Riding Nicaragua's chicken buses
Having lived in Nicaragua for two years, I think I can now safely say that one of the only things guaranteed to happen on schedule is a so-called ‘chicken bus’ leaving the terminal. Even if people continue to hop on as the bus is reversing out of its parking spot, and the driver’s assistant is still up on the roof securing the bags as they're thrown up top.
Out it rolls...
On the face of it, the terminals are loud and chaotic. Destinations at shouted at full volume, and increasing speed, as a bus gets close to its scheduled time. But beneath the surface, the chaos is surprisingly organised. Show any uncertainty as to which bus you need and without fail, someone will make sure not only that you’re on the right one, but also that the driver’s assistant – the cobrador – will tell you when it’s your stop.
"Vendors squeeze down the aisle selling delicious still-warm pineapple pastries and fried corn dough drenched in honey. This is bus food at its best."
As a ‘regular’ on certain routes, drivers and assistants would cheerily greet me on arrival. In some cases, they'd enquire after our office dog, Luna – also a frequent passenger! The assistants are impressive for their memories, somehow managing to hold in their minds not only exactly who got on where and has paid their fare, but also where people are travelling to, what luggage everyone had (anything from holdalls, to sacks full of flour, rice and beans, construction materials, or bikes), and how much change they still owe different passengers as soon as they break a bigger banknote.
While en route, there is often impressive scenery to take in – from active volcanoes smoking away across the cornfields, to the rolling green hills of the northern countryside, and at certain times of year, acres of coffee beans being raked over and dried in the sun. All of this more than making up for the discomfort of travelling in an old converted US schoolbus, certainly not made for tall adults.
There is also little risk of going hungry on the way; no matter how full the vehicle gets, at each big junction or town vendors manage to squeeze down the aisle selling anything from tropical fruits and fizzy drinks to freshly fried chicken. Still-warm pasteles de piña (pineapple pastries) and buñuelos (fried corn dough) drenched in honey on different journeys have only strengthened my long-held opinion that ‘bus food’ is at its best in the north of the country.
"It can be hot, slow and crowded. But then a cockerel crows loudly at the very second a traveller enquires as to why on earth they're called chicken buses. Nothing beats that spontaneity."
Nicaraguan hospitality and kindness also has ample chance to manifest itself, such as the woman next to me on one particularly hot journey who, on seeing that the water seller didn’t have enough change for me to buy a cold bottle with my 20-cordoba note (worth around 60p), dug into her own pocket for change and insisted on paying.
Sure, I’ve sat on a bus waiting as a tyre is replaced after crossing a small stream, been wedged in with barely any space to stand in 35 degree temperatures, and listened to the same CD of loud cumbia music on repeat for two and a half hours straight. But there is something about seeing all parts of Nicaraguan life through the small bus window – from the countryside to the city, with landscapes constantly shifting, people getting on and off and the soundtrack changing as you move from place to place. I can’t help but miss it all now I’m back in the UK.
It may sometimes be hot, slow or crowded, but nothing can beat the synchronicity of a cockerel on someone’s lap at the back of the bus crowing just as a traveller I’m sitting near has asked why they call them chicken buses. Or hearing the same sound just after crossing the border back from Costa Rica, confirmation if any were needed that I’m home!
If you'd like to experience the Nicaragua that I fell in love with, I'd love to share it with you.
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