An alternative means of travelling through Central America to using the local bus system are the tourist shuttles. These are generally minivans (often air conditioned) that travel between popular tourist destinations throughout the region. They are much more expensive than the local buses but their selling points are safety and security on one hand and the direct connection between popular locations (some even provide door to door service) on the other.
There are many different companies and agencies in all the popular tourist locations who can sell you tickets. You'll see plenty of tourist shuttle advertising without having to look very hard for it.
We decided to check out the shuttle services for two connected legs of our trip. The first leg was from Leon in Nicaragua to El Tunco in El Salvador and the second was from El Tunco to Antigua in Guatemala.
Leon to El Tunco
We booked this trip on line with Bigfoot shuttle, which is run by Bigfoot Hostel in Leon. The cost was $US30 p.p to El Tunco, a ten hour trip.
We arrived in Leon the afternoon before the shuttle so we just had one evening to have a look around Leon.
We left Leon on time, at 2.00 am in the morning and the shuttle was full – 13 people counting the two drivers. The road north from Leon was good for the first hour but then deteriorated. The trip requires a 2 – 3 hour drive through Honduran territory so it involves two border crossings.
The border crossing from Nicaragua into Honduras was dealt with by the drivers. They collected all the passports as well as $US7 p.p - $US4 to leave Nicaragua and $US3 to enter Honduras. The Honduran road was pretty bad with lots of swerving to avoid potholes.
Entering El Salvador did not cost anything and each passenger presented to the immigration in person. It was early in the morning. No queues and quick and efficient. The roads improved once we entered El Salvador. But what we did find disconcerting was the way the non-active driver kept pestering the active driver to look at mindless video clips on his smartphone while he was driving the shuttle. Needless to say we were glad to arrive in El Tunco where we were dropped off at our hotel.
El Tunco is a popular vacation spot for people from San Salvador, the capital, which is only 37km away. El Tunco, and the many beaches along the Pacific coast of El Salvador, are frequented by surfers from all over the world. Our hotel had a group of 15 surfers from Brazil staying there!
The beaches are volcanic black sand.
Storms before we arrived had resulted in huge volumes of driftwood being washed out to sea then back onto the shore. The brown colour of the ocean was also a result of the storms.
There are lots of bars and restaurants opposite the beach where you can watch the world go by while sipping your favoured beverage.
El Tunco to Antigua
Our shuttle company for the second leg was Gecko. Again we booked on line - $US20 p.p for the 5 hour trip to Antigua. We were supposed to leave at 12 noon with pick up from our hotel. When nothing had happened by 12.30 we walked the short distance to the Gecko office to be told that the shuttle was 2 hours late. When 2.00pm came and went we were told that the shuttle had mechanical problems that they were fixing. Finally, at around 4.00pm another shuttle turned up full of passengers going all the way from Leon to Antigua in one step. It was clear that Gecko was waiting for this to arrive as these folk made up the bulk of passengers on our shuttle. Why they couldn't have told us the truth is a mystery.
So, finally, off we went, four hours late. We sat up front with the driver who was a very nice chap (no English). He was from Antigua and had a passion for 80's disco music. So no pan pipes or Latin beats for us - it was Bee Gees, Michael Jackson and Madonna all the way to Antigua.
Just so you can experience what we did (without the car sick making drive).
We had torrential rain for a lot of the trip and no road lighting. This combined with a succession of huge trucks coming our way with their high beams on blinding us, meant that the Bee Gees singing 'Staying Alive' in the background was disturbingly apt.
Nevertheless we made it in around 5 hours. The border crossing, by the way, from El Salvador was cost free, done in person on both sides, and quick and painless. We were dropped off beside Parque Central in Antigua and our hotel was just around the corner.
So, what did we make of our shuttle experience? It was cramped and uncomfortable. The driving, especially on the first leg, could have been better. The cost, while more than local transport, was not too high considering the distances covered. The border crossings were certainly made easier by having someone manage that aspect, and it also meant we had transport between the 'no man's lands' at the borders, whereas often local transport will end at one border and you'll need to walk to the other side to then find your onward transport.
Given that some parts of Central America are known to have problems with banditry and security in general we felt relatively safe on the shuttles. We'll use them again but will be under no delusions that they will be comfortable or that they will do all that they will say they will do in terms of timing and services.
PS A restaurant recommendation is Arigato Sushi in El Tunco. Francisco served us up the best sushi we'd had in nine months in Latin America from his small, non-descript restaurant. He is a professionally qualified chef who has worked in a number of countries. Highly recommended. Rated #1 in Tripadvisor in El Tunco.