If you’re traveling through Central America then you may be wondering how the heck do you get from Nicaragua to El Salvador? I know that I had this question when Dan and I were planning our backpacking route.
There actually is NO Nicaragua to El Salvador border. That’s right, El Salvador and Nicaragua do not share a border. To get to El Salvador from Nicaragua, you have to either cross through Honduras first, or take a boat.
I recently completed this triple-country border crossing and it went smoothly… In fact, I am typing this out to the sounds of the ocean in El Salvador. To learn more about Central America’s most complex border, read my full guide below!
NOTE | I completed this border crossing in January 2023, and will do my best to keep this article updated. If you find this guide helpful, please comment below with any changes or updates! Together, we can help future travelers navigate the journey from Nicaragua to El Salvador safely.
Check out my other border crossing guides…
Sailing the San Blas Islands to Cross From Colombia to Panama (Coming Soon!)
Why Travel From Nicaragua to El Salvador (Should You Skip Honduras)?
Before we get to the rest of this border crossing guide, I want to address WHY we traveled from Nicaragua to El Salvador, and didn’t spend time in Honduras.
Spoiler: I DON’T think you should skip Honduras! Just go there later 🙂
Nicaragua’s northern border shares Honduras’ southern border. It’s actually possible to take a direct Tica Bus from Managua, Nicaragua straight through to Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
The problem is that not only is Honduras the most dangerous country in Central America, but Tegucigalpa is one of the more dangerous cities in Honduras. In fact, the entire southern region of Honduras is not recommended for tourists.
Compared to most travelers, I enjoy going off the beaten path (that’s how we visited Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast!). However in the case of this region of Honduras, I felt that “off the beaten path” equated a little too closely with “stupid and dangerous decision.”
When Dan and I pinned all the spots we wanted to visit in Honduras, they were all in the north. And so, we made a plan to visit Honduras after our time in Guatemala, instead. However the issue still remained that we needed to pass through southern Honduras to get to El Salvador!
How to Get From Nicaragua to El Salvador?
There are a few different ways to travel from Nicaragua to El Salvador. These include independently, a shuttle, or a boat.
If you are, dare I say, a little bit reckless, you can complete these two border crossings independently. You will need to cross Nicaragua-Honduras at Gausale, and cross Honduras-El Salvador at El Amatillo.
To travel within Honduras, you need to take route CA-3 to CA-1, which is very dangerous at night due to armed robberies and gang activity. According to traveler reports, there are shared mini buses for the road between the two borders.
It is possible to take a shared shuttle from Leon, Nicaragua to your destination in El Salvador (probably El Tunco), and in my opinion this is the best value for your money and time.
These shuttles depart daily from Leon at 3:30am in order to get you through with maximum daylight for safety. The drivers are experienced and assist with both border crossings.
There are a few different shuttle companies of varying reliability – I share our experience with one company below.
Alternatively, go by sea across the Golfo de Fonseca! Gekko Explorer currently offers transport from Leon or Chinandega, Nicaragua to Cuco Beach and other destinations in El Salvador. This is only offered two days a week and costs $65 per person, which is a little steep compared to other options.
This is the ONLY option in which you don’t have to cross through Honduras.
Dan and I briefly considered traveling by boat from Nicaragua to Honduras. However, having had some very bumpy and uncomfortable panga rides along Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, we took it as a sign to forgo boats for a while – at 2.5 hours at sea, this is bound to be a rough one.
Additionally, it is more expensive, more remote, and with less frequent availability than the shuttle option.
Travel From Nicaragua to El Salvador: Shuttle vs. Independently
Now, I’m normally ALL for the independent option. Dan and I have crossed every single border in our Latin America travels independently on buses, collectivos, taxis, walking, etc. And we plan to continue crossing every border in Central America independently… except for this one.
Together, we made the decision to take a shuttle from Nicaragua to El Salvador.
This is why we chose a shuttle over independent travel:
- Safety: Shuttle is by far the safest option. And it’s not just for gringos – even Nicaraguans and Salvadoreans travel this route by shuttle.
- Relative affordability: The shuttle cost us $45 (+$10 border fee) per person. That’s more expensive but still relatively on par with other borders we’ve crossed in the region. And it’s hard to put a price on safety.
- Speed: The shuttle is much faster and more efficient. We were a little pressed for time and didn’t want to spend 2+ days struggling through two borders. Instead, we arrived in El Tunco, El Salvador at 3:45pm… which gave us time to check into our accommodation, watch sunset on the beach, and dig into our first pupusas all in the same day!
If you prefer to travel these borders independently, I would encourage you to do your research on current news, go with a buddy, and MOST IMPORTANTLY give yourself plenty of daylight so you are nowhere near the border or southern Honduras during the night.
For more details on independently traveling this route, this is an old but good guide for traveling independently in the opposite direction (El Salvador to Nicaragua).
Choosing a Nicaragua to El Salvador Shuttle Company
There are a few different companies that offer shuttles from Nicaragua to El Salvador.
We chose to go with Roneey Shuttle (yes, that’s really how it’s spelled, and no, this wasn’t sponsored at all). Why? Well, they were $5 cheaper than the competition…
Gekko Explorer is the other main shuttle company option but they charge $50 to Roneey Shuttle’s $45.
Bigfoot Hostel also operates a shuttle from Leon to El Tunco, and charges $45. (Bigfoot is the popular hostel in Leon that originated volcano boarding).
All three companies run the route daily from Leon. Both Roneey and Gekko depart at 3:30am, and Bigfoot at 2:30am. They all have their share of both scathing and positive reviews.
A Note on Departure Times
Previously, some shuttle companies left Leon in the early evening, which meant you’d be traveling in Honduras at the worst possible time: the middle of the night.
It seems that these days, all departures are 2:30-3:30am (ensuring you get to the first border around sunrise).
I know it’s an early wakeup call, but it’s safer that way, so be sure to choose a company with that departure time. A company that leaves at, say, 8pm should raise major red flags.
Nicaragua to El Salvador Border Crossing: Required Documents
If you choose to go with a shuttle company, they will help you a bit with the documentation and paperwork. Still, though, there are some things you need to have with you and be prepared for.
These travel requirements include:
- Your Nicaragua tourist card: Remember that little white paper they gave you when you entered Nicaragua? That nobody told you needed to be kept safe and secure if you wanted to leave the country without a fine? Yeah, me neither. Luckily, I found my Nicaragua tourist card tucked at the back of my passport. You need to show this when you exit Nicaragua, or you’re subject to undisclosed fines (at the discretion of your immigration officer – I was told this is often $20+++).
- Completed Honduras Pre-Check Form: To enter Honduras, you need to provide a completed “pre-check” form. Here is the official link to fill it out online. Roneey shuttle provided the forms for us when we got to the border, so we didn’t have to worry about this at all. If you’re traveling independently, you’ll need to come prepared with it.
- Exact Cash in USD: Both borders have fees and only take USD payment in exact change. You need $10 for the Nicaragua-Honduras border and $3 for the Honduras-El Salvador border. Roneey shuttle actually provided the $3 fee for us, included in the price we paid. Nice!
- Six-months passport validity: It’s always good to have a minimum of six months of passport validity and at least two empty passport pages before you cross any international border. Some countries turn you away without this.
- Check entry requirements: It’s different for every nationality, so check on your government website. Note that, like Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador are part of the CA-4 visa agreement, meaning you have 90 days to be in any of these countries (plus Guatemala).
- Check health requirements: As you probably know, things are constantly changing regarding COVID-19 travel rules and you should check your country’s embassy page for the most up-to-date information. Don’t trust a travel blogger on that 😉
Below, I’m sharing exactly how our border crossing experience went on the long, long day from Nicaragua to El Salvador!
Nicaragua to El Salvador Border Crossing by Shuttle: Our Experience
1. Buy the Shuttle Ticket
First thing’s first: you need to buy your shuttle ticket in advance. Each of the shuttle companies I mentioned above let you book your shuttle online ahead of time.
However, if you’re going to be in Leon for a few days then I recommend booking your shuttle in person. This is what we did at Roneey Shuttle’s office, which is just two doors down from the popular ViaVia Hostel and nearby Kiss Me Ice Cream.
By booking your shuttle in person, you avoid paying any extra PayPal fees. You do have to pay in cash, but there is a BAC ATM nearby.
Cost: $45 USD per person
2. Pick Up at Accommodation in Leon, Nicaragua
Border crossing day rolled around and our alarm was set for 3am. We were told to be ready for pickup any time between 3:15-3:45am.
At 3:41am, we got a knock on the door. The shuttle had arrived! After piling our big backpacks onto the roof of the van, we climbed into the shuttle.
We were surprised that we were only the second couple in the van. Turns out, the driver was already running late. We spent the next half an hour driving a convoluted route across Leon, picking people up until the van was full.
Around 4:15am, it was finally time to leave Leon!
Time: 1 hour
3. Drive to Nicaragua – Honduras Border at Gausale
We left Leon at 4:15am and sped off into the darkness. And I mean sped. Our shuttle’s odometer clocked about 150km/h (~93 mph).
Well, at least that’s what Dan told me… I was passed out! Give me my favorite eye mask and a little dramamine and I’m out like a light. And that’s the nice thing about traveling this route by shuttle… you can actually fall asleep without being worried!
Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
4. Exit Nicaragua
We arrived to Gausale, the Nicaragua-Honduras border, around 5:30am.
At this point, our driver passed us all the Honduras Pre-Check form to fill out, which I did very groggily.
We then all gave our driver our passports plus our Nicaragua tourist cards (the little white paper that they gave you when you entered Nicaragua… yes, you were expected to keep that… yes, probably nobody bothered to mention that).
Quite a few people struggled to find their Nicaragua tourist cards. One couple only had one tourist card between them and the border agents decided not to charge them a fee. They got lucky, but again, it’s up to the agent’s discretion so come prepared with extra cash if you can’t find your card.
Our driver left with our passports and cards, and came back about 10 minutes later. We then had to pay the $10 USD border fee to leave Nicaragua.
Cost: $10 USD
Time: 15 minutes
5. Enter Honduras
We then drove a couple minutes across “no man’s land” until we reached the Honduras immigration building. All of us piled out of the van and into the building where we would enter Honduras.
First, we had to do a “temperature check” on the left-hand side of the entryway. I put that in quotations because they didn’t even take our temperature… they just wrote a normal temperature on a piece of paper and handed it to us. Yikes.
Then, we had to wait in line on the right-hand side to get our passports and vaccine cards checked, as well as get our fingerprints taken. Once at the border agent we also had to pay a $3 USD Honduras entry tax but the driver provided this money to us in exact change, which he said was included in our shuttle fee, which was nice!
This whole process took ages. I checked my watch and we arrived at the building at 5:45am and left at 8:15am… that’s 2.5 hours!
That the downside of traveling in a shuttle – you have to wait for everyone in your party to be processed. According to our driver, entering Honduras always takes a long time and is the longest wait of the day.
While you’re waiting, this is a good time to change any remaining Nicaraguan Cordobas into USD (the currency used in El Salvador). There were plenty of people at the border willing to take our NIO in exchange for USD and shockingly they gave us an extremely good rate – 36.9.
Cost: $3 USD
Time: 2.5 hours
6. Drive to Honduras – El Salvador Border at El Amatillo
We (finally) left the Honduras border at 8:15am. This portion of the drive is supposed to be the least safe, however that’s mostly for travel at night. It was full on daylight at this point so we were good to go 🙂
The drive was relatively uneventful. We switched our driver around 10am which went smoothly, and I caught some sleep the rest of the time!
Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
7. Exit Honduras
After just over two hours cruising through southern Honduras, we arrived to the El Amatillo border around 10:30am.
Our first step was to exit Honduras. We all (once again) piled out of the shuttle and went into the Honduras immigration office. We showed our passports, took fingerprints again, and had our entry stamps checked.
The agent didn’t ask me any questions, and we were all out of there in about 20 minutes!
Time: 20 minutes
8. Enter El Salvador
Next, we drove across the “no man’s land” bridge (it was quite pretty) to enter El Salvador!
This time, we didn’t have to get out of the shuttle. A Salvadorean immigration officer came out to our shuttle and checked our passports there. He wrote down our passport numbers, stamped our passports, and then we were good to go!
Time: 10 minutes
9. Drive to El Tunco, El Salvador
By 11am, we had officially entered El Salvador! I’d say that’s a productive morning. All we had to do next was sit back and relax as we drove the length of El Salvador up toward El Tunco, on the coast.
The drive took 4 hours 45 minutes and we arrived to El Tunco around 3:45pm. That’s including one 30 minute gas station break (for bathrooms and snacks) and a bit of traffic along the way.
Dan and I jumped out of the shuttle near our accommodation, and waved goodbye to our shuttle companions, who were all heading on toward Antigua, Guatemala.
Honestly, I think they all got one look at the beautiful ocean in El Salvador and wished they were getting off there, too. And that’s why you don’t skip El Salvador, kids!
Time: 4 hours 45 minutes
Onward Travel Within El Salvador
So, you’ve made it to El Salvador! What’s next?
If you took a shuttle like we did, chances are you arrived in El Tunco. This beachy surf town is the most tourist-visited place in El Salvador. For good reason!
When we first arrived, it was a bit too popular for my liking. However, El Tunco grew on me. It is a great place to base yourself for day trips in El Salvador, like the Santa Ana volcano hike, famous rainbow slide, or Conchagua Volcano hike – especially if you want to avoid staying in bigger cities like Santa Ana or San Salvador.
El Zonte is a smaller, quieter, and more chilled alternative to El Tunco. Your shuttle can easily drop you off here, or you can take any bus heading west from El Tunco (they’re about 15 minutes apart).
Other destinations in El Salvador include:
- Ruta de las Flores
- El Cuco
For more onward travel plans, Rome2Rio is my go-to free tool to figure out travel routes.
Nicaragua to El Salvador Border Crossing Overview
Everyone’s border crossing experience will be different. Ours is based on taking a shuttle from Leon, Nicaragua to El Tunco, El Salvador.
Total time: 12 hours
Total cost: $55 USD per person
I hope that this guide is helpful when planning your own journey from Nicaragua to El Salvador! We put a lot of research and thought into our decision to take a shuttle, and for us it was 100% the right choice.
As a backpacker, there is a certain “pride” when it comes to taking the most independent, cheapest possible route available. But in the case of this border, I felt I was succumbing to pride rather than sensibility and safety.
In choosing to take a shuttle, I may have spent more money but I got there quickly and safely (and ultimately if you do this border independently you’ll have to pay for an extra night’s accommodation so the prices may rack up similarly!).
If you find this guide helpful for your own border crossing journey, I’d really appreciate it if you leave a comment below. Let me know how your trip went, and any updates or changes from what I’ve written here. I will keep this blog post updated so it remains useful for all of us!