The secret has been out for a while now: traveling Central America by bus is the best way to travel when you’re on a budget.
In South America, busing your way to the Panama Canal can mean dynamic scenery out the window, hearty food, and easy border crossing procedures. The key is to know what amenities you are looking for and book it early.
Here is an overview of the most common long distance bus companies in Central America, that run from Mexico to Panama.
Price Range: per ride $50-60
My girlfriends and I were forced to book a ride on King Quality from San Salvador to Managua so my friend could make her flight on time. We were apprehensive, being “shoestring” backpackers, to shell out that much cash for one ride. But, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do! We got our monies worth 10x!
King Quality is what it implies; service fit for a King, or in our case, Queen. KQ is a double decker bus with seats that recline with built leg rests. Essentially, each seat is akin to a narrow Lazyboy. With the 4 attendants that ride aboard the bus, you will never be hungry. They serve a hot lunch, coffee with cookies, and sandwiches as a light dinner.
If the A/C becomes too cold for you, cozy up with the fleece blanket and pillow that was given to you upon embarkation. They also offer a great lineup of continuous movies in English with Spanish subtitles. If you are in for a long ride along the Pan-Am and want to splash out for decompression’s sake, choose King Quality.
*Smart Go! Girl Tip: If you want a great front facing view of the open road pick seats 10/11 or 12/13. They are located directly above the driver of the bus and the entrance. I sat in seat 12 and watched as the traffic of San Salvador dissolved into rolling hills and then morphed into the pacific rim of volcanoes.
Price Range: per ride $20-40
Tica Bus is probably a household term right now if you are currently planning your trip to Central America. It is widely used by locals and travelers alike as it is affordable and a very midrange option to travel from one country to the next.
Tica Bus is comparable to Southwest Airlines, in my opinion. While you do have to choose your seat up front upon booking your ticket, they are fast and get you from Point A to Point B.
This companies’ line of buses are only one level high and accommodate around 45-50 reclining passengers. There is one bathroom onboard and usually only the driver and one attendant doing all the border crossing work. Tica bus has A/C , rather comfortable seats, and movies.
Be advised, for some odd reason they tend to show scary/goory films…if you find out why, let me know! There are adequate TV’s to watch the madness from every seat, however if you sit in the middle of the bus, near the cold air return vent, you will not be able to hear the audio. Unlike KQ, Tica Bus does not have headphone connectivity built into their armrests. On shorter rides (5-7) they tend not to serve food, so remember to pack some snacks—no worries if you forget though; you can grab some snacks at the border.
For longer rides, for example on my 10 hour ride from Managua to San Jose, we were offered a delectable cooler filled with slightly warm hamburgers, ham and cheese sandwiches, and cold drinks…all for purchase. The great thing about Tica Bus is its flexibility; you can purchase a ticket online, over the phone, or in agencies located ALL OVER Central America.
Also, it makes a handful of local stops on the beginning leg and ending leg of its journey…so you can get on or off the bus where you would like. For instance, rather than take a 3 hour local bus back to San Jose, Costa Rica from Jaco, I opted to catch the Tica Bus as it cruised through Jaco. My bus was bound for Panama City, but I needed to get off in Rio Hato, Panama. This was not a problem since Rio Hato is 2 hours outside of the city and a designated stop for Tica. Just make sure to tell your driver where you would like to get off. For the distance they cover, you can’t beat this coach bus line!
*Smart Go! Girl Tip: Purchase your snacks before you enter the Tica Bus terminal! The terminal has overpriced snacks, which unfortunately come with a gringo/non-gringo price difference.
Price Range Per Ride: $20-30
Linea Dorado operates bus routes through Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras only. Thank God! I unfortunately did not have a good experience with Linea Dorado and would only recommend it if you were practicing mental and physical endurance to border cross via chicken bus on your next tour.
Let us be positive and start out with what it does offer. Linea Dorado does offer a working bus, with a driver. Check. It has seats that recline, and a bathroom. They do run overnight routes, for example, from Guatemala City to Flores. Therefore you could knock out a 9 hour bus ride en route to Tikal while sleeping.
This is however if you can manage to sleep. During my overnight ride on Linea Dorado there was no attendant present at all, just the driver. The temperature alternated between sweltering heat and freezing A/C. While I did get to my destination safely, the ride was stressful, feverish, and weird. This bus line begins and ends in public bus depots (unlike Tica Bus which has its own separate bus station that is clearly marked). Sorry for those of you who had a nice time using this bus line, maybe I just caught them on a bad day!
*Smart Go! Girl Tip: Do not take this bus if you can help it.
In conclusion, as you have read, no two buses are the same! As you begin your over-landing keep in mind your comfort levels and remember, you get what you pay for.