Riding the famous chicken buses of Central America is a right of passage for many travellers. It’s an experience like no other. And while most travellers on the gringo trail take the shuttle between these two countries (we did the first time!), this is a much more interesting, and far cheaper method. So if you’re like us and like to save money and enjoy the thrill of local transport, here are the bus routes connecting the most popular destinations from Guatemala to El Salvador.
By far, the most popular route between these two countries is from Antigua to El Salvador, and the beach town of El Tunco. Shuttles run daily, but at a cost of around $30. Using the local buses, A.K.A. chicken buses, you can do the same journey for a little over $10. However, if you are doing this route, starting early is critical.
Taking the chicken buses takes longer then you think. The buses stop at random places and the driver can get off for a lunch or a small chat with a farmer if he so pleases. You will want to have as much time on your side as possible if trying to get to El Tunco/El Zonte or La Libertad.
The Guatemala buses run almost all day, but the final bus from Sonsonate to El Tunco, only runs twice a day, once in the early morning and at 3:30pm. Try to get here as early as possible, if headed to the beaches of El Tunco or El Zonte since this bus is packed full!
Antigua to El Salvador Border
Antigua to Esquintla
The bus leaving Antigua leaves quite frequently. Head to the Antigua main bus station, and listen carefully. You will hear many different people yelling out where they are going, Escuintla will be one of them. If you don’t hear the calls, just wander around until you find the bus. The routes are all marked on the front of buses.
We caught our bus on its way out of the bus parking lot. Many of these buses say Rodeo on the front as well, since this is one of the main stops before Escuintla.
- Antigua to Esquintla: 1 hour, Q10
Esquintla to El Salvador Border (Frontera)
We stood facing the intersection, waiting on the south side of Calle 9 and 1a Avenida. If unsure ask people where to stand exactly for the bus going to “La Frontera de El Salvador” or someone directing the buses will ask you where you are going.
There will be others waiting for this bus and most people are very helpful. We waited for about half an hour for this bus. It then pulled around the corner and stayed there for another half hour while the driver took a break.
This bus took us to Chiquimulilla where it stopped and we were told to switch to a different bus. The guy took our paper and ripped it in half, took the half and let us on. He then came around the bus after it had driven for a while to re-check and get payments from everyone, and take the other half of the paper. So don’t lose that paper.
- Esquintla to El Salvador Border: 2.5 hours, Q50
Jump ahead to El Salvador Border Crossing and getting to the rest of El Salvador.
From San Pedro, Lake Atitlan to El Salvador
Rather than getting a ferry across the lake and a shuttle from Panajachel or Antigua, it’s possible to get to El Salvador by local bus. But as mentioned earlier, if your final destination is El Tunco, you’ll need to make it to Sonsonate by around 3pm at the latest, or you’ll be stuck in Sonsonate for the night until the 5:50am to take the same bus.
Alternatively, from Sonsonate you can take a bus to San Salvador, then out to La Libertad, then to El Tunco/El Zonte, but this might have you travelling into the night, which is not recommended.
San Pedro la Laguna to Cocales
If you’re staying at Lake Atitlan – specifically the wonderful town of San Pedro la Laguna – you can avoid a return trip to Antigua by following these steps:
Wake up bright (actually still dark) and early, and head over to the catholic church in the main part of town. The bus leaves at 5am.
Depending on the day, there may be multiple buses. Be sure that you’re getting on the correct bus. It’s not uncommon for bus drivers here to say it’s the bus you want, when it’s going the opposite direction, just to get your money. The bus you’re looking for should be headed for Mazatenengo, but you’ll be getting off at Cocales. Ask fellow passengers before you leave to confirm that this bus is going to Cocales.
There is another option if 5 am isn’t your jam, or you miss the first bus. You can take a bus from Santiago, just a short ferry ride from San Pedro. This bus runs Monday to Saturday, from 6 am to 12:30 pm, about every half hour. From the Santiago, Lake Atitlan central bus station ‘corral’ take the bus to Cocales.
- San Pedro to Cocales: 1 hour, Q10
- Santiago to Cocales: 1 hour, Q10
Cocales to Esquintla
Cocales is a tiny town at a crossroads. The bus will drop you off at the main intersection (remember to tell the driver that you’re getting off in Cocales).
The next bus from here to Esquintla runs frequently, and arrives near the same spot. Confirm with a local exactly where it will stop. There are quite a few food vendors around here, so it’s a great place to pick up a breakfast snack!
- Cocales to Esquintla: 2 hours, Q20
From here follow the information above for getting from Esquintla to the El Salvador border.
Guatemala – El Salvador Border Crossing
Make sure to wait until the last stop for the bus, when everyone gets off. You will be dropped off just before the border crossing, where you will have to stand in a line with all of your stuff outside in the hot sun.
You will get your Guatemala exit stamp, and be given a piece of paper. Make sure to keep this paper safe, you will need it for the other side of the border crossing, and you do need to cross a bridge, where the paper can fly out of your hand quite easily. You will now walk for about 10 minutes to the next crossing into El Salvador. You can also get a ride on a bicycle rickshaw if you don’t want to walk. It is much hotter here than Antigua.
When you reach the other side, give them your passport and the paper and you are now welcomed into El Salvador. There is no payment and the border guards are very friendly.
There are no fees involved and you likely won’t get a stamp here, so don’t worry if you don’t.
El Salvador Border to Sonsonate
Keep walking past the restaurants and shops and you will see a bus corral. There are a bunch of buses in the dusty parking lot, and likely all of them are number 259. These buses all go to Sonsonate.
Sonsonate is the main transit hub in this part of the country. From there, you can get to your final destination.
- El Salvador Border to Sonsonate: 1.5 hours, $0.90
Sonsonate to El Tunco / El Zonte
Take the 287 to La Libertad leaving at 3:30 pm. There are only 2 buses per day – 5:50 am and 3:30 pm – so make sure to try and get here as early as possible. There are a lot of people on this bus. Tell the driver you are going to El Tunco or El Zonte and they will tell you where to get off.
- Sonsonate to El Tunco: 2 hours, $1.50
Alternatively, if you do miss the 3:30pm bus, you can take a bus to San Salvador, which are very frequent ($0.75/1.5h), then a bus to La Libertad ($1.25/1h), then to El Tunco ($0.25/15min). Just try not to travel during the night.
Sonsonate to Juayua and the Ruta de las Flores
- Sonsonate to Juayua: 40 minutes, $0.50
Sonsonate to Santa Ana
Because there are so many great places to stop along the way, we wouldn’t suggest going all the way from Guatemala to Santa Ana this way all at once. But if you’re committed, take bus 249 from Sonsonate to Auachapan, then hop on bus 210 to Santa Ana.
- Sonsonate to Auachapan: 45 minutes, $0.50
- Auachapan to Santa Ana: 1 hour, $0.90
Sonsonate to San Salvador
If heading from Guatemala to San Salvador, head across the street to the main terminal and take bus 205.
- Sonsonate to San Salvador, regular bus: 1.5 hours, $0.75
- Especial air-con bus: $1.30
You’ve Made It!
It seems like a long day to travel to any of these places, but honestly, it isn’t that bad. It does take a bit longer but the amount of savings of taking a shuttle from Antigua to El Salvador is completely worth it. Take those savings and splurge on a nice hotel later on!
The buses are a fun way to get around, and even if you decide you don’t want the hassle of all these buses to get from Antigua to El Salvador, try to make sure to take a local bus when in El Salvador or Guatemala. They are a great experience and don’t cost much.
We want travel to be fun and exciting. This trip sounds exhausting, and it can be, but that ice-cold beer or fresh-squeezed orange juice, once you finally arrive, is magic.
If you take these routes and find the cost has changed, or the times have changed, help a traveller out and let us know so we can update this information.