, thick, lush coconut trees, beautiful water colors.  We spent a lovely 10 days aboard - enjoying pot-lucks on the beaches (with other cruisers), snorkeling and spear fishing (Cade speared 2 beautiful snappers, but he and George had to ward off a large black tip shark in order to keep the fish for our dinner).  Aside from sharing a nasty head/chest cold among the four of us, we all enjoyed our time together and we thank Lisa and Cade for their wonderful hospitality.

Having returned to the Rio, we are happy not to be traveling for a while.  The new owner of Sailabout should be here in about 2 weeks.  As soon as we officially hand the boat over to him, we will begin our 3700-mile drive home (maybe around the first of July).  Should be interesting.  We will, as always, be loaded down (it’s amazing how much stuff we had on Sailabout and how much of it will be going home with us).  To make matters worse, we had a 13’ cayuco (wooden dugout canoe) made and will be strapping that to the top of the van to take home (now all we need is a rocking chair up there and we will look just like the Beverly Hill Billies).

Making a cayuco is fascinating.  Our friend hired a local wood carver to make the cayuco for us.  The carver went to the forest and picked out the tree; but, had to wait until the right phase of the moon to cut the tree down.  After cutting the tree down, he left the tree in the forest to dry for 1 month.  We have just received word that the carver has recently finished the cayuco.  Our friend will deliver the cayuco to us this Saturday – can’t wait to see it.

So, the conclusion of our latest adventure, is that backpacking is definitely harder than cruising – especially since we are accumulators and collectors. However, it is one of those things we better get used to because when we look at our list of “things to do, places to see, people to visit” . . . backpacking sure looks like it will be part of our future.

Other thoughts and memories . . . Costa Rica is very "tourist friendly". English is spoken in many places, the country encourages tourism and caters to tourists. Public transportation, internet access, hotels, restaurants are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Eco-tourism is growing in leaps and bounds. Trips to rain forests, zip lines thru the tree canopies, volcano tours, white water rafting, nature walks, coffee plantation tours, etc . . . are all available, but a little costy (on average $45 U.S. per person for a typical activity).  San Jose, Costa Rica is a beautiful, cosmopolitan city with modern architecture and nice museums. It is worth visiting.

Panama is, of course, fascinating. Yachties wanting to experience going thru the Panama Canal without having to take their own boat there, can usually get a ride as a "line handler" aboard other boats going thru the canal. We went there hoping to do that, but missed the rush of boats by one week. There is a yacht club at each end of the canal, but no real organized way of communicating with yachts looking for line handlers. About the only way to get aboard a boat transiting the canal, is to show up at either yacht club and walk the docks.

It is possible to experience the San Blas Islands without your own boat (or without linking up with friends on boats like we did). There are many daily flights from Panama City to many of the islands from El Porvenir to Puerto Obaldia (airfares range from $32 to $50 U.S. one way). There are only a few hotels in the islands ranging from $15-$70 per person.

For anyone considering a full tour of Central America, we highly recommend getting a travel guide. We used the Lonely Planet's Central America on a Shoestring and found it invaluable for helping us make decisions about what to see and where to go.

Mecca and George

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