When I took a look at the journey James and I had to make from El Salvador to Nicaragua to visit the many adventures I had planned there, my heart dropped. Getting from one to the other was going to entail two border crossings and a solid 12 hours on a coach. I didn’t want to do that to myself, let alone James, who only had a limited time travelling. So, I decided to plan our route from El Tunco in El Salvador to Leon in Nicaragua by boat.
It made sense to me that the trip should be possible. I had previously travelled from Belize to Honduras in the same fashion, and the similar shapes in the land, with the wide stretch of the Gulf, just screamed private ferry. After some asking around and deep-dive research, I found the guy I wanted. His trip was just as cheap as the coach and only took around an hour or so to cross the famously beautiful Gulf of Fonseca.
In a Nutshell
You will need:
- ~$20 for immigration, taxis, and food (More if you plan to stay the night in La Union)
- Food for at least one lunch on the road
- 4 copies of your passport
- The immigration form for Nicaragua filled in and emailed to email@example.com
The Route from El Tunco, El Salvador to Leon, Nicaragua by Boat and Bus
- Colectivo 102-A to Terminal Nuevo Amanecer, San Salvador – $3, alternatively get a taxi for $30
- Coach 304 to La Union – 5$
- Stay at Alojamientos Santa Marta. 15$ a night +503 7641 7005
- 7 AM at the migration office with four copies of your passport and the immigration forms filled and emailed
- 8 AM on the boat. Captain Mario +503 7282 4362 – $50
- Arrive by 10 AM in Potosí and go through immigration – $10 – $20 cash
- Wait until 1 PM for the bus to Chinandega – $0.80
- Taxi to Mercado el Bisne $1 per person
- Colectivo bus to Leon – 0.80$
Total: $60 + $10 for immigration
Finding a Boat
The first thing I did was contact a captain. I had found other package deals online, but they were charging extortionate prices, and I knew I could get the cost right down if I did the research myself. Travelling from El Salvador to Nicaragua by boat was going to take some logistics, but I knew it was possible. I found a number through a friend for a boat that travelled between the two countries. Unlike other companies, this boat between El Salvador and Nicaragua goes on Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. Many of the others only leave for two days. I dropped a message to Captain Mario on +503 7282 4362 and asked about the trip. Mario can also be found on Facebook here, but I would recommend contacting him through WhatsApp.
He offered four dates leaving from La Union in El Salvador and arriving in Potosi in Nicaragua. The price for the trip across the Gulf came to $50 per person. He also offered to pick us up from El Tunco and drop us in Leon for $85, but as great a deal as that was, I had other plans. If you are looking for a stress-free journey from El Tunco to Leon by boat, I can’t recommend this service highly enough. Mario was a fantastic contact to have and supplied us with all the information we needed. He is also very happy to take dogs!
Our captain supplied us with all the forms we needed to fill out, of which there are many, and let us know exactly where to go to the immigration office. He told us what fees to expect on the way into Nicaragua and what to bring. He also put us in contact with a wonderful Bed and Breakfast host who lived right by the office we would need to be at in the morning.
El Tunco to La Union
I didn’t want to do the whole journey in a day. James and I, along with a few friends, planned to head to La Union and make the most of the beautiful Volcan de Conchagua just outside of the city. We were able to get a coach there and camp on the mountainside with a huge group of El Salvadorians, watching the sunset and then rise again over the Gulf of Fonseca. Together, we drank, chatted, and sang the night away, but that is a story for another post.
We got to La Union from El Tunco via chicken bus, or colectivo and coach. We picked up the first bus from the road leading out of El Tunco and onto the main road, this first leg took us to San Salvador. The coordinates for the El Tunco stop are here. The bus we needed was the 102-A and should only cost around $3 with luggage. However, it is known not to pick up big groups with large bags, especially if it is busy. Failing this, get yourself a taxi and have it drop you at Terminal Nuevo Amanecer, which is where the coach to La Union leaves from.
The taxi can be called via Uber or hailed from the road. The taxi from El Tunco to San Salvador coach station should only come to around $30. The Colectivo should also drop you near the coach station. Both of these journeys take around an hour, with the taxi being slightly quicker.
Be aware Terminal Occidente no longer exists, and no busses leave from there. There is a little old info out there, so don’t make the same mistake we almost did.
Once we got to Terminal Nuevo Amanecer in San Salvador, our next coach to La Union was already waiting. It was easy to spot in the medium-sized terminal. There were plenty of places to grab food and snacks for the journey in the terminal itself, so we loaded up with pupusas and coffee. We hopped on board the rather luxurious 304 to La Union and settled down for the 4-hour ride. The coach goes regularly throughout the day, beginning at 4.30 AM and ending at 4.03 PM. It should only cost you $5, even with your bags.
Staying in La Union
Mario, our boat captain from El Salvador to Nicaragua, actually helped us find a place to stay for the night before we sailed. We had to be at the immigration office at 7 AM, so staying in the small city the night before was a no-brainer. We also needed a night to recover from our wild, night-long party on Volcan de Conchagua. Mario put us in contact with Hostal Santa Martha, run by a friend of his and a friend of ours by the end of our stay.
She charges $15 for a room with a fan or $30 for a room with A/C. Her accommodation is right by the office, and it’s cheap and cheerful. It has a full kitchen upstairs and is right by all the amenities and usual restaurants of a small El Salvadorian city. You can contact the host at +503 7641 7004 or alternatively use the link above to find her on Booking.com.
We spent the evening recuperating from our previous night’s festivities and popping down to the Familia Park, built out into the Gulf, for dinner. At 6 AM the next day, we were up and ready to make the journey across the Gulf from El Salvador to Potosi in Nicaragua.
Necessary Documents to Leave El Salvador and Enter Nicaragua
- Be aware you must fill in your forms at least 24 hours before departing from El Salvador. The immigration will find a reason to charge more once you get to Nicaragua, don’t give them an excuse. You can find the PDF you need to fill in for your immigration to Nicaragua here. Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org
- You will also need 4 copies of your passport to leave El Salvador and enter Nicaragua. You can scan and print these with the hostel.
- Expect to pay between $10 and $20 cash dollars on entering Nicaragua. If they try to charge more than $10 dollars you can argue them down if you have the patience.
The Journey Across the Gulf
We found the immigration office easily enough. You can find it marked here on the map. If you haven’t managed to get anything to eat before leaving the hostel, there are plenty of typical El Salvadorian food spots just in front. You should have plenty of time to grab something as they process your documents. Once everything was in order, we headed down to the dock. We left at around 8.30 AM.
The view is stunning. The whole gulf, with its enormous volcanic islands, opens up as you head towards the small boat. We embarked, climbing down onto the boat and picking our seats from the 25 or so available. The boat is small, but they have a dry space in which they pack all our bags and a roof to keep the worst of the sun off.
Without waxing lyrical about how beautiful the journey was, I’ll keep it brief. We blasted across the water. The view was absolutely stunning, the fresh morning air coming off the sea was refreshing, and the sea itself was remarkably smooth. Within about 1 hour and 45 minutes, we had covered the whole distance, and I must say, we were all feeling rather smug knowing we hadn’t had to do two borders and 12 hours on a coach between El Salvador and Nicaragua. We arrived in Nicaragua at 10 AM.
Eventually, we pulled onto the coast of Nicaragua in a rather novel way. Instead of docking into a real jetty, the boat rode up onto the shore. The captain and some waiting help waded into the beautiful warm water and started unloading our bags onto the concrete just beyond the shore. James and I jumped out into the surf to give them a hand and ended up piggybacking our two friends to dry land. Once everyone was off, we headed to our waiting luggage and got ready for immigration.
Immigration in Potosi Nicaragua
We stood by our bags along the concrete dock, waiting for the immigration patrol to arrive. After about 5 minutes, they rocked up, two to a small motorcycle. The checks consisted of some curious rummaging through our open bags, inspecting for who knows what. There was no dog this time, and when they found my kitchen knives, there were no qualms. The first stage was over, and it was onto the actual immigration building further inland.
It was a short five-minute walk to the military-looking concrete building. Do not expect anything impressive in Potosi, the whole immigration area is an absolute dive. The toilets in what seems to be an abandoned train station look like something from a horror movie, and I would recommend simply bringing wet wipes and choosing somewhere in the surrounding woods. Toilets aside, though, the peaceful, if not somewhat dilapidated, area is quite cute, with a few goats and horses milling around.
As I mentioned before, they will try to extort as much money as they can from you as you enter the country. Our wonderful French friend took none of it and halved the amount they tried to charge on the way in. It came to $10 per person and should cost no more. They will huff and puff, but stand your ground. They’re not going to send you back on a boat… I hope.
Once immigration was done, it was just a case of sitting around and waiting for the chicken bus to take us to Chinandega, where we would then travel onwards to Leon. The bus showed up around 1 PM. We had made it from El Salvador to Nicaragua successfully by boat.
Potosi to Leon
At 1 PM, we boarded a typical chicken bus to Chinandega, the nearest city to Potosi in Nicaragua. It cost around $0.80 and took about 2.5 Hours. On the other side, we arrived in a bustling city full of sounds, smells, and a million cars.
To get to the next bus to Leon, we jumped in a taxi to Mercado el Bisne, which cost a dollar for the three of us. we explained to the taxi driver we wanted a bus to Leon, and he drove us right up to the Colectivo we needed and helped us load our bags on board. As soon as the colectivo filled, and it most certainly did fill, we were on our way. The whole hour-long journey to Leon, with all our bags, cost $0.80 each.
The bus dropped us at the market just outside of the center of Leon. The city is small, but after the day we had enjoyed, we just hopped straight in a taxi to our hostel. The day had been a wonderful adventure that outstripped riding a day-long bus by miles. Every leg of the journey had been an adventure full of sights, flavours, smells, and hilarious experiences. I had my doubts about the whole trip being too complex and long-winded, but everything flowed together beautifully, and it sits as a highlight of my trip with James. Travelling from El Salvador to Nicaragua by boat was the best decision I think I made, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.