Tuesday, April 02, 2013

On the road....again??

Food vendors selling to a second-class bus in La Ceiba
I've been on a heck of a lot of buses lately. With a new commitment to visit the more distant regions of my organization this year, I'm fast becoming an expert on the good, the bad and the ugly of Honduran bus travel. So here's a little primer that might serve you well should you ever be down this way, or in any of the other developing countries that I've been to with remarkably similar transportation options.

First-class bus: If money's no object and you can fit your travel to the bus company's schedule, this is certainly the most comfortable way to go. In Honduras, the main first-class service is run by Hedman Alas. You get clean, comfy seats, air conditioning, non-stop travel, movies, and even a little snack. Your bags are tagged and stored in orderly fashion below, and they even do security checks before you get on so that nobody gets on with a gun (in theory, anyway). But the tickets are at least twice as expensive as other forms of travel, and trips are only at set times to specific destinations. For a lot of the travel I'm doing for my work, Hedman Alas isn't an option because the buses go only to the big tourist destinations, with no stops in between.

Second-class bus: You still get fairly comfy seats, but the air conditioning is more likely to be via an open window and there will probably be people standing in the aisles for at least part of the trip, as these buses do pickups at all towns along their route. This is called "direct service," but don't confuse that with "non-stop." No snacks, but vendors get on the bus at every stop and offer you everything from fried chicken to bags of cut-up fruit, pop, baked goods, watches and deodorant. Depending on the bus line and whether there's a designated terminal for that company in the town you're in, you may have to walk up to the nearest main road and flag the bus down as it passes. Pee breaks aren't guaranteed, so think about that before guzzling down a big bottle of water.

Third-class bus: Very cheap - maybe a third of the cost of the first-class buses. But you get what you pay for, so be prepared for constant stops, much longer travel times, and buses crammed with as many passengers as the driver can pack in. A lot of these buses are retired school buses from the U.S., so for maximum comfort try to check the functionality of your window, the amount of leg room (it varies), and the springs in your seat before sitting down. Your bags will likely be carried on top of the bus, and may or may not be tarped in the event of rain. Still, I'm very fond of these kinds of buses. They take forever to get where they're going, but the trip is never dull. There are also enough of them that you'll have a lot of flexibility around travel times, presuming you can find someone who can give you an honest answer as to where and when they leave.

Shuttles: From outward appearances, these vans look like palatable options for doing long trips, as the price is right and the vans are generally well-maintained and air-conditioned. Many a Copan Ruinas tourist jumps into a $20 shuttle for what is ostensibly a seven-hour trip to El Salvador or Guatemala City. But be warned that just because you have your own seat when you first board does NOT mean that two more people won't be squeezed into the same row a little later in the trip. The leg room is brutal for anyone over 5'6". The air conditioning is usually insufficient for the size of the vehicle, but the windows are jammed shut so you have no option. The trips always take longer than what you've been told, and the motion of the vehicles on Honduras's bad roads will induce car sickness even in the most durable traveller. I steer clear of shuttles.

Rapiditos: If I never had to ride in a rapidito again, I would be a happy person. Unfortunately, there's often no choice. These are vans, too, but generally in a state of serious disrepair and with far too many seats jammed into a tattered, filthy interior space. I use the term "seat" loosely, because mostly you'll just be perched in a space that's way too small for your butt, often with strangers virtually sitting on your lap and others looming over you in a half-stooped position as they struggle to balance themselves in a standing position as the van clunks along, usually making worrying noises down below that will have you thinking a great deal about what would happen if, say, the axle broke or the rear tires fell off. In theory, rapiditos are supposed to carry no more than 16-18 travellers, but I've frequently been in vans with 23 people. Horrible, horrible way to travel, even for short distances.
The kind of vehicle you'll be in should you need road
transportation into the Moskita

Private vehicle: Another option that sounds better than it usually is. Perhaps you're picturing a ride in a private vehicle as being more or less like it would be in Canada or the U.S., where a five-passenger car has five passengers, five working seatbelts, and a roomy trunk for all the luggage. Ah, but in Honduras, anyone lucky enough to have their own vehicle is going to pack that thing with as many people and as much stuff as possible in order to justify the gas costs of any major trip. I've had my boss come pick me up for a five-hour trip only to discover that there are eight passengers for five seats, which means three people have to ride in the back of the truck. Even if it's not you who gets stuck back there, you can't help but feel guilty. My spouse and I recently paid $25 apiece - a small fortune - for a four-hour ride in a private vehicle into the Moskitia, and in both directions one of us was left to jounce along the terrible dirt roads in the back of the truck along with six or seven other travellers and a vast array of cargo, including several propane tanks. And that was almost preferable to being stuffed into the unbearably claustrophobic interior of the truck.

So there you have it - travel Honduras-style. I found the road travel here quite unbearable initially, but I've gotten used to it over this past year. Now I catch glimpses of myself reflected in a bus window and see that same stoic, flat look that I've come to think of as the trademark of a Honduran traveller. It's that or stay home. 

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