Surviving a long-haul bus ride in South America

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The view from a bus seat on the way to Medellín.

So you’re looking to get from point A to B in Central/South America, and for either price or accessibility reasons you’ve opted for the long-haul bus ride. Congratulations! You’ll be travelling like the locals do, so you’ll likely meet great people and have amazing adventures. But before you break out the camera to capture those perfectly unique memories you’d never have on a flight or tour, here are some pointers to help make your ride as easy and enjoyable as possible.

First, let’s talk about what you’re signing up for: a long-haul bus ride is one that’s 6 hours or longer in a large bus like the one above and usually leaves from a bus terminal. They’re used all over South America for transport, but tickets are cheaper than airlines for a reason: the trip takes longer and often has poorer amenities compared to a plane. So if you’re going to be taking one of these trips, the best thing you can do is plan ahead and be prepared.

Below, I’ll explain how to plan your long-haul bus ride to ensure three things: safety (for yourself), security (for your belongings), and comfort (for a relaxing trip). I’ll walk through the whole process, from choosing a bus company and purchasing the ticket to arriving intact with your belongings at your next destination. While there are dangers out there on the road, people regularly use long-haul buses with no trouble, and a bit of preparation can save you a lot of trouble.

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This is the type of bus you’ll likely be riding, although long haul buses also come in the even more exciting two-story format!

Is a long haul bus right for you?

Before you opt for the long-haul bus ride, learn about the bus route from point A to B and make sure it will work for you. If your schedule is tight and you MUST be at point B not long after your bus arrives, don’t take the bus—the buses are generally on time, but it’s just not worth the stress if it is late. Likewise, if the bus will travel through dangerous areas like active warzones, lawless regions, and natural disaster zones, consider whether it’s worth the risk to travel by bus. After all, you have to live to tell about your adventures.

To figure out the bus route, I usually use Rome2Rio and choose the bus option. If that fails, I move to Google Maps and plug in any stops I know the bus will be making to get a good idea of its route.

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Waiting at the Peruvian-Chilean border in traffic. While buses are normally on time, circumstances like these can happen.

Picking a bus company

The goal is to find a reputable company with a good safety and security record. Google once again comes in handy; searching the names of your start and end points and “bus” usually gets you a few company names. Searching the individual bus company names then gives you a good idea of their safety and security record, from positive reviews to possible negative incidents like accidents and robberies. Locals usually have advice on bus companies so feel free to ask them as well. While the companies with poorer safety and security records are often cheaper, keep in mind that money gets made up somewhere and you don’t want to be the victim of a modern-day coach robbery.

Now, pick the BEST seat…

You can usually view a seat map of the bus online or at the terminal, and yes, there are certain seats that will increase your security and comfort . The ideal seats on a single story bus are near the middle, while the ideal seats on a two-story bus depend on the fare class: if there’s only one fare class, the best seats are at the very front of the second story. If there’s an ‘executive’ class, the best seats are in the back on the ‘executive’ first floor or the front on the second story. These seats minimize the number of people passing and loitering near your seat (who might take the chance to steal something), but are far enough from the smell of the urinal at the back of the bus. You’ll also find that seats vary in their ability to recline, with ‘standard’ or ‘semi-cama’ usually meaning a 120 degree recline, and ‘executive’ or ‘cama’ meaning a 170 degree recline. If reclining affects your ability to sleep, factor this into your seat choice as well.

Buy that ticket!

Once you’ve got your ideal seat, you can purchase the ticket in two ways: the more expensive online purchase, or the less-expensive bus terminal purchase. Online purchase lets you book immediately so you’re likely to get your ideal seat, but you’ll pay surcharges for booking online. Purchasing at the bus terminal will be cheaper (especially if you’re savvy and negotiate a discounted price), but you may not get your ideal seat and some buses sell out in advance. Choose the best option for you based on your budget and schedule needs.

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AWESOME, you have your ticket. Now it’s time to put together your survival kit.

Your ticket goes a long way in ensuring your safety, security, and comfort on a long haul bus, but a good travel kit is essential for those 6+ hours on a bus. Sure, the bus temperature might be perfect and the scenery might entertain you the whole way. Or the temperature could vary wildly and the scenery might be terrible.

IMG_4036Below is an outline of our perfect travel kit; we made sure we always had these things on a bus trip:

  1. Clothing layers for temperatures from 50F to 90F – Prepare for all temperature possibilities here, from freezing to sweltering because the air conditioner is ‘broken’. For the top half, we wear light shirts and carry jackets that pack into small volumes, like the Patagonia Nano Puff. For the bottom half, we usually wear zip-off pants that become shorts; they may not be fashionable, but they’re SO useful for adjusting to any temperature.
  2. Compression socks – This is for all of us with terrible circulation that get swollen feet after sitting for several hours. Even on the most luxurious buses there’s still not much room to shift your legs, so compression socks can work wonders in reducing foot swelling and travel misery.
  3. A sleeping kit – What do you need to sleep? A blanket? A pillow? Bring it. Our kit consists of one of our sleeping bags that we shared like a blanket, two inflatable camping pillows, and earplugs to cancel out noise.
  4. A med kit – A long bus ride can become unbearable if you get a headache or motion sickness. We always carry a medkit in a plastic sandwich bag with pain medications (paracetamol, naproxen, ibuprofen) and stomach upset medications (Pepto-bismol and Immodium). If you’re prone to motion sickness, even in the slightest, bring some dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) with you as well – winding roads and mountain passes can be incredibly nausea inducing.
  5. Tissues – for both your nose and your bathroom visits, since the bus probably won’t have any. We carry a roll of toilet paper squashed into a sandwich bag.
  6. Water – This can be hard to come by, especially for buses that travel overnight or make few stops. We carry 1L per person for up to 8 hours, but your needs may vary. Just don’t expect any drinkable water on the bus.
  7. Snacks – great for staving off the hangries. We pack at least two servings per person in snacks, and always tried to have a mix of savory and sweet. Honey-roasted peanuts and whole wheat biscuits are wondrous because they provide protein and fiber. You don’t need to bring a whole meal because the buses usually have a scheduled stop at a cafeteria to eat. Executive class on some bus lines will also provide a meal.
  8. Cash – You should always have local currency in South America. It will help you buy food along the way, as most places don’t take credit cards. Carrying enough for your next step is also a good way to avoid the ‘is there an ATM’ headache. We always carried enough to cover the average cost of a room and two meals, just in case.
  9. Entertainment in the form of games, music, podcasts, etc. – This is mostly up to you, but we found it helpful. Don’t expect to have an internet connection (buses may claim to have one but it’s often shoddy at best), but offline phone games, pocket game sets (like magnet chess), and music/podcasts help pass the time. While you can bring a book, don’t rely on it exclusively for entertainment because the ride is often so rough that reading will give you a headache.
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Watching people board a bus from our bus window near Ipiales, Colombia.

Time to board the bus!

By now you’re prepared for almost any type of bus ride, so there’s not much you need to do except make sure you get to the bus terminal before departure, onto the bus, and into the right seat.

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Waiting to depart at a bus terminal in Arequipa, Peru.

But before you board the bus, follow these four steps:

      1. Poop now. There will only be a urinal on the bus, so grab some of your tissue and head for the restroom or you may be holding it. Thankfully, some drivers will stop along the way if you really need to go, but don’t always count on it.
      2. Check whether there’s a departure tax and if so, pay it. Several bus stations in South America charge this small fee (~ $1 USD or less) to use the bus station. To find out, ask a company employee “¿Hay una impuesta de salida?” If they say yes (Sí), ask “¿Donde pago?” and they should point you to a kiosk. In return for payment, the kiosk attendant at the kiosk will give you a small paper slip. Keep this slip, as you’ll be denied entry onto the bus without it.
      3. Find your bus. The buses will have company names written on the side and placards or signboards displaying the bus destination. If you’re totally lost, find a terminal employee or security guard and show them your ticket—they’ll point you in the right direction.
      4. Get your “check-in” bags tagged. Bring your large bags to an attendant before or during boarding and they should tag it, then rip off the bottom half of the tag and give it to you. Keep this stub to reclaim your luggage. This method goes a long way in preventing casual baggage theft (i.e. someone just ‘walks away’ with your bags), so make sure the attendant tags your bag.
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Paper slips given for paying the departure tax.

 

You’re all done! Now get on-board, settle in*, and enjoy the ride.

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So lovely of you to join us! The executive class from Cusco to Arequipa in Peru.

*P.S. We’ve read all sorts of advice on how to store your carry-on bag to ensure the security of your belongings, but in our experience this didn’t matter much. The days of urchins crawling under your seat and taking your bag or thieves cutting your bag and pulling out the contents seem to be past, at least for reputable companies between well-travelled cities. Just keep your wits about you and if you’re worried, you can always hold your bag in your lap or use it as an extra seat pillow.

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