Bus Travel in South America: Your Guide to Buses in South America
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!
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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 as 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!
If you’re looking for travel insurance for your trip to South America, get a quote now from World Nomads.
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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Bus Travel | South America
Traveling South America by bus is one of the cheapest, most convenient and [sometimes] comfiest ways to get around. You see, hailing from Land of the Free and Home of the Terrible Public Transportation, we’re continually delighted by how easy it is to catch a bus in South America. You’ll see us smiling even if said bus is a late 90’s junker that is plastered in Virgin Mary stickers and filled to the doors with potatoes.
With local buses picking you up wherever you may be and the longest routes running as far as 5,500+km (buckle up for Lima to Buenos Aires!), you’ll probably find yourself traveling on at least one bus in South America. It can be quite an adventure. Even if you do your research, you’re best expecting the unexpected. So today, we’re sharing what we know. From the average cost of bus travel in South America, to tips for picking the comfiest seats, to things we’d never travel without (like a Speakeasy Travel Supply scarf!!), here’s what you should know before taking on the whole of South America by bus:
Bus Travel in South America is really quite great.
Most travelers fall into bus travel in South America because it’s the cheapest way to get around. That’s certainly true, but oddly enough, we’ve grown to love this method of overland travel for plenty of other reasons. Buses in South America are efficient and easy. There always seems to be a bus going where you are at just the right time. You can hail them from the station, or pick them up right off the highway in some places. Hey, and usually, you’ll get some funny stories, free of charge.
Bus travel is super affordable.
International flights in South America are usually way more expensive than the distance should warrant. Domestic flights aren’t so bad, but the extra fare can add up when you’re taking on the whole continent. The average cost of bus travel ranges from $1-2 per hour in Bolivia and Ecuador, $3 per hour in Peru and $5-6 per hour in Brazil and Argentina. Considering you also save yourself a night in a hostel on overnight buses, that’s not so bad. If you’ve got more time than money, traveling in South America by bus will save you loads of money over time.
But not all buses are created equally.
There are some good South American buses and some really, truly terrible ones. Some offer a service so cozy that they’ll have to drag you off at the end. Other routes are run with an outdated fleet or are notorious for delays. The standards vary tremendously from one country to the next. The long-haul buses tend to be a bit rougher in Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia, while buses in Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay or Brazil are quite nice.
As for the best bus companies in South America? Everyone has their favorites. We’ve used or heard good things about: Cruz del Sur (Peru), MovilTours (Peru), Pullman (Chile), Tur-Bus (Chile), Andesmar (Argentina), FlechaBus (Argentina), MARGA (Argentina), Util (Brazil). With these premium carriers, you can usually expect a plush seat, functional toilet, and on-time arrival.
… all bus seats aren’t created equally either.
We’re not just talking front or back of the bus, here. Many buses in South America are double-deckers. The location of your seat will correlate directly with how soundly you sleep. We recommend avoiding seats under the TV or next to the bathroom. If you’re super lucky, snag a front-row seat on the top level for serious views.
The most comfortable bus companies in South America offer semi-camas (160*) and an upgrade to full camas (180*) so that you can get shamefully comfortable. For the additional cost, you’ll also get a real night’s sleep, food and wine, and control over your own TV. It’s the closest you can get to business class on a backpacker budget, so we’d say camas are worth the splurge on longer routes!
So what’s so ugly about bus travel?
South American buses get a bad reputation for bag slashing, pickpocketing, and full-on highway robbery. We’ll be honest. The lesser crimes happen quite often, but violent crime is pretty rare. On daytime buses, your biggest risk is usually the driver’s bad taste in techno or sleeping through the popsicle lady. As for overnight buses, we recommend sticking to well-traveled routes and using direct buses when possible.
And you better keep an eye on your stuff.
There are a few basic precautions you can take when traveling South America by bus. Get travel insurance and take photos of your valuables along with their serial numbers so you have a record in the worst-case scenario. As for bus travel specifically, it’s essential you keep your valuables close. Anything under the bus, tucked under your seat, or in the overhead compartment is a ready target. To prevent having your bag slashed, you should always keep your bag in your lap or in front of your feet.
I also dig traveling with a scarf with hidden pocket (made by Speakeasy Travel Supply), to keep important items like passports, cash, and cards hidden away. You have no idea how many times you’ll need to pull out your passport when you’re traveling by bus here. Speakeasy Travel Supply makes these sneaky scarves in a variety of prints and weights, so you can even find one that matches your lipstick (if you’re into that kind of thing). I have three if that tells you anything about how much I love them!
Finally, many companies will check your big bag like you would at an airport. We never leave anything valuable in our main luggage, but we still recommend throwing a lock on for good measure. Also, don’t lose your claim tag!
But the best part of bus travel is that it’s a genuine adventure.
We’ll admit it. This style of long-haul travel isn’t for everyone. Buses can be comfortable, but they can also be pretty miserable. Most companies aren’t shy about shoving a video camera in your face as you board the bus — you know, in case you turn out to be a criminal. Armed policemen may lazily dig through your bags at late-night checkpoints in search of cocaine. You might have to watch the menu sequence for White Chicks 73 times before the bus attendant realizes it’s still playing. Here’s a scenario: Ecuador has an affinity for gory action movies. Imagine watching Undisputed III: Redemption beneath a broken speaker, in a very upright seat, with a busted air-conditioner overhead, next to a smelly locked bathroom, while navigating very windy roads.
If you’re not open to experiencing every human emotion in a single moment, bus travel in South America is probably not for you. But if you are willing to go anywhere you may find a story, here’s our advice…
Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Dude. Invest in the following or prepare to suffer:
- Earplugs and an eye mask because it’s worth looking like an idiot
- Sea-bands and Dramamine for bumps in the road warm socks and a sweater for Sub-Arctic conditions to tuck away your importants
- A padlock to protect the things in your main bag
- Snacks + Plenty of Water for long stretches of road with no snacks in sight.
But we swear. It’s worth it.
Traveling South America is more than just a cheap way to travel. It’s amazing because of the adventure, the efficiency, and the serious backpacker cred that you get once you’ve survived your first long haul bus ride. Now venture forth, adventurer! You’re in for a wild ride.
This post on bus travel in South America is in collaboration with Speakeasy Travel Supply. We received a travel scarf with hidden pocket in exchange for our honest review, but we’ll never share anything we wouldn’t pay for ourselves (Scout’s Honor!). If you click through one of the links on our site, you’ll help support our blog at no cost.