Bus travel is the most common form of transportation in South America. Flights in South America can be expensive and a train system is almost nonexistent. As a result, most travelers spend many an hour on overland, night, and/or long-distance buses. If you are planning an overland trip across South America, it pays to be prepared. While plenty of buses will take you from country to country, each South American country has their own independent and unique bus system. Be sure to check out our break down of the various bus systems.
In Colombia be prepared for less options again. Colombian buses are in general very well maintained and newer; however, double decker buses are very rare. The roads are decent, but tend to be windy so take your motion sickness pills before you get onboard. Food is rare, but snacks are handed out on the longer routes by the higher quality bus companies.
Colombia has a few unique bus travel trends that can throw even experienced travelers off. One example is that with the more respected bus companies, you will be videotaped as you get on the bus or after being seated. A bus company employee with walk by with a videotape and ask every passenger to glance into the lens. This is a security measure in case anyone is robbed while on the bus. The tapes are kept as evidence to turn over to the police.
Another trend is that night buses, heading south from Cali toward Ecuador are not as frequent and discouraged in most guide books. This is one of the few spots remaining in Colombia where rebels still roam the jungles and in the past buses have been stopped and robbed and sometimes even passengers were taken as hostages. The issue is being closely monitored by the military and the chances of something happening now-a-days is rare but buses still tend to run in the daytime only on this route.
Full disclose from Aracely and Jason: We took the overnight ride from Cali to Ipiales with no problems, although, we also heard about the potential for bus robberies.
Ecuador is very similar to Colombia bus rides. Roads remain winding and you constantly feel like you are going to fall off a cliff as they whip around corners driving through the Andes mountains in the middle of the night. You won’t find calm roads until you reach the coast.
The quality of the buses are also similar. Luxury buses do exist, but they don’t compare to the double decker cama (bed) luxury buses you will find in Chile or Argentina. Booking tickets can be a bit crazy too. Rely on your hostel or take a taxi to the bus terminal and purchase the tickets yourself. You might even have to visit the bus company itself, which will have it’s own office somewhere in town.
Once you get to Peru you will again be rewarded with plenty of choices when it comes to bus companies. The companies range from basic chicken buses to very high-end VIP buses that rival first class airline cabins. Food depends on the price of your ticket and again ranges from nothing or a basic snack to full meals.
The only issue with the choices in Peru is that few towns offer a central bus station. In Buenos Aires nearly every bus drops off in a central bus station but in Lima each bus company has it’s own office, which can be miles apart. This makes comparing bus ticket prices and shopping around much more difficult.
The roads in Peru are relatively good, but be prepared for delays in rainy season when mudslides are more common.
Chile buses are very similar to Argentina buses; very nice rides on very flat roads, until you get up into the highlands, then it’s quite scenic and wild. Cama buses, or double decker buses with beds and food service on the bottom are available for long overnight runs.
Of course, the price is a shocker due to the high value of their currency compared to neighboring countries.
The land border crossing between Peru and Chile is much more developed and modern compared to it’s northern neighbors. It’s almost as if you stepped forward in time. You won’t need to worry about late night check points anymore.
The central Buenos Aires bus terminal can be a huge shock to a new traveler. Hundreds of bus companies compete for your business and buses come in every color and shape imaginable. As the main hub of Argentina bus routes, the Buenos Aires terminal will offer up every possible route combination. In general overnight and long distance buses are double deckers with toilets and food offered on board. Cheaper bus companies might offer a snack and water while more expensive companies will treat you to a full meal during your trip.
The buses in Argentina tend to be newer, well maintained, and safe. The roads are also, in general, very good. As a result, you will need to be prepared for expensive bus ticket prices. It’s not uncommon for an overnight bus trip to cost $50-$100 or even more. If you are taking a long bus trip, consider a night bus which will help you save the cost of a night in a hostel.
Argentina bus companies are usually very good at being on time and never show up late for your bus or it might leave without you. Arriving on time is not nearly as common as leaving on time though so give yourself some leeway with travel plans.
The difference between Argentinian buses and Bolivian buses could not be more shocking. The buses in Bolivia tend to be older and more run down. Often they are bought used from bus companies in Argentina, Peru, or Chile. The roads in Bolivia are also quite bad, usually dirt, and prone to mudslides. It’s best to plan for delays when taking a bus in Bolivia.
There are far fewer bus companies in Bolivia and you will rarely have more than a handful of companies to choose from. Bus companies rarely provide food but stops are made for dinner or breakfast on overnight buses. Also, don’t be shocked if a crate full of chickens are strapped to the bus roof.
You might wake up in the middle of your bus ride completely covered in the desert dust.
The best part of bus travel in Bolivia has to be the custom paint jobs on the sides of nearly every bus. There seems to be no restrictions on what can be displayed on the buses. I saw everything from naked women to highly political messages and of course plenty of images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
If you have experience or advice related to bus travel in South America, please leave a comment and share your tips.
Couples Travel Tips
- If you are traveling as a couple, be sure to book your bus ticket ahead of time if you hope to sit together. Buses, especially on popular routes or during holidays and weekends fill up fast.
- If you are sitting together, consider packing valuables in a small bag that can sit on the seat between you. This way the bag can be watched closes and you will be less likely to have it taken, even when sleeping.
- A great benefit of traveling as a couple is that there are two people to watch your bags. Take turns getting off the bus at stops to stretch your legs and watch to be sure your bags, stored under the bus, aren’t take by anyone else.