Travelling by bus in South America can be a great way to get around cheaply and easily. Long distance buses in South America are usually (not always!) fairly comfortable with reclining seats and air con, and some even include drinks, snacks and films to watch. Others of course are more basic, but all are incredibly good value compared with European bus travel. However, there are some things you need to know before embarking on your journey, to help you navigate the sometimes very confusing systems, and to help you survive journeys that can be over 24 hours long when travelling around South America by bus. Here is your indispensable guide to bus travel in South America!
Bus Travel in South America: Choose your Company
Sometimes only one company covers a certain route, so your decision is easy. For more popular routes there will be several companies with buses offering seats at various prices. Do a bit of research if you can on reputation as well as price – and bear in mind that usually you get what you pay for – cheapest doesn’t usually mean best! If you are not on the strictest budget, it can be worth paying a little more money to get a little more comfort, safety and security for you and your bags.
Choosing the Time to Travel
Night buses in South America are great for budget travellers as they become your accommodation for the night, as well as your transport so you don’t have to spend money on a hostel bed. The downside to this, of course, is limited sleep depending on the route – have you ever tried to sleep when bus lurches round corners on a windy road, or crashes into potholes on a dirt track? It also limits the scenery you can see on route, as you could miss some spectacular sites as you pass by in the dark. If you have limited time though, it means you can travel overnight and not ‘waste’ a day being on a bus. There is also safety to consider – on particularly treacherous routes through mountain roads or where there is a (small) risk of hijacking, then daytime travel is best. Weigh up all these options and choose the best for you for travelling around South America by bus.
Buses in South America: Buying Your Ticket
If you are lucky, buying tickets online can be simple, and a great time saver to cut down on waiting time at the terminal. Most companies only offer purchase from their desk at the terminal, but the bigger companies, such as Cruz del Sur in Peru do have online tickets available on their app or website. Other companies may have websites but do not process payments from foreign credit cards, or require a national’s ID number to purchase tickets – I found that was the case in Brazil. Third party websites for example www.busbud.com do have tickets for sale, but bear in mind they are more expensive than buying direct at the terminal, sometimes costing up to 50% more.
Your best bet is to go directly to the terminal if you can. Ask around for companies travelling to your destination, or check the information notices at the desks, which usually display their destinations. Prices and departure times do vary, so it is useful to check at least a couple of companies before you decide which one to buy. Be prepared to wait if necessary. If you are in for a long wait you could leave your baggage for a while at the bag storage and head out to explore. Remember to ask exactly where the bus leaves from so you can come back to the right place – and be sure to be there around 30 minutes before the departure time to load up.
Choosing a Seat
Personally, I love window seats. A nice view, possible access to windows & fresh air, and less chance of sneaky hands stealing your stuff. When buying your ticket, ask the attendant if they have your preferred seat available. On some routes there are double-decker buses available, usually with the more expensive luxury seats downstairs, but no view of the road in front as the driver section is blocked off. If, like me, you prefer to see where you’re going then upstairs at the front is best. This can also be rather nerve-wracking as you can see everything the driver does – every time he overtakes on blind corners, every speed limit sign flaunted; and if there is an accident you are first in line for impact. Unfortunately, bus accidents are fairly common throughout South America, due to drunk drivers, dangerous roads and general recklessness, especially at night. That said, I didn’t have any problems on my travels during 10 months on the continent, but you never know.
Bus Travel in South America: Get Prepared
Air conditioning is a blessing and a curse. Overnight buses in South America tend to be FREEZING due to overzealous air con and temperatures set way too low. Bring a neck pillow if you have it, ear plugs, eye mask, headphones and music, and (if you like) something to read or watch. Lots of layers, including a scarf and blanket or sleeping bag, are also important to protect you from the cold! Long distance buses may offer snacks or water, but take your own to be sure. Some buses may also stop off on long journeys to allow passengers to eat – this was the case in Brazil, Paraguay and Colombia, but generally buses in Peru and Bolivia do not stop at all for a break, so be prepared. I suffer from motion sickness so taking tablets and bringing sick bags just in case is part of my preparation!
South America Bus Travel: Bathroom Breaks
Some longer distance buses will have buses on board, but should only be used for peeing as they are easily blocked. Take your own tissues or toilet paper with you, and some hand sanitizer, as they are not always the cleanest. Try to time your bathroom break with a straight section of road so you’re not flying around corners while trying to pee! Smaller buses will not have toilets on board, so when your bus stops at bus stations along the route, ask the driver how long they will be stopping for, and if you have time to use the toilet. Travelling with someone is useful here to make sure the bus doesn’t leave without you, but usually the driver will wait if he knows you’re not on board – just be as quick as you can.
In rural areas, if you have to go and there is no sign of anywhere to stop, the driver may just pull over to the side of the road so you can relieve yourself. This is easier for men of course, but sometimes ladies when you gotta go, you gotta go! If you have a dodgy stomach, taking some Immodium before you travel is a good idea to avoid emergency stops along the way!
Travelling by Bus in South America: Looking After Your Baggage
Unfortunately, baggage theft isn’t uncommon on buses. I heard stories of bags going missing from the hold, bags being rifled through, and clothes being stolen. Don’t leave anything too valuable in your big bag that you are going to put in the hold. But it’s also a good idea to not keep everything in your small bag in case that goes missing! I had a spare credit card shoved in the middle of my big rucksack, and some spare cash hidden in there too – NOT in easily accessible pockets or at the top. Ask for a ticket for the bag so you can claim it back at the end of the journey – sometimes they are given automatically, sometimes not. In Northern Argentina (I’m not sure about the rest of the country) it is common practice to tip the baggage handlers, perhaps a note of 2 or 5 pesos. If you don’t have the cash ready they will wait for you to find some!
Bus Travel in South America: On Board
If you have anything valuable in your hand luggage bag DO NOT put it up on the baggage racks. Theft on buses is frustratingly common, especially in Ecuador, where bus travel is very cheap, and no ID is needed to buy a ticket. Keep your bag on your lap at all times, not even on the floor between your legs, as thieves are surprisingly good at opening bags and removing cameras, wallets, ipads etc without you feeling a thing. If you are on a night bus, the same applies. I suggest covering yourself & your bag with a blanket or coat, and tying or locking the zips with a padlock to stop bags being opened without you noticing. You could even clip your bag to yourself for an added step. If you go to the toilet on board, ask someone to keep an eye on your bag, and take valuables with you.
Bus Travel in South America: Getting Off
Usually, the buses will pull into the terminal at your destination. If you are getting off at a town on the way then check with the driver where to get off, and bear in mind that they may not go into the terminal, perhaps just stopping off on the main road to drop off passengers. Don’t forget your bag from the hold! It is a good idea to know where you are going when you arrive, especially if it is late at night. Often there are taxis waiting for buses to arrive if you are worried or need a ride to your hostel.
South America By Bus: Crossing Borders
When it comes to crossing borders in South America, check if the bus you are on will cross the border, and wait while you get your passport stamped at both border gates. Sometimes, locals don’t bother to get stamped each time they cross, especially if they are just going to do some shopping in the next town. However, you will get into big trouble if you forget to stamp your passport at the border. Often, buses will stop just before the border, so you can walk across, get both stamps, and hop onto another bus or collectivo at the other side. Occasionally you might have to take a taxi to the nearest town to get an onward bus.
Travelling by Bus in South America: Guided Buses
On some key tourist routes, there are guided bus services which are more expensive than the public buses, but can ease your mind if you are nervous about bus travel in South America. Peru Hop runs buses from Lima to Cusco (and vice versa), and its sister site Bolivia Hop runs adjoining buses that continue to La Paz in Bolivia. I used Peru Hop when I first arrived in South America and loved it, but when I became more confident I was happy to jump on the public buses.
I hope you find this guide useful. I heard many horror stories while travelling, but I managed 10 months and 8 countries without any problems, so use this guide to help you through! Were you travelling by bus in South America? Did you travel safely or did you have any issues? I’d love to hear your stories!
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