The BUS guide to South America
Picking buses is stressful. It’s not just the local shit greyhound or mom’s MiniVan. The obstacles are real-winding roads, long hours, crazy potholes and speeds, crazy truck passings…
The dangers are even more present, from drunk conductors, conductors falling asleep, old buses, bad tires, and more, picking a bus company can be very important and can dramatically effect your comfort level and enjoyment (as much as can be had from long distance bus travel). Here are a few tips on picking companies, picking seats, and country specific advice:
I can only speak from personal experience, providing tips and hints to find the best companies and provide awareness that differences in buses do exist in South America. I am in no way an expert or should be deferred to in any sense.
PICKING A COMPANY
1. Like so many things when traveling, my main advice for each country is to ask, ask ask. Ask other travelers which companies they like. Which they consider safe. Ask your hostel owner. Particularly in Peru and Bolivia, travelers all talk about which bus companies are considered “safe”.
2. The second thing would be to look at the buses themselves and see how well cared for they are.
3. Be smart about prices. You don’t have to pick the most expensive, but the very very very cheap buses, are very very very cheap for a reason.
4. For longer distance rides, ask for a bus that is two floors and that has a bathroom inside the bus itself. These buses are typically nicer.
QUESTIONS TO ASK each company:
1. “¿El bus se va directo?”
- Does the bus go direct?
- If it is stopping a lot, it’s going to be a lot longer, and often implies it’s a more local bus. This is okay for shorter rides, but is not recommended for more serious long distance bus journeys.
2. “A qué hora sale? A qué hora llega?”
- What time does the bus leave? What time does it arrive?
- Looking at arrival times and departure times can be an indicator of a good company/is important to know.
3. “Es semi-cama? Cama?”
- “Is it semi-cama? Cama?”
- Cama means bed. This question is asking about the quality of the seats. Buses are a bit more luxurious in South America (or rather they can be…).
- Semi-cama should bend back a bit more than the regular old economico and should have a part for your legs.
- Generally cama means it goes back even further, has a wider seat and is generally a lot nicer (and a lot more pricey).
- Some companies have different ways of marketing their seats, they’ll have “SUPERCAMA” or “SUITE” or whatever they want to call it. Ask if they have a picture if you’re confused.
- In the least, you should go semi-cama. Generally, that implies it’s a bit nicer of a bus. (Though this is not mutually dependent. There are tons of companies with semi-cama or cama that are utter shit).
- You can also ask about how many “filas” -rows- there are. This isn’t really about company quality, but more about personal comfort. Three filas is way nicer than four. You can make do with four, but man, once you’ve done three…
4. “Hay un baño abordo?”
- Is there a bathroom?
- Obvious reasons.
5. ” Se sirve comida? Hay comida vegeteriana o vegana?”
- Is there food served? Is there vegetarian or vegan options?
- This is more interesting for your own knowledge, to compare companies, and to see what you should be carrying aboard.
- I have only seen food served on long buses in Peru (only the nicest companies), Argentina, and Chile. They often have vegetarian food (a cheese sandwich), but I have never seen a company with vegan food.
6. “Cuánto cuesta?”
- How much is it?
- Obvious reasons. Like I mentioned, don’t always go by price, it’s not always the best decision.
7. “Es dos pisos? Un piso?”
- “Is it two floors? One floor?”
- In some countries, like Bolivia, this can be an indicator of a nicer bus. Generally the longer the ride, and the nicer the company, popular belief suggests that the nicer buses and companies will do the trip with two floors.
- Some people, like me, only like to sit on the first floor. Check the seat asking part for asking for a specific floor.
8. “Hay un baño abordo?”
- Is there a bathroom on board?
PICKING YOUR SEAT
- “Puedo ver los asientos disponibles?”
- Can I see the available seats?
- they should turn the screen your way. Sometimes physically pointing helps. You can see what’s available.
- Normally you can just then say the number you want, makes it easier.
- “Podría darme un asiento al lado de la ventana?
- Can you give me a seat next to the window?
- “Podría darme un asiento al lado del pasillo?”
- Can you give me a seat next to the aisle?
- “Podría darme un asiento en el segundo piso?”
- Can you give me a seat on the second floor?
- “Podría darme un asiento en el primer piso?”
- Can you give me a seat on the first floor?
COUNTRY SPECIFIC ADVICE
- Colombia seems to have fairly safe companies, not the largest selection as it depends on where you’re going.
- My main advice in Colombia is bargaining.
- Bus fares in Colombia are not price set. You are supposed to negotiate.
- I like to play the companies off one another. Go ask the price for one, then say you’re going to ask the other company who does the same rate. They will often lower your price considerably. Be firm and be confident.
- Ecuador is almost easy. It should be 1 US Dollar for every hour you travel. More than that, it’s a small country and you very rarely have to worry about long term travel, so the quality of the buses is not as important.
- Moreover, because it is small, they rarely have more than one company going to your destination. It’s oddly easy not having choices.
- In all countries, obviously, be wary of your bags, but I’d say more so in Ecuador. In most countries, you’re going on nicer long buses, who give you luggage tags and lock the luggage bins, this is not the case in Ecuador. I almost always carried my bag on the bus after an attempted bag robbery leaving Quito. Moreover, way more stops and random picking up and dropping off of people that makes it more dangerous for a bag.
- Peru has a shit ton of companies, in direct comparison with Ecuador.
- A shit ton.
- Ask around for the best and the safest. It’s a huge company and will depend on where you are in the North or South.
- I’ve had good luck on Linea, Viva, TEPSA, and Ormeño. Heard good things about Cruz del Sur, obvi. Don’t trust me, ask around for the newest info on the buses out there.
- Near Peru, they offer tourist buses to cross the border and to go from Copacabana to La Paz. Take the tourist buses. Safer, and generally faster.
- This is the double decker advice country. Not sure how much weight it holds, but so far, I’ve lived by the rule.
- Ask around as well.
- Chile is generally a safer bus country, with better roads, and better overall companies.
- Obvi, expect to pay a bit more, but get better service. Blankets and snacks are fairly common on overnight buses.
- Still, ask around.
- Argentina is also a generally safer bus company with the likes of Chile.
- Again, expect to pay a lot more, but expect better service, comfier buses, snacks, etc.
- Ask around, but most companies should be safe.
- Try for fun going on one of the nicest buses and taking “SuperCama”. I have heard on some of the longer buses in Argentina that they will serve alcohol with your hot dinner! Crazy.
- (I will say, look at flights. If you know when and where ahead of time, the planes can end up being a similar price and way shorter)
Again, this isn’t the definitive guide, but hopefully it makes the whole bus, moving from locale to locale process, a bit more digestible and understandable! Let me know if you have any questions or more up to date info.