There are several factors to consider when trying to determine how long your bus ride will take in El Salvador. But first and foremost, you need to know that your mother would NOT approve of you taking these buses at all – they seemingly undergo no maintenance or inspections; there is a distinct lack of safety equipment; they are often dangerously overcrowded (3 or 4 people jammed into a 2-child seat, and more people crammed into the aisles); and they go haring around corners with the doors wide open. Sometimes they don't even come to a full stop as you are getting off or on.
But if you're willing to overlook these factors and travel like a Salvadorian, here are a few tips to help you determine your arrival time at destination:
- Speed. Most Salvadorian bus drivers have lead feet. Even around corners, through villages, and in the pouring rain. If you happen to have one of the few sedate drivers, you'll find yourself twitching with impatience that the journey is taking so much longer than normal.
- Frequency of stops. There is not really any such thing as an express service, as far as we can tell – if there's an inch of space available, and someone is at the stop, then the driver will screech to a halt. BUT, unlike in most central American countries, there are actually designated bus stops (NOT necessarily where the “parada de autobus” sign is – go to where the crowd of people are waiting!) so the number of possible stops is limited. Occasionally the driver goes so quickly that he never stops to let people board, and you're lucky if you manage to get him to stop to let you off (great news if you're going to the end of the route...you're going to get there SO fast!).
- Duration of stops. On our first bus ride in El Salvador, we were pleased that the bus departed almost immediately after we boarded – it wasn't even full yet, which is the trigger for departure time that we've come to know & love. But after travelling for about 5 minutes, we stopped at a parada....and were there for almost 30 minutes. A further 30 minutes down the road and we stopped again...this time for 20 minutes. A journey that should have taken 2 hours ended up taking about 3...but at least we had lots of time to enjoy the antics of the bus vendors*.
- Frequency of service. Popular routes such as the 301 between San Miguel & San Salvador will leave when the bus is full, or at worst every 15 minutes. Whereas the direct service from San Salvador to Alegria travels exactly twice a day. And remember that pretty much every service stops at dusk, so final departures (depending on distance) will be in mid- to late afternoon.
*Bus vendors will climb aboard at many of the bus stops, and attempt to sell you everything from toothbrushes to tacos. We have been grateful for these on long trips since there are no “passenger rest stops” in El Salvador, so it gives us a chance to buy a cold drink without disembarking and running the risk of being left behind. We've even been known to buy the occasional food item...although this could explain the “Salvadorian belly syndrome” we're currently experiencing....
Our nomination for “most talented” bus vendor is a fellow who was selling individually-wrapped hard candies in 3 flavours. He had a great patter and boy, could he roll those R's. We really believed that our bocas (mouths) would feel refreshed after having one of his chocolate-mint sweeties!
But the winner for “most unique product” AND sales pitch has to be “back-scratcher man”. He was certainly committed to his cause. He managed to talk about that (rather tacky) plastic back-scratcher for no less than 5 minutes straight – and then, he went down the entire bus scratching backs as a demo! Not sure if he got any sales but he did inspire a lot of giggles.
Other things to look forward to on your Salvadorian bus journey are:
- seat hardness: from school-bus leather benches to upholstered individual seats – but you'd be amazed at which of these is often the more comfortable.
- music: not just the driver's choice but also your fellow passengers – think our record is 4 different tunes playing simultaneously and loudly! Chris de Burgh & Brian Adams are bus driver favourites.
- conductor noise: is he shouty? Does he whistle shrilly at every opportunity? FYI - “visa” means “wait” (an instruction for the driver, when passengers are getting on & off) and “aller” means “GO”. Watch the conductor take a running leap & swing himself on board via the back door.
- climate: does the bus have air con? If so, is it actually on? 'cause if it's not, that bus is one hot & stuffy box with unopenable windows...
- luggage: or better described as baskets, bundles of wood, and the occasional live chicken. If you're carrying a large backpack or similar, be prepared to spend the journey hugging it in your lap. If you're standing and trying to carry something, it's likely that a kindly seated passenger will hold onto your stuff so you can hold on to the ceiling rail with both hands! Feel free to do the same for others, it's a good way to make new Salvadorian friends.
Finally, you'll be pleased to learn that Salvadorian buses have route numbers. This is a good inspiration to bone up on your Spanish numbers, so that helpful locals can tell you which bus to catch to your destination. Many places of interest will require a couple of changes (and even where there's a direct bus, a “bus combo” might be a lot quicker – see point 4 above!) and there's no such thing as a route map or timetable, so you're going to need some advice! The numbering system also helps you to recognise your bus quickly enough to (possibly) flag it down before it flies past your stop.
So, now you're all set. Enjoy your journey, especially the sight of the beautiful countryside whipping by. Maybe manana (tomorrow) you can try one of those “people trucks” and REALLY travel like a Salvadorian...