Friday, May 29, 2009
A hunka hunka burnin' bus.
(Warning: sarcasm ahead) Woohoo, another travel day. My favourite. In order to make this one a little easier, I had opted for the more expensive Tica bus – a Costa Rican line that runs from Mexico to Panama and a favourite for Central American cross border travel. It was also more expensive but I figured a direct air conditioned ride from Tegucigalpa to Estelli was worth it.
We headed to the bank to take out a bit of money – we had enough for our bus tickets but borders (especially in Central America) don’t usually have bank machines and you can guarantee you’ll have to pay some sort of fee even if it’s not a legitimate one. (Tip of the day is always have local cash on you when crossing the border.)
The one thing I’d forgotten to do online the night before was write down the address of the Tica bus station. Unlike San Pedro Sula, in Tegu all the bus companies had their own stations sort of in the same district but not close enough to make it easy. This is actually quite common in Central America and the reason I hate changing buses because it usually involves a cab ride that costs more than the bus fare. Of course the internet at the hotel was still moving slower than a comatose snail and before the page could load up I realized we didn’t have much time left to get to the bus station.
I flagged down a cab (grr, Honduran taxi drivers) and for the first time got a reasonable quote, just 50L for both of us. Go figure that on our last day in the country I meet the Only Nice Cab Driver in Honduras (or ONCDiH as I will know affectionately call him). ONCDiH didn’t know where the Tica bus station was so I gave him what I thought were the cross streets and the district name. Of course I realized that I didn’t know whether the cross streets were avenidas or calles (avenues or streets) so I guessed.
Murphy’s law says that the less time you have the worse traffic will be. We proved it this morning. It was rush hour and like any capital city that meant gridlock. Oops I guess we should have left more than 20 minutes to get across town. Luckily, the ONCDiH knew all the side streets and alley ways to get out us out of the biggest jam. However, my general directions were wrong. The Tica Bus station was not where I thought it was. Being the ONCDiH, our driver began a street by street search of the district asking for directions every so often until someone knew where it was. And we got there at exactly 9am. There was no bus waiting. Oh no. But there were a lot of people. Yay! We hadn’t missed it. We paid the ONCDiH and he didn’t even ask for more. It almost brought a tear to my eye.
I went to buy the tickets in the slowest moving “line up” (there was one person in front of me) in Honduras. But the bus still hadn’t arrived so I zenned until I got to the front 15 minutes later.
“Dos boletos a Esteli por favor,” I asked the woman.
“No va a Esteli.” Uh-oh. The dreaded you can’t get there from here line. “Va a Leon o Managua,”
She showed me the map from the website which clearly marked Esteli as a destination and then crossed it out explaining that the bus now went via a different border crossing. Someone should update the website and there maps.
“A donde quiere ir?” she pushed now suddenly wanting to hurry up the line even though I was the only person in it.
And with that I chose Leon. At least we’d be over the border. We could figure out where to go or what to see once we were there. I crossed my fingers and hoped our spontaneous change of plans was a good change of plans.
I got our tickets and headed back to Adrian to tell him the news. He didn’t seem bothered and we pulled out the guide book to check out hostels and relative prices. Somehow I think that rooms are no longer $5/night.
The bus finally arrived at 9:30 but it was obviously in some distress. The employees tinkered with it for 15 minutes before giving up and piling us all on. We soon discovered what the problem was, no air conditioning. Not a big deal when you’re on a chicken bus where the windows open. But on the hermetically sealed luxury coach this was a big problem. With only the two small emergency window exits on the ceiling open, there was no breeze and by the time we hit the highway at 10am (only an hour late) the bus already smelt incredibly gamey.
Unlike the other ejecutivo class buses – there were also no free beverages or snacks. But the driver did stop to pick up a woman at a truck stop who boarded the bus with a cooler full of ice cold drinks. She was kind enough to stay with us for the three hours to the border and not double her prices while we baked in the oven on wheels. At the border, we met another Tica Bus with working air conditioning and most of the travelers going all the way to Managua were moved off the bus and on to it. The rest of us were forced to suffer. Although we were allowed to get off and stand in the cool 34 degree shade for 30 minutes while the bus driver took our passports, paperwork and 190L each for the border fees.
We were immediately swarmed by money changers. We changed our money after Adrian did some quick negotiating. The Nicaraguan Cordoba to Honduran Lempira rate is about 1.17 to 1 and the money changers initially offered us .85 to 1. Adrian got them up to .95 to 1 which was a pleasant surprise. We were then approached by two young American girls who didn’t realize that they would need to pay a fee at the border. They begged us to borrow some cash until we got to an ATM in Leon. We made sure we had enough just in case they couldn’t get money out and then lent them what they needed. Travel karma. Since we were still suffering from the dreaded travelers tummy we needed the karma. Especially at the Swine Flu checkpoint.
Not only did we still have icky stomachs (one of the symptoms), I sill had a horrible sounding phlegmy cough. But the health check is simple: all they ask is that you tick boxes of various generic symptoms (si or no). So we did what any person desperate to get over the border would do: we lied. Luckily the nurse was distracted by the flushed and sweaty appearance of all the people from our bus, causing her to repeatedly ask “do you a fever?” to each of us. But she waved us all through which meant back in the oven now a lovely 38 degrees according to my handy dandy keychain thermometer.
In two and a half hours we arrived at Leon, or rather a gas station outside the city. Only Adrian and I got off. Oh and the two American girls too who ran into to use the ATM. They paid us back said thanks and then they and the bus were gone. A lone taxi driver was sitting there waiting for us – in his cab, not in our face. Already Nicaragua felt completely different. When we asked him how much into town he said 80C but when Adrian said What?! he backed down to 50C. Yes, we are in a completely different country.
The only problem was we didn’t know where we were going. I knew that there were some good hostels in Leon but since coming here has been a spontaneous decision I didn’t know what any of them were called. I flipped open the Lonely Planet and grabbed the name of the first hostel listed, Via Via. Before I could say it, the driver asked “Via Via?” I wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad sign. But at least we could check it out and maybe even get online to find some other options.
Via Via was part of a chain of hostels and by chain I mean it has four locations Mali, Copan, Amsterdam and Leon. What a weird combination. It was also a restaurant/bar and had no wifi. So I was foiled in my attempt to look up stuff. So I popped into the internet place across the street and looked up the name of the hostel I had bookmarked in my pre-trip search. It still looked good but at $32/night it was a lot more than $5. We went to check it out, carrying our packs in the afternoon sun. Unfortunately they only had dorm rooms available. So back to Via Via it was. Or rather across the street from Via Via at a place called Big Foot. It had a much tinier and quieter bar. They only had a triple room available with shared bath for $21. It was not as nice as the other place but they did have a sign that announced 25C mojitos or about $1.50. Sold. We could always change tomorrow. Right now we just needed to shower and change our clothes. And have a mojito.