What to Know About Traveling by Bus in South America
Our deepest apologies to our jet-set friends for any frustration we’re about to induce. In South America, it’s all about bus travel. Not to worry. Though hours spent on a bus might make even the most adventurous a little nervous, overland transit in South America is actually an incredible way to travel. With a little research and know-how in your back pocket, it shouldn’t be hard to find yourself on a truly spectacular journey, the South American landscape transforming just beyond your window. Read on.
So try your best to snag a window seat. The continent of South America is composed of 13 countries—all of which boast some of the most varied and striking landscapes in the world.
While South America has a reputation for being an affordable place to travel, flying can actually be quite pricey. Plus, many countries charge expensive entry fees when you arrive at airports. Buses are among the cheapest means of travel in South America, with one-way fares available for under $40. A note on this: For the best prices, always buy tickets directly through the bus companies rather than a third-party tour service.
Spending anywhere between five and 25 hours on a bus will be a bonding experience, whether you like it or not. Striking up a conversation with other travelers is never a bad idea, and it may lead you to helpful exchanges of information regarding great travel tips, vetted hostels, and more. Plus, you may even polish up your language skills why you’re at it.
Many of the buses in South America (especially in the more developed countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay) are actually quite nice—and are certainly roomier than business-class airplanes! Overnight buses will either be “semi-cama” or “cama” (cama is Spanish for bed), which means that seats recline either partially or fully. Some bus lines (Cruz del Sur in Peru, for example) have luxurious upgrades available, so do your research and see if it’s worth the extra bucks. For example, you can purchase a “Suite” seat that includes a completely flat bed, a three-course meal, and complimentary wine for less than $100 for a 10-hour trip. Now, despite the fact that you’ll likely be able to catch some shut-eye, buses are notoriously freezing in South America—so pack a scarf, wear socks, and have layers on hand to bundle up with.
As with any travel in any country, it’s smart to keep your valuables close by. Add a lock on any items that are going to be stowed with the cargo, and keep all of your most important items above ground in a bag that you keep on your stomach throughout the journey. To be extra safe, make copies of important paperwork and keep extra money stowed in various bags, in the unfortunate case that anything is stolen.
Do your research beforehand. Inquire if your ticket is for an express ride or if there are any planned stops. Look into the extra-special routes touted by experienced travelers. If you have the time, you can break longer treks into shorter trips that stop in smaller cities just as spectacular as the most popular tourist destinations.
If you desire to feel like an ambling Jack Kerouac character, traveling by bus will be up your alley. Upward of 15 hours spent in transit tracing through dry pampas in the desert sun and along vertiginous cliff’s edges is something of an adventure-seeker’s dream come true in and of itself.
You can plan and plan, but part of the reality of overland travel is its inherent unpredictability. Roads may be closed. You may encounter a flock of sheep and need to wait for an hour until they pass. Weather may change for the worse. You may traverse dirt roads, or roads that are hardly roads at all. Don’t worry. This is all part of transforming into a road-hardened world traveler.
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