Travelling around the world in a year means that you’re moving between cultures and countries fast, but with few exceptions most neighboring countries don’t differ that much from each other and the gap isn’t that huge. Jumping the continental divide between South America and Oceania takes you between two vastly different cultures and economic realities, though, so we’ve had to do some work adjusting. Here are the three places where we’ve had the biggest culture shock and how we dealt with them:
A totally new economic scale
We’re poor here. After three months of living mostly under USD $20 a day per person, the prices in New Zealand come with sticker shock. A single cheap meal here costs more than a full day of meals in most of South America, and a bed in a hostel costs more than a private room for two. To reign in our costs, we eat out for only one or two meals a day and cook the rest. An Airbnb has kept our accommodations budget from getting wildly out of hand, but it’s still over our daily budget of USD $30. Thankfully, we’ve brought a camping kit, so we’ll be camping wherever possible in the rest of New Zealand to bring accommodation costs down. We still afford ourselves the little luxuries of buying and trying some things on a whim, but that budget now covers only one whimsy purchase per day instead of three or four. The upside/downside is that whoaaa there are tons of options in stores.
Speaking English again
Being fluent in the local language is simultaneously a huge relief and a huge bore. It takes less time and pantomiming to get chores done, from buying medications at a pharmacy to getting directions, but some of the sense of adventure also disappears. It also takes some time to adjust our brains to English and the New Zealand accent. We find ourselves missing Spanish so we speak it to each other while we’re out, much to the confusion of locals (Spanish speakers are nearly nonexistent here). And hey, at least that keeps it fresh in our heads. (Update from the future: we totally didn’t keep this up and our Spanish fluency has cratered. We’ll have to think of new strategies to stay fluent in the future).
Less public transit
I feel bad saying this, because New Zealand’s public transit is still leagues better than those you would encounter in several other cities around the world, but it still just doesn’t compare to the coverage and affordability of metro systems in South America. The primary cause is simply scale of use: in South America a high percentage of a city’s population uses the metro system. Here in Auckland, where more people own, a smaller percentage of the city uses the metro system. The result is it’s more expensive, the stops are further apart, and the metro takes longer. And outside of Auckland, there are even fewer options. Seeing many of the country’s sights requires renting a car, which is a huge chunk of our budget here in New Zealand.
A totally different culture
After living for three months in South America, New Zealand is a bit of a culture shock as well. People are more polite, although they also seem colder and more reserved. In some places, there are undertones of ethnic and social tension that we haven’t experienced in a while: on the way to the Chinese Lantern Festival, we watched some older white people who sat on their porches glaring furiously at the stream of people walking by (who were mostly Asian). While there are definitely socioeconomic tensions in South America, it took the form of protests instead of diffusing into daily life. When the haves and have nots look racially distinct, this is what happens instead. Despite this, much of the city seems happy, optimistic, and less worried about their economic future than many places we’ve been to. We feel like we have to watch our backs less here for theft, and that’s a relief.
With a blink of an eye our time in Arequipa is done, and we’re on a bus bound for our next destination, Chile. We would have loved to stay longer, but we’re in such a rush because we’ve booked a flight from Santiago to New Zealand that happens in two weeks. For today’s leg, we’re heading from here to the Peruvian border town of Tacna, then across the border to Arica in Chile. A few days from now, we may head down to Calama and make our way to San Pedro de Atacama. But we’re not sure yet.
So first up is our ride from Arequipa to Tacna, a six-hour journey. We’ve planned it so that we’re not waking up absurdly early, and we’ve got two front-row seats on the second story of the bus so we can watch the scenery in full splendor. We think we’ve finally got this bus thing figured out.
En route update: So we may have worked out the perfect time and seats, but sometimes you can’t account for other people. The seats across from us are occupied by a woman with two toddlers run amok. It hasn’t helped that she has smacked one across the face twice. We’ve also listened to her call a cable company and claim she’s not responsible for bills on her account and then call a friend and complain about her problems. One of the kids reaches out a sticky hand and brushes it across my arm. He’s cute and all, but eeeughhhh.
En route update 2: The air conditioning is broken, so an attendant has come up and opened the emergency exit in the ceiling of the bus. It’s getting hot in here.
En route update 3: The toddlers have stripped down to their diapers and we’re all struggling in the sweltering heat. It doesn’t help that our bus is black and this region of Peru is all desert. Ten minutes ago the bus stopped and we all piled out into the desert for a customs checkpoint. They looked at all of our luggage while we stood in the unrelenting desert sun and asked if anyone had fruit or vegetables. It’s apparently to stop the spread of some kind of fly pest. I don’t know if anyone has these things, but I’m pretty sure any flies on our bus have been cooked alive.
En route update 4: The woman with toddlers needed to go to the bathroom. She stood up and asked me something in Spanish, and was gone before I could process that she had asked me to “watch her kids.” The children immediately attempt to go after their parent, and I find myself trying to stop them with my hands or legs. One of them begins wailing and I start making funny faces at him to get him to stop. Half of my brain is thinking “this isn’t my responsibility, I didn’t agree to this, just let them go.” The other half is rebutting with “They shouldn’t get hurt because of the carelessness of their mother.” Thankfully I’m not alone for long. Some older folks behind me notice what’s going on and distract the toddlers by asking them questions in a cutesy way. Still, it’s an agonizing few minutes before the mother comes back.
We’ve ARRIVED IN TACNA! We practically sprint off the bus to escape woman and her toddlers and enter the station. We’ve got our next bus in an hour and we’re not venturing beyond this station, but from what we can gather Tacna is Costco, just in city form. Everything is the station is sold in absurd bulk amounts, from 50-count rolls of toilet paper to 8 loaves of fruitcake. We manage to buy the smallest amount possible for bread rolls (that’s 16 of them) and tissues (that’s 18 of them) for our trip onward.
Everywhere around us there are people packing up their bulk goods, preparing to take buses across the border, lending the whole station a post-apocalyptic preparation camp feel. But this is a daily occurrence, and all of these people carrying hundreds of chip packets and bread rolls have simply done some economic math. Goods are cheaper in Peru than in Chile, and you can save or make a pretty penny carrying goods across the border.
It’s already dark when the time comes to board our second bus of the day. This bus is a standard, single floor bus with no seat assignments. We climb on board and pick seats together, and the bus roars to life.
En route update: We encountered another checkpoint, where all of us piled off the bus and had to take our stuff. The guards walked us into a small building to have our papers checked. Meanwhile, they put all of the bus baggage through an X-ray. A guard holds up one of our bags and asks whose it is. There’s some suspicion in his voice, but when Stoytcho and I come over he looks us up and down and waves us off with the bag. Being foreigners means it’s pretty unlikely we’re smuggling drugs or weapons.
En route update 2: We’ve reached the border, but traffic has trapped us on the Peruvian side for the last hour. We’re stalled within view of the border, but we’re not going anywhere so the bus driver kills the engine and opens the door. It doesn’t help us much with airflow though, and for a second time today we’re uncomfortably hot and sweaty. Everyone takes turns dashing off the bus temporarily to get some fresh air until the driver yells at us to come back on. Traffic is moving.
En route update 3: The border is uneventful. We got our Chilean passport stamps!
Our bus finally putters in to Arica’s bus terminal around 11 pm. It took us four hours to make what is normally an hour-long trip between the two cities, but that’s how borders work. Sometimes it’s smooth sailing where you hardly slow down, and sometimes it’s vehicular molasses. We grab our stuff and tackle our two problems: finding a place to stay and getting Chilean pesos to pay for that place. Stoytcho asks around for the nearest accommodations and someone points us down one of the streets. No one seems to know about an ATM though, so we’re stuck until I notice a gas station. ATM? Yes.
With money in pocket, we hunt around for a hotel with an available room. The first two we try are full, but the third one is empty and we manage to negotiate a room down to around $30 USD. It’s way more than we’re used to paying, but at least it’s better for our budget than the $40 the owner wanted originally.
We schlep our stuff upstairs to a clean but shabby room covered in tile, and we’re immediately greeted by a bizarre artifact of globalization. The beds here are equipped with pillowcases from China. How do I know? Well, the fabric depicts all of China’s different ethnic minorities joyously waving what appears to be Mao’s Little Red Book. There are a lot of questions here, from why someone would make these pillowcases in the first place to how they managed to wind up in Arica, Chile. But I can’t answer any of them. All I know is that we’re sleeping face-first in Maoist Communism tonight.
Last time we talked about the full cost of visiting Machu Picchu and how much it can be compared to the few hours you get exploring the ancient ruins. You can either pay in comfort and time and the whole 4-day trip will cost about $737 (including airfare), or if you don’t want to/can’t hike 14+ kilometers, it’s going to cost you a whopping $1,382 for the same trip!
While there is no place exactly like Machu Picchu, these six places might also match your travel dreams and deliver more value for the money. Prices below are divided into cheap and comfortable: on the cheap end, you’re hosteling/camping and eating cheaper meals with locals, while on the comfortable end, you’re staying in air-conditioned two/three-star hotels and eating at trendier restaurants. For the purposes of this list, we’ve divided the reasons for visiting Machu Picchu into the following: archaeological ruins, natural beauty, and hiking.
Good for: ruins
Price: $410 (cheap) or $640 (comfortable) for 4 days/night trip to Mexico City and Teotihuacan
Details: Mexico City is a short flight away from the U.S. and is located less than two hours away from the ruins of Teotihuacan, an ancient city build more than 2,000 years ago by an unknown people. Their avenues, homes, and temples were so impressive that the later Aztecs revered this site as sacred and claimed it had been built by gods. $275 of the above cost is airfare, and the remaining amount covers four nights of food and board in Mexico City as well as transportation, admission, and a guide for Teotihuacan. Adding extra time would be between $20 (cheap) and $100 (comfortable) per day, so you could stay for a whole week and still save money compared to Machu Picchu. Insider’s tip: if you can, visit Mexico City and Teotihuacan for the Day of the Dead festival (October 29-November 2). The City has a huge display of handmade papier-mâché Alebrijes, Calle Regina gets decked out in beautiful dioramas celebrating the dead, and the ruins of Teotihuacan plays host to a huge festival. (P.S. Despite popular perception, most parts of Mexico City are pretty safe.)
Mexico’s Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and the Puuc Route
Good for: ruins, natural beauty
Price: $702 (cheap) or $1100 (comfortable) for 4 days/nights Cancun->Merida->Cancun
Details: While the Yucatan region is better known for the party city of Cancun, it also hosts some of the most amazing Mayan ruins, including pyramids, temples, palaces, fortresses, and sacred sites. Chichen Itza is the most well-known, but the Puuc route near the city of Merida also boasts more than six archaeological sites, including the lesser-known ancient city of Uxmal, the palace of Sayil, and Loltun Cave (believed by the Mayans to be the entrance to Xibalba, the underworld). $280 of the above cost is airfare, and the remaining amount covers four nights of food and board, a car rental + road tolls + gas to drive yourself around, entrance fees to all of the sites, and guides. Staying an extra day in Merida or Cancun would cost between $30 (cheap) and $110 (comfortable) for food/board, not counting any extra days of car rental. If you want to make it cheaper, skip the car rental and book day tours to these sites. Insider’s tip: the guides will highball you on both their rates and how much is acceptable to tip. Remember to negotiate and tip IF you really felt your guide delivered value.
Colombia’s Parque Tayrona
Good for: natural beauty, hiking
Price: $560 (cheap) and $950 (comfortable) for a 6 day Cartagena->Santa Marta->Parque Tayrona->Santa Marta->Cartagena trip.
Details: The dollar goes further in Colombia, and the country’s Tayrona National Park is as beautiful as it is remote. Home to several indigenous tribes and three different types of tropical forest, the park has a few excellent hiking trails and a plethora of native species that are easy to spot, including a species of monkey. Though it doesn’t have ruins, it has a hike to an indigenous village via a granite trail made centuries ago. $370 of both of the above listed prices is airfare. The remaining money accounts for two nights in Colombia’s Tayrona National Park, with money for transport and food/rooms in Cartagena and Santa Marta at the beginning and end. Adding extra time would be between $20 (cheap) and $100 (comfortable) per day, with +/- $10-$40 depending on which place you chose to spend your extra days.
Colombia’s Guatape and Le Piedra del Penol
Good for: natural beauty, hiking
Price: $490 (cheap) or $830 (comfortable) for a 4-day Medellin->Guatape->Medellin trip.
Details: If you’re looking for natural beauty, the idyllic Colombian lakeside town of Guatape and their enigmatic stone monolith La Piedra del Penol (linkout) may be perfect. Medellin is the starting point for the trip, and while once known for its sordid role as Pablo Escobar’s hometown during the height of the cocaine trade, it’s cleaned itself up and is now a beautiful, metro-linked, red-roofed city (linkout). $400 of the above listed prices is airfare. The remaining money accounts for room/board, transportation between Medellin and Guatape, and transportation and admission to La Piedra del Penol. Adding extra time would be between $18 and $85 per day. Insider’s tip: Guatape is famous for its trout, and you can both savor the local delicacy in restaurants or fish your own. There’s also an AMAZING chocolate store in town that’s a must-visit (linkout).
Good for: hiking (required), ruins, natural beauty
Price: $695 (cheap) or $1275 (comfortable) for a 7-night Cusco->Cachora->Choquequirao->Cachora->Cusco trip.
Details: Perhaps the best substitute for Machu Picchu for those able to hike (though we haven’t done this one), Choquequirao is an ancient Incan city that’s actually larger than Machu Picchu and has beautifully preserved stone carvings. The ruin is only reachable by 2 days of hiking from the towns Santa Teresa or Cachora (~31 km), so it’s fairly isolated (meaning it sees FAR fewer tourists) and admission is currently free. Airfare is taken from the Machu Picchu guide of the last post (580 cheap, 655 comfortable), and the rest covers room/board, supplies for the hike, and transport to/from Cachora. There’s a limit to what we can do here for comfort, since there’s an obligatory hike, but you could hire a guide + private transport + porter in town for ~$200, which I included in the “comfortable” price. Insider’s Tip: The Peruvian government is currently developing a cable car system from Mollepata to Choquequirao as part of a plan to develop the site for tourism, so go now while it’s still isolated and free!
Outside of South America
Indonesia’s Borobudur, Prambanan, and Mount Bromo
Good for: ruins, hiking, and natural beauty
Price: $1080 for a 7-night Jakarta->Yogyakarta->Bromo->Jakarta trip (cheap; maybe add $300-400 for “comfortable”, but I have limited data)
Details: So this isn’t technically cheaper in total compared to Machu Picchu, but a weeklong visit to Indonesia’s Java is comparable per day and is an amazing destination that spans sprawling megacities, ancient temples, and still-smoking volcanoes. While most people only visit Bali, Java is Indonesia’s most populous island and home to both ancient ruins and stunning natural scenery. As a bonus, Indonesians are some of the friendliest people ever, and you’ll be interviewed by schoolchildren practicing English and pose for selfies with random people on the street (and in the countryside). Borobudur and Prambanan, located near the city of Yogyakarta, are some of the most impressive and well-preserved Buddhist and Hindu archaeological sites in the world. And Mount Bromo is a live volcano in the middle of the island, where you can walk straight up to the volcano’s rim and watch a stunning sunrise over the surrounding area. After the $665 airfare to Jakarta (that drops to about $550 if you’re on the west coast), the remaining $415 covers 7 days’ worth of cheap food, board, admission to all three locations, AND a front-row seat to the Prambanan Ramayana Ballet, an insane retelling of the Ramayana story that involves setting the stage on fire (in the non-rainy season, at least). Insider’s tip: Booking private transport to/from Bromo can be worthwhile just to avoid Probolinggo, the island’s scammiest location.
The point of this article isn’t to say that you must go somewhere else instead of Machu Picchu. This article exists because we were shocked at how much Machu Picchu costs compared to how much we valued the experience. In our travelling, we found the above places delivered better value for the money spent, but it’s up to you to decide what you want out of your travel experience.
Set high in the mountains, Quito was a sharp contrast from our experiences in Colombia. People were friendly, but more withdrawn and less cheerful. Markets were busy, but not bustling. Streets and thoroughfares were sometimes entirely empty. The whole city was still beautiful but it felt subdued and almost somber, as if the energy had been drained from its inhabitants.
Couple these problems with a devastating earthquake that hit the north-west region of the country in April, killing nearly 700 people and and injuring a further 16,000, and the atmosphere of subdued worry makes sense. It’s been a bad year for Ecuador.
Below are photo from our visit to Quito during the end of December, in the dusk of 2016:
As in previous countries, we met so many wonderful and brilliant people here in Quito that we can’t help but root for Ecuador. The Ecuadoreans are resilient and they’ll recover, but it will take time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Below is an outline of our perfect travel kit; we made sure we always had these things on a bus trip:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But before you board the bus, follow these four steps:
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.
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.
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.
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.
You’re all done! Now get on-board, settle in*, and enjoy the ride.
*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.