Central America is one of the easiest regions to find a transport in the world. Actually, you can get shuttle busses to any place, just by asking in any hostel. They are not expensive and they are the option that majority of travelers choose. But if you want to get through the lands of volcanoes, coffee and cocoa really cheap, this article is right for you.
The cheapest way to travel in more or less any country, is the way the locals do. I haven't seen many locals on the shuttles. They take, so called, Chicken busses.
Those are old, used, colourfully repainted school busses from USA and Canada. At first they look difficult to travel with, because they don't seem to have any schedule. You have to go to the bus terminal and ask the locals when does the bus leave to requested direction. But in my experience I always got the information I needed.
They don't run such long distances as shuttles or coaches. That means, we have to change a bus couple of times for getting from one place to another. But the good thing is, they run often. I never had to wait more than 15 to 30 minutes to get the bus to next destination.
Below is a description of a journey and busses we catched on the way from Antigua, Guatemala to San Jose, Costa Rica with prices. We didn't do it all in one peace. We divided a trip into a couple of segments. Each segment can be done in one day.
1. Antigua, Guatemala to San Salvador, El Salvador
First we took a bus to Escuintla from main bus terminal besides the marketplace in Antigua. It took around 1h 30 minutes and cost 8 quetzales (US$ 1.10) per person. The bus drop us of the gas station where we waited for another bus (photo below right.) If you're in a doubt, when on the station, just say to any local: "autobus, la frontera?" They will show you where to wait and which bus is right. This bus was better than the first one. I think it was old greyhound bus. It took 2h and cost 50 quetzales (US$ 6.28) to the border.
On the border we had to wait around 30 minutes. On Salvadorian side you don't get a stamp in a passport and there is no entrance fee to pay.
A couple of hunderd meters beyond the border on the right side, there is another bus stop. It's marked with green circle on the map below left. Orange dotted line is a walking path before Salvadorian immigration office and yellow one is after it.
It seems you can't go on the wrong bus here. All of them go to Sonsonate. It cost US$ 0.90 and took us 1h 30 min. In Sonsonate there is quite a large bus terminal (marked with blue circle on the map below right.) When you hop out of the bus just ask the locals for: "autobus, San Salvador," they will show you the way. Busses to San Salvador stop on another terminal, closer to the highway (marked with green circle.) The journey took us 2h and cost US$ 1.25$. If you plan to go to El Salvador's coast, consider a direct bus to La Libertad.
2. San Miguel, El Salvador to Managua, Nicaragua
From San Salvador to San Miguel we got a free ride by our Couchsurfing host. Anyway, if you go to the bus terminal in San Salvador I believe there are plenty of busses to San Miguel or even direct to Santa Rosa de Lima.
We hopped on a bus to Santa Rosa de Lima in San Miguel. However, at the end, it turned out the same bus goes further and all the way to the border in El Amatillo. To Santa Rosa we needed 1h 15 min. Then we waited 15 min on the bus terminal (photo below right) before we continued towards the border. It took us additional 30 min to get through the traffic in the town and 30 more minutes to the border. For all the journey we payed US$ 2 per person.
To enter Honduras we had to pay US$ 3. We didn't stop there. We just took a direct bus across the country to the border with Nicaragua. Anyway, it looks there is no way to avoid the payment.
Already while waiting in the line for immigration, a driver aproched me and asked if we go to Nicaragua. He waited for us and walked us to his minibus (photo below left.) We waited for some more passengers and we were on the way. After 3h we reached Gausaule - a border town with Nicaragua. It cost us US$ 6 per person.
Just after getting off the bus local tuk-tuk drivers aproched us. Don't believe them when they say it's a long way to immigration office and/or bus terminal. It's just 500 meters or so.
Nicaragua, beeing one of the cheapest countries in the region, turns out to have the most expensive entry fee. We had to pay US$ 12 each.
Bus terminal on the Nicaraguan side is a couple of hundred meters along the main road on the left side (marked with green on the map below left.) It's not straight by the road. There are busses to Leon or Managua. A ride to the capital cost US$ 5 and take 5 hours.
3. Managua, Nicaragua to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
From Managua there is a direct bus to Rivas and San Juan del Sur, but we decided to make a stop in Granada. Although we didn't make all this journey in one day I will describe it in one segment because it can be done one day.
First we took a minibus from Managua to Granada. They stop at UCA bus terminal, cost 35 cordobas (US$ 1.17) and take around 1h. The minibus doesn't stop on the main bus terminal, but some minor parking lot, a couple of blocks southwest of central park (marked with orange circle on map below left.)
From Granada should be regular busses to Rivas. Busses to Rivas depart from another station (marked with green circle) than those for Managua. Unfortunately, when we arrived to the station, they told us it's a holiday and there is no busses at all that day. Strolling through the town we found a minibus on the same parking lot where the minibus from Managua dropped us off (photo below right.) We asked the driver for directions and he explained us we can go with him to Massaya and take another bus to Rivas there. We did so. Minibus to Massaya cost us 25 cordobas (US$ 0.84) and from there to Rivas another 50 cordobas (US$ 1.67). Altogether we spent around 3h. In Rivas we catched a bus for San Juan del Sur for 30 cordobas (US$ 1.00). It took additional 1h 30min.
4. San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua to La Fortuna, Costa Rica
There is no direct bus from San Juan del Sur to Costa Rican border. We had to take a bus back to Rivas (30 cordobas = US$ 1.00, 1h 30min). There we hopped on another one to the border town Peñas Blancas. We spent another 1h 30min and 50 cordobas (US$ 1.67). To exit Nicaragua we had to pay again. US$ 1 municipality tax and US$ 2 federal tax. Just behind the immigration building on the right side of the road is a large bus terminal (marked with green circle on map below right.) The bus to Liberia cost 1560 colons (US$ 2.73), but you can't buy the ticket on the bus. There is a ticket counter just opposite to the immigration building (marked with blue circle.)
Busses in Costa Rica are much more modern and comfortable than in previous countries. We arrived to Liberia after 1h 30min. We didn't have to wait for long and we could take the next one to Cañas. This time we had to pay 1500 colons (US$ 2.63) for 1h on the road. In Cañas we took another bus to Tilaran - 600 colons (US$ 1.05) and 30 min. Then finally the last one to La Fortuna - 2600 colons (US$ 4.56) and 2h.
5. La Fortuna, Costa Rica to San Jose, Costa Rica
From La Fortuna to San Jose there are two direct busses per day. One leaves at 12:45 and the second at 14:45. They take around 5h and are surprisingly cheap. We payed 2400 colons (US$ 4.20). However if none of two mentioned busses doesn't fit you schedule, you can always take a bus to Quesada and from there directly to San Jose. Those busses run more frequently.
Public busses, a.k.a. Chicken busses are the cheapest way of transport in Central America. Of course hitchhiking is cheaper because it's free, but that's completely different category. At first it can seem difficult but when we get used to chicken busses they become fun, relaxed and very interesting, adventurous way of travel. How wouldn't it be, we travel with the locals...