Okay, I’ve taken enough buses by this point that I now feel qualified to write about them. Welcome, my friends, to today’s post on bus rides and border crossings!! (woohoo!)
Here’s what you have to understand first: South America is a gigantic continent. The fastest way to get around is to fly, but unlike Europe, flights between countries can be prohibitively expensive (perk: flights within countries are often much more affordable). You would think that the train would be the next best way to travel, but trains throughout the continent have a reputation for breaking down frequently. Going by train can sometimes take twice or three times as long as advertised if there are technical problems along the way. So, the cheapest and most popular way to get around is by bus.
In an effort to be scientific about this whole thing, I’ve traveled with a number of different bus companies: El Rapido, Rutas del Sol, Flechabus and Pullman Bus, to name a few.
Generally speaking, it doesn’t really seem to matter which bus company you travel with since they offer many of the same amenities. Most buses, in Chile and Argentina at least, are double decker. On longer bus rides you have the option for a semi-cama or full cama seat. Full camas are the most expensive and are supposed to recline a full 180 degrees, while semi-camas are cheaper but recline only partway. Buses will usually make some stop for snacks and give you some complimentary food along the way. In Chile and Argentina this food was almost always an alfajore or other sugary biscuits, a ham and cheese sandwich and sweetened coffee. No bus I’ve been on has had power outlets and the only buses with reliable Wi-Fi were Rutas del Sol in Uruguay and La Reina in Colombia.
Be wary of baggage handlers. Many people who work at bus stations will ask for a tip in exchange for taking your bag off a bus. One man in Bolivia literally stood in front of the baggage compartment with his hand outstretched yelling “TIP! TIP!” and wouldn’t give you your bag until you handed over a bit of change. In Colombia a man grabbed my backpack from the trunk of my taxi and started power walking toward a bus I was thinking about taking. I literally had to run, stand in front of him and demand my bag back. If I let him carry it to the bus, I would be obligated to give him a propina. It’s always good to make sure you have a few small bills or coins on you in case you find yourself in this situation.
Every bus I took in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay – plus a couple in Colombia – played at least one film during the journey. You can plug in headphones to drown it out, but most of the time the movies are loud enough that it’s difficult to ignore them. This is particularly true since the majority of movies they seem to play are often violent action films, despite the fact that there are almost always young children on board.
The only long bus I’ve been on that didn’t show a film was in Bolivia. Here, many of the rules changed. We listened to Bolivian music for the duration of the ride. There was apparently WiFi on board, but you had to pay extra for it. Although I was picked up at a terminal (and had to pay an additional fee for using it) people seemed to be able to board from a number of (to my untrained eye) unmarked locations throughout various cities. Bolivians also seem to have more flexible driving rules than drivers in Chile and Argentina. If they can’t see another car heading in the opposite direction, Bolivian buses will often drive on both sides of the road, particularly around corners. This standard was also followed by my Peruvian collectivo driver on the way back from Machu Picchu. He would flash his brights at other cars to let them know he was going to pass and then try to whip around them, no matter if it was a solid yellow line on the road or a tight corner on a darkened mountainside. I just felt thankful I wasn’t on the very narrow Death Road in Bolivia that was once a two-way thoroughfare. Can you guess how it got its name?
I feel like I’m making this sound worse than it is. The truth is that most of the time you won’t find yourself in an accident. What is common are delays and various inconveniences. A guy I met once rushed across town to a second bus station he didn’t know existed only to find his bus was two hours late. A group of friends traveling from Sucre to Cochabamba, Bolivia hit a road closure in the middle of the night and had to hike with their backpacks at 2am for over an hour to get to a bus waiting on the other side. Near the beginning of my trip, rain caused a bridge to collapse, delaying all travel by several hours in both directions.
Border crossings can also be a bit of a pain. I think for every country here you need both an exit and an entry stamp. This often means having to go into two separate lines for every border crossing: one to get your exit stamp and a separate one to get your entry stamp (and visa, if required). A small slip of paper is often the only documentation of your right to be in the country. If you lose that paper, it’s a big and occasionally expensive hassle to replace it (I always keep mine in my passport for safekeeping).
Generally, I prefer taking overnight buses because it means not wasting a travel day. But I would suggest a day bus if you’re planning to cross a border. More people work border crossings during the day, you don’t have to worry about shivering outside in the middle of the night waiting to get your passport stamped, and sometimes you get to see some beautiful sights. On the bus journey from Salta, Argentina to San Pedro, Chile, for example, you pass by these spectacular multi-coloured mountains towering over small, picturesque towns. As long as you’re prepared for the occasional delay and don’t mind being seated for several hours at a time, buses are an inexpensive way to cross this continent while giving you a sample of its natural landscape.
One last company I should mention before I finish this post is Bolivia/Peru Hop. The Hop franchise is run by two Irishmen and an Englishman based in South America. The goal of the company is to provide safe, flexible and fun transportation around Bolivia and Peru (though they’re hoping to expand soon) in the form of a hop-on, hop-off bus service. You can book one of their routes though a country and change the length of your stay as you go without having to worry about booking additional tickets or paying to change a ticket you’ve already booked. They are quite a bit more expensive than taking locally-run buses, but you’re guaranteed English-speaking guides and English-language films, duvet blankets, stops for lunch or dinner at actual restaurants on longer journeys, drop off/pick up at your hostel, and a number of discounts or included tours with their partner companies. As a fairly recent operation, they still have some bugs to work out (the company was only founded in 2013) but it’s a great new way to travel around if you have a little extra cash to spare for the cost of convenience and flexibility.