El Salvador – Riding the Bus

I’m not used to riding buses – not in El Salvador and not even here in the United States. I don’t understand anything about them – how to know where they’re going, how much to pay, how to get on and off, the proper etiquette when one’s body is pressed up against a stranger in quite intimate ways. Do you share a smile at the awkwardness or avoid eye contact? Do I simply pretend my ass isn’t up against some random guy’s crotch and my breasts aren’t in the face of a little old lady seated next to me?

One bus we rode in San Salvador at night felt more like a discoteca than public transportation. It was dark inside with neon purple running lights along the floor and ceiling. The driver blasted Pitbull’s version of Guantanamera and a cool breeze from open windows kissed the hair plastered to our foreheads with sweat. The bus careened down the street and around corners without slowing – forcing us to lean into strangers as if we were dance partners perfectly in sync.

And sometimes, the excitement of riding buses in El Salvador began before even getting on board. I once stepped onto the bus, grabbing hold of the turnstile to pull myself up the stairs that are always too tall for my short legs.

“¡No, mamá!” the bus driver said, startling me as he grabbed the turnstile in a firm grip. The other passengers, most of whom had been gazing out the windows with boredom, now turned to look at the obvious tourist – me.

The bus driver then explained that the turnstile went twice around and so he’s obliged to charge me double. I knew it wasn’t true. I had grabbed onto it but not pushed or pulled it. I started to argue, but Carlos shook his head and paid – a quarter for himself – but two quarters for me, so we could go sit down. People were staring after all.

Our friend boards the bus behind us with our 9 year old son. He lifts our son high into the air and into his arms. While our son is small for his age, he’s obviously not a toddler. His big untied sneakers dangle from his bony boy legs. Our friend goes through the turnstile with our son over his shoulder like a sack of beans and smiles at the driver as he does so. Two for the price of one. The driver narrows his eyes but says nothing. He accepts that he’s been outsmarted. The bus pulls away from the curb and we laugh as we hold on for dear life.


  1. I love chicken buses in Central America, although they can be painful for long distance. I remember, for Salvador, we crossed the border and hopped on a bus to La Libertad. It was getting late and we had traveled all day. I spotted a sign early in the trip saying La Libertad was about 30 kilometers away, so I thought it shouldn’t take more than an hour.

    Yeah right. Took us four or five hours! :lol:

  2. When I studied law in Mexico one summer I was living with a wonderful Mexican family. To get to classes I had to take the bus, “la ruta.” I thought it was great fun, but the family I lived with frowned upon it. They were middle class and didn’t consider la ruta as the best form of transportation, especially for a “gringa” like me. The bus would be so crowed that I would have to stand in the stairwell and hang on for dear life! I remember seeing little kids, who had to stand next to their parents and hold on, be scooped up by grandmotherly passengers and be placed on their laps so they could have seat. It was all so friendly!

  3. hahahahahaahaha…riding the bus, now *that’s* an experience…glad to hear the experience was memorable for humorous/good reasons.

  4. The weird part about riding city buses in Cali, Colombia, is that, besides being privately run, there is no way to know which bus goes where without having to ask someone (unless you have ridden the bus previously). Several times, we had to flag down a bus and ask the driver if they were going by such and such street. If bus did not go by the location we were headed and were lucky, the driver would be able to tell us which bus did.

    No bus route names whatsoever, they went by the color schemes the buses were painted. No AC and often quite packed, but not like riding a “la chiva” bus in the movie “Romancing The Stone.”

    The inter-city buses were a different story, they were as good as or better than riding Greyhound.

  5. Hahaha! Good job! :) When I was riding the bus in Bolivia, which we did every time we were in the city, I had my baby strapped to me in my Moby Wrap, while holding onto my four year old for dear life. To top it off, my grandmother traveled with us and she was just as squished. She loved it, though! She will probably read this and agree with me LOL.

  6. Lol, I love how the driver tries to get one over on the gringa but you get it back in the end. Luckily I only take the local microbuses, which go straight into centro. And for the ride home all the drivers have come to know where this gringa lives and stop automatically.

  7. Nunca me he subido en un bus en El Salvador y te digo que la verdad me dan miedo! I loved your post and I can totally imagine the “sardine” like situation which , btw, would be EXTREMELY uncomfortable for me! I like my (at least) 30 inches of diameter and totally avoid situations where I have to rub my body with strangers!
    I rather travel in a pic-up truck, letting the wind mess up my hair and end up with dirt all over. But a bus …. I’ll pass!
    Besos amiga!

  8. Such a funny post! I remember asking my husband in Bolivia how we were supposed to get on and off…they never really stopped, you just kind of jumped on and off as they rolled by. But we usually took these little minivans with all these fold out seats that pop out of nowhere. You definitely feel like a local if you know how to take those and end up where you’re supposed to be!

  9. When I visited El Salvador for the first time I think I was maybe 12/13 I HATED the damn buses (or microbuses) my cousins then in HS would take them everywhere they didn’t want mi tia to know about. I hated the smells, the LIVE chickens, the random stops by military men, the stares, the men going in and out selling medicine and most of all the women shoving gaseosas in my face como quien dice a esta gordita no le va hacer daño una masLOL If you can not stand confined spaces avoid a regular bus in El Salvador. :o)

  10. Jaja! Qué risa amiga! I am way too burguesa to ride the bus here in Mexico, it makes me really uncomfortable, they´re smelly, and hate having people press against me, ugh!
    Ya se, ya se…
    But I love reading about your experiences and how you paint the picture perfectly so that we can imagine every detail. When you come visit me I promise I´ll go on a bus with you. ; )

    • Sue! jajajajaaja eres burguesa! No te preocupes, a mi tampoco me gustan esas “apretujaciones”. He tomado el Metro en algunos lugares del mundo y es la misma onda! Cuando menos sientes, tienes “miembros extraños” presionando tu cuerpo! yukkkk
      Cuando los Lopez te visiten y me apunto! Entre todos llenamos un mini bus y pedimos que pongan a Espinoza paz a todo volumen para que Tracy nos cante a todo pulmón. Yo, prometo bailar all the way!!!!

  11. That’s the beauty of riding public transportation in our countries in Latin America, Tracy. LOL! There aren’t really any hard and fast rules… you kind of just make them up as you go, negotiating them with the other travelers and the bus operators. The first time we went to Monterrey we were accustomed to riding buses here in the States, but nothing could have prepared us for that experience. We were swinging around like rag dolls from one side of the bus to the other as the driver crazily raced against other buses to pickup more passengers along the way, while everyone else that wasn’t a tourist just stood there still, gripping the railing on the bus, not really amazed at all at the way in which they were being transported. It was scary and took some getting used to, after a couple of years… but for that particular day we just opted for walking back home instead of riding the buses again :-)

  12. “One bus we rode in San Salvador at night felt more like a discoteca than public transportation”.

    Esta es la vergüenza nacional, pero un día arreglarán el sistema nacional de transporte. Ojalá.

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