Old white van sitting on blocks on a dirt road.

How to Get from El Tunco to Leon; or: Travel is the Worst

Mark Stewart Destinations 6 Comments

*Updated January 2019

This is an account of one of many such journeys throughout our years of travel. Although experiences are rarely so interesting as this one, from time to time, travel days don’t always go as far as expected or planned. Our recent trip via bus from El Tunco to Leon (El Salvador to Nicaragua), is one such experience.

Skip to the Tips!

Though the bulk of this post is a story of our day/evening/night/morning, if you’re planning this trip, you may want to read so you know what it can (though probably doesn’t often) entail.

Otherwise, just jump ahead to learn how to take the trip yourself!

The worst part of travelling is travel

We’ve said this in the past and the theme continues to reiterate itself to us on a regular basis. Long waits in dusty parking lots, bumpy bus rides, delayed flights, wrong turns and added costs are just part of the deal. Often the physical act of travelling is the worst aspect of being a traveller. Although as ironic and irritating as it can be, we put up with it because it allows us to do all of the other amazing things we’re able to do.

However, from time to time these long travel days are considerably worse than others – the journey from El Salvador to Nicaragua a few weeks back is a perfect example. These stories aren’t written in for the sake of complaining, or pity-seeking; but rather to remind readers and those eager to follow in our steps that this lifestyle comes with it’s share of challenges.

To gracefully misquote the great Ben Parker: “With great travel, comes great irritability.”

1:30pm – El Tunco, El Salvador.

The shuttle actually arrives about half an hour earlier than scheduled, although incredibly uncommon in these parts, it does happen. We join the other travellers in El Tunco, and soon begin the supposed nine hour bus journey to Nicaragua.

Fast forward a few hours and a short rest stop later, where a quick snack of instant noodles and some cookies were enjoyed before hitting the highway again. Arriving at the Honduras border shortly after, we cross without issue – things seem to be going fairly smooth. However, the travellers soon begin some simple calculations and realize that this trip is going to be considerably longer than the expected nine hours.

7:00pm – Honduras.

Hungry now, we’re all quite glad for the second rest stop of the journey, a small gas station on the outskirts of an unknown town. After a much needed use of the facilities, it’s quickly made clear to us that we won’t be eating here. Being in Honduras, they only take Lempira as currency; seeing as though we’ve all got either American dollars (the currency of El Salvador) or Nicaraguan cordobas, it seems we’re out of luck. Money issues aside, given the recent political unrest in the country, supplies haven’t been flowing as usual and the shelves of the store were bare – aside from water and alcohol.

We continue on.

Another hour and a half passes and the driver pulls over on the outskirts of the next town. The sliding door opens and a women boards the van without saying a word and takes a seat. The driver casually mentions that she’s his girlfriend. Unusual, but fair enough I guess. Several small backstreets later and we stop – the driver and girl exit the still-running vehicle as he tells us our new driver will arrive shortly, before the two of them walk off into the night.

Sitting there on the side of the road, late in the evening in some unknown Honduran town, we all look at each other stunned. What exactly just happened? Is this protocol? Thankfully, our concerns are quickly put to rest as the replacement driver arrives several minutes later. The group shares a little nervous laughter and we pull away from the curb.

9:15 – San Lorenzo, Honduras

Group of people travelling from El Tunco to Leon waiting for a bus at night

Less than three minutes pass before the van turns around. The driver is on his phone now, visibly irritated, as he returns to our previous spot on the curb. We’re informed that the brakes are not functioning properly and that we’ll have to change vans – another is being diverted from not far off and will be here shortly.

As much as this was frustrating, having listened to the grinding brakes since this day began, we were thankful something was finally being done about it.

Over an hour passes before the replacement vehicle arrives. Bags are transferred and we cram in with the existing passengers, who have been travelling nearly as long as us from the north of the country. We continue once again, this time it seems things are going well. Checking the map, we see that we should be at the Nicaraguan border within the hour, things are looking up.

Pulling over once more to fill a low tire outside of Choluteca, we’re informed that the upcoming stretch of highway is in poor condition and that it’ll be a bumpy ride. This was an understatement. Hitting a maximum speed of 40km/h at one point, the only view we have for nearly two hours are two faded beams of headlight illuminating a rocky brown trail fading to black. Although we’re reminded of warnings not to travel at night in Honduras, it’s long past the point of change, so we brush the concerns away.

10:30 pm – Somewhere in Honduras

Holding a rifle seemingly bigger than he can handle, the officer waves us to the side of the road. Several men speak to the frustrated driver before opening the doors of the vehicle, demanding to inspect our papers and check our bags – while a few of them look official enough, their friends in baggy jeans and tank tops say otherwise. Though it doesn’t seem we have a choice either way.

Aside from a little extra attention towards a fellow traveller regarding whether his loose tobacco is weed, it seemed like more of a tourist shakedown than anything else. Though the fact that it was tobacco purchased inside Honduras, things could have gone otherwise if it was from elsewhere.

11:35 pm – Nicaragua Border Crossing

The crossing is deserted, this late into the night the border is all but closed. Without traffic, we should be through in minutes. Our driver takes our passports and explains that it will take ten or twenty minutes to process them all, but informs us that there is free wifi at the office. Though hungry and frustrated, knowing we’re nearing our final destination shortly, spirits are high. Kylee takes a quick minute to email our hostel to inform them of our delays and that we’ll arrive within a couple of hours.

We play with a few stray dogs and swap stories of where we’re all from. Did you know that there is a huge boom of Gin distilleries in Scotland? We wait another hour and a half…

The driver returns our passports and seems happy to finally be back on the road and the final stretch. Already three hours behind schedule, only two short hours remain until our final destination.

3:30 am – León, Nicaragua

The rest of the trip itself was seamless, with smooth highways and high spirits, we soon arrived in a city we first visited back in 2015. Back in familiar territory, we relaxed as passengers were dropped off one at a time at their respective hostels.

Our turn finally comes, it’s nearing four in the morning and some distance from the town centre. We disembark and grab our bags, and before we even turn to face the gate, the van is already driving off. Shaking the gate, we realize it’s locked. We rattle it some and call out hopelessly to whoever may be inside to let us in. It’s not going to happen. So there we stand, on the side of the road in the middle of the night with everything we own. Considering our situation back in San Salvador a few weeks prior, this could have been more terrifying than it was; but seeing as we’d spent time in León in the past, we knew we were relatively safe.

With few options aside from sleeping on the sidewalk, we began the half hour hike towards the town centre. With some luck a taxi soon pulled up and brought us to a hostel that we knew was open twenty-four hours. Upon dropping us off, the driver attempted to double charge us for the fare, but given our moods it didn’t work out well in his favour.

After deliriously checking into the hostel’s last available room, we fell onto our bed just as the sun began to rise.

The Leon Cathedral at night, a welcomed sight after the drive from El Tunco

The Leon Cathedral, a Familiar Sight

How to Get to Leon from El Tunco

Though there are other, more convoluted, ways of getting into Nicaragua from El Salvador, taking the shuttle from El Tunco to Leon is the simplest.

If you entered El Salvador from Guatemala, specifically Antigua to El Tunco, you probably took this shuttle already. This is simply the continuation. If you haven’t arrived in El Tunco yet and are planning a visit, have a look at some of our Tunco tips.

The two biggest operators of this route are Gekko Explorer and Bigfoot.

Although we chose Gekko, some of the issues we encountered were completely out of their control. That being said, a lot of them were.

Bear in mind, current political situations will always affect how these trips play out. And Central America is no stranger to these scenes. Only days before we left, due to unrest in Honduras, borders were entirely closed. Considering the more recent situation in Nicaragua, the same could happen.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The shuttle costs $25, regardless of company;
  • There is no exit fee for El Salvador;
  • Entry to Honduras is $2;
  • Some were asked to scan their hand before entering Honduras. We were not, it seemed random;
  • Leaving Honduras also was without cost;
  • Nicaragua entrance fee is $12;
  • Eat or stock up on snacks whenever you can. During our ‘supper’ stop in Honduras, the shop shelves were all but empty & only took Honduran currency;
  • It’s a good idea to let your accommodation in Leon know that you may be later than expected and to be sure they will be there to receive you;
  • Random road stops with bag checks do happen; and they are very thorough. Don’t carry anything sketchy or illegal; even locally purchased tobacco raised some intense questions.

If anything has changed from what’s listed above, please let us know so we can keep this information current.

Now, get your ass to Leon and enjoy Nicaragua!

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About the Author

Mark Stewart

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Mark is a multi-passionate creative with a fascination for getting the most out of the human experience. While he isn't chasing adventures around the globe as a travel journalist and photographer, he works as a freelance writer, private chef and web developer.

Comments 6

  1. Oh my! What a journey. I’ve often said that the worst part of traveling is the travel. Your journey sort of proves this. How frightening to be abandoned by your bus driver and girlfriend in the middle of the night in an unknown spot.

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      Haha, yeah it was interesting! Looking back now it’s good for a laugh, but we were all a little nervous at the time.

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  2. Hey we are planning to make this journey in the next few days – at least we know what to expect now! And will be taking snacks! Any recommendations for a hostel in Leon? Thanks!

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      Hey, right on! Hopefully things go much more smooth for you guys! And yes, snacks are a very good idea!

      We’ve been to Leon a few times, and the only place I remember staying that I really enjoyed is Hostal Lazybones. It’s pretty cheap and has a really great vibe. However, the biggest issue will be checking in if you arrive too late at night. Just make sure they have 24-hour check-in or that someone can be around to let you in.

      Enjoy your journey, and let us know how the drive goes!

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