First-timers to South America will probably find the bus system daunting in the beginning. That being said, it’s actually a fairly easy system to navigate. Use this guide to ease your worries and ensure stress-free overland travel throughout the continent.
Don’t Book Early
Yes, you read that right. When traveling around South America it’s really easy to purchase your ticket the day you decide to depart. When backpacking South America plans can change quickly. You may fall in love with a city and decide to stay longer than you planned, or you might meet a group of travelers going somewhere else that sounds interesting and you want to tag along. Give yourself room to have spontaneous adventures and wait to book your bus ticket until you’re completely sure of your next move.
Check The Departures Timetable When You Arrive
That being said, it’s a good idea to write down the departures timetable for the route you want as soon as you arrive to the bus station. It’ll save you a trip back to inquire later, as well as aggravation if you realize there are no buses running on the time/date you were hoping for.
Many times, bus stations have many different companies offering the same route for a different price. Ask around to find out who is offering the best deal.
…But Realize A Higher Price Means More Luxury
That being said, ask questions if one bus is exceptionally higher than the others. For example, Via Bariloche is one of the pricier bus companies in South America; however, it is luxurious. Expect a super clean interior, comfortable reclining seats with foot rests, multi-course meals, sparkling wine and movies in English as entertainment.
Ask If There’s A Bathroom
South America is the land of long bus rides. In fact, many routes take longer than their anticipated times. Before buying a ticket ask if there is a bathroom on board. If not, try to find a company that does have one, even if it’s a little more expensive. That is one amenity you really don’t want to go without.
Ask If There Is Food Served
Some of the buses offer meals and snacks in the ticket price, so you may want to ask beforehand if something will be served. This way, you’ll know if you should eat a big dinner or not or if you should bring your own meal on board.
Even if food is served, however, you should still bring snacks. You don’t want to be stuck on a 20-hour bus ride with a rumbling stomach. Moreover, it’s nice to have a backup plan if you don’t like the food being served on the bus.
While South America is home to some of the most inspiring and diverse scenery on the planet, there’s only so long you can stare out the window and not be bored. Download offline games on your phone, charge your iPod, bring a journal to write in, pack a book and some crossword puzzles, and try to keep yourself entertained while on board. Another idea is to interact with the locals on board to have an added cultural experience on the bus. Personally, I always enjoyed having a language exchange with the person sitting next to me to sharpen my Spanish skills.
If You’re Crossing A Border, Research The Rules Beforehand
While this usually isn’t a big deal (although always have your passport handy), some of the borders can be a little tricky. For example, trying to smuggle fruit, vegetables or other plant and animal products into Chile can result in an extremely large fine. Moreover, crossing from Peru into Ecuador can be a harrowing experience, especially if you do the Huaquillas/Tumbes crossing. Hint: Don’t ever take that route! Instead, opt to go through Macara, which can be aggravating but not at all as scary.
Just because a bus says it will depart at 3pm doesn’t mean it will. Be on time in case it does; however, plan with the thought in mind that it will probably be delayed, or at least late in getting you to your destination.
Appreciate The Culture
Many times the long bus rides award you an interesting glimpse into local culture. You’ll see women in traditional dress carrying market goods, vendors coming on board to sell local street food, entertainments popping to perform a song and local interactions. Moreover, you’ll get to experience a piece of everyday life in the city you’re in.
Be Aware Of Your Belongings
One not-so-fun reality of bus travel in South America is having your stuff being stolen while you’re sleeping isn’t unheard of. Not saying it will definitely happen, just that you should take precautions. Make sure important items like your passport, money, credit cards and ID are on your person and not in the backpack you stow under the bus. Moreover, I recommend wearing some pickpocket-proof clothing — I wear Clever Travel Companion — so you can hide valuables in hidden pockets. Additionally, if you do go to sleep have your purse inside your shirt and your day pack looped around part of your body so you can feel if someone tries to snatch it.
Realize The World — Or Continent — Is Your Oyster
The bus system in South America may mean your overland travel is slow, especially compared to a train. That being said, it makes anywhere you want to go accessible as long as you have the time. Go without a set itinerary and let the wind be your guide. I promise you won’t regret it.