By Land or By Sea: Top Picks for Alternative Travel in Mexico and Central America

By Land or By Sea: Top Picks for Alternative Travel in Mexico and Central America

By Marie Javins,

Tica Bus
Tica Bus

Mexico and Central America are large places. You must cross deserts and jungles or navigate from mainland to island. While renting a car is possible, it’s not always advisable or practical. Instead, check out some of these distinctly local modes of transport–whether on land or on sea.

Take a Tica Bus. The Costa Rica-based Tica bus looks a lot like a Greyhound bus, both inside and out. Squint a little and you may confuse the leaping deer on the side of the bus with a svelte racing dog. You can go all the way from Guatemala City to Panama City on the Tica bus, stopping in Tegucigalpa, San Salvador, and San Jose en route.

Tickets for each leg are cheap– between ten and fifty dollars– in spite of the luxurious quality of the ride. Don’t ignore the backbone of Central America, the beloved chicken bus. It’s not “bus del pollo” in Spanish. It’s still “chicken bus,” and they are the most common form of local transport in the region. Three people cram onto a seat that fits two small schoolchildren in the U.S.

The back door is used as much as the front door and sometimes people bring their livestock on the bus — thus, the name. In Panama, the buses are giant canvases, painted in vivid colors by local artists. The best place to find out about the local “Chicken Bus” is to ask around in your destination. Try the local bus station and the market. There’s no such thing as a web site or even a phone number. This is REALLY local!

For bus travel in Guatemala, including such Mayan sites as Chetumal and Tikal, access Transportation is also available from or to Belize City and Flores or Peten. First Class price is $25.

A train with a view. The train ride from Chihuahua to Los Mochis is one of the world’s most spectacular. Sit on the south side and watch Copper Canyon go by as the train corkscrews through the mountains on its way to the coast. Travel for $107 on the First Class train, or for half that on the second-class train. You can also opt to spend as much as $2000 on a five-day vintage train tour, complete with gourmet meals, with South Orient Express. Read GoNOMAD’s guide to independent budget travel on the Copper Canyon.

Travel to Honduras’ Bay Islands by boat. I was feeling queasy, sitting with my dive instructor at Roatan’s Sunset Inn. I had been learning as much about my own weak stomach as I had about SCUBA, and was appalled to hear the local expats refer to the boat to the mainland as the “Vomit Comet.” The ten-dollar trip between Roatan and La Ceiba on either the Galaxy, Tropical, or Nautica takes around 90 minutes. I think the euphemism only applies when the seas are rough.

Fly with flexibility. Had enough of the bus? Buy a Mayapass from Mexicana Airlines and save some time as you see Mexico. The big advantage of an airpass (besides the sale price) is that you can string together a series of one-way flights, instead of wasting a lot of time backtracking.

Take a water taxi– in the Caribbean. Land transport in Central America and Mexico is all about the bus. But when you get to the sea, buses are not terribly effective. Boats take over, and you can catch a water taxi from the mainland to many islands. Public transport between Belize’s Cayes consists almost entire of motorboats. Amenities include a giant tarp that you pull over your head when it rains. Inquire locally.


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