There are quite a few ways to get from El Salvador to Nicaragua. The cheapest, and the slowest, is to take multiple chicken buses, first to the border of El Salvador and Honduras, then across the southern tip of Honduras to the border with Nicaragua, and then from the Nicaraguan border to your destination. You do meet people who have done this, and it's... well, it's an experience. We even met someone who witnessed one of the Nicaragua-bound chicken buses roll off the road, as it had so much luggage on the roof that it couldn't cope with the way the driver was throwing it around the road. Miraculously nobody died, but we chose not to go by chicken bus.
You can also take the slightly more luxurious pullman bus service, which at least keeps the same bus all the way into Nicaragua. It also squeezes fewer people into the vehicle, and even fewer chickens. But there are plenty of stories of pullman buses being held up at the Honduran borders for three hours or more, as immigration officials check every single passport in bureaucratic detail, just to make the point that they're in charge. We chose not to go by pullman bus.
There's also a handy tourist shuttle that goes from Playa El Tunco to León in ten hours straight, and because it's a smaller shuttle bus, it's reasonably quick and provides a door-to-door service. This is the most popular approach and we could have picked it up at Playa Esteron, but it does mean being stuck in a small bus with a bunch of school-age backpackers for an entire day, which is something that, frankly, we could do without at our age. We chose not to go by tourist shuttle.
Luckily there is an another route that skips Honduras altogether. It avoids buses and shuttles, it takes you off the well-worn backpacker trail, it has wonderful views all the way, it's quicker, and I can't recommend it enough: it's the boat from La Unión in eastern El Salvador to Potosí in western Nicaragua, crossing via the picturesque Golfo de Fonseca. We chose to go this way, and what a good idea that turned out to be.
Across the Great Divide
Frankly, I'm surprised that this isn't the most popular way of getting into Nicaragua, though I suspect that it's because the Lonely Planet implies that it's a relatively unreliable route and isn't the cheapest method. True, your plans can be scuppered by bad weather, but it's not that expensive for what you get; La Tortuga Verde in Playa Esteron provides a complete service from the hotel to the launch, and the more people there are, the cheaper it gets. There were four other people who were interested in taking the boat – Neil and Bronwyn, a friendly couple from Australia whose company we'd very much enjoyed at the hotel, and a couple of quiet Scottish girls – so the price dropped to US$65 per person, which we thought compared pretty favourably with the US$45 per person price of the tourist shuttle. This would get us all the way to Potosí, from where we'd probably have to take a couple of chicken buses to get to León, our destination for the day.
It couldn't have been easier. The hardest part was getting up at 6am, because the winds were playing up and they wanted us to get an early start on the crossing. We'd met a couple from Manchester who had come the other way, and they'd been holed up in Potosí for a couple of days as the port had been shut while strong winds ravaged the gulf, but part of the Tortuga Verde deal is that if the boat is delayed, you get to stay in the hotel for free until it goes, so we weren't too worried. In the end everything went swimmingly.
The hotel's pickup took us to the sweltering port of La Unión, where we went through immigration and grabbed our last pupusas for the foreseeable future, and a few minutes later we wandered down to the end of the pier and hopped on the launch. We'd heard that you have to wade through disgusting sewage-packed mud to get to the boat – so the advice is to pay someone to carry you across for a dollar – but the tide must have been in as the boat came all the way to the dock. For the first time ever in Central America, the crew made us wear lifejackets, and with a flick of the rudder we turned and headed southeast, towards a horizon studded with distant volcanoes and the pure blue of a cloudless sky.
The first half of the trip was delightful. Neil had been worried about taking the boat as he gets terribly seasick, but the water was as flat as a pupusa and the islands of the gulf slipped by smoothly. To our left was Honduras, to our right El Salvador, and ahead Nicaragua, and we passed small fishing launches, tiny villages, pelicans flying low above the waves, and at one point a friendly dolphin who swam past and flashed his dorsal fin at us in the sparkling sunlight. It was quite dreamy, and Neil was coping fine.
It was a different story when we reached the Nicaraguan mainland about an hour-and-a-half into the two-and-a-half hour crossing. We skirted the northeastern coast of the Cosigüina Peninsula to reach Potosí, and because the wind was also coming from the northeast, we had to sail across a proper surfing swell. The captain killed the speed before he killed us, and we lurched from side to side like schoolchildren in a fairground ride while I stared at the horizon and Neil relied on the travel sickness pills he'd taken before we left. In the end we both survived fine, but we did get soaked by the salty spray of the Golfo de Fonseca, and it was pretty tiring holding on for such a long time as we rode the bucking bronco into Nicaragua.
At last the pier at Potosí came into view, though as it's a huge affair that towers from the beach and is only suitable for large ships, we had to pull up onto the beach. The pier was crowded with a group of tourists, but this didn't faze the crew, who were clearly experts at parking the boat in choppy surf; it didn't take them long to drop anchor out in the surf and to back the boat up onto the beach, where we jumped off into the sand, grabbed our bags and walked upto the dusty and bedraggled immigration office. We got our passports stamped, paid the visa fee, and discovered that the group of tourists on the pier were waiting to take the same boat back the other way... and what do you know, they'd arrived by tourist shuttle, and that shuttle was sitting there, empty and about to head back to León.
So we negotiated a good price for a direct lift to León – US$7 per person – and settled back in comfortable air-conditioning with soft seats and an entire seat row each. For a mere US$27 extra per person, we'd managed to trade ten hours of tourist-shuttle hell with two hectic border crossings, for a beautiful boat trip with one sleepy border crossing and a spacious León-bound shuttle all to ourselves. We did indeed choose well; what a great way to arrive in a brand new country.