Tips for surviving South American bus rides

by Kim on March 10, 2013 · 58 comments

When I think back on our time in South America I don’t automatically think about volunteering in Ecuador or visiting the Galapagos Islands or even hiking the Inca Trail. The first thing I think about is being on buses.

I think about that time we crossed the boarder by bus at 3 a.m. from Ecuador into Peru, standing in a lone immigration office in the pitch-black middle of nowhere. I think about the forty-hour(!) bus ride to Cusco when we sat stuffed into the last row of seats by the bathroom, the only redeeming feature of our unfortunate location was our neighbor, a Peruvian flute player who talked our ear off and then gave us one of his CDs. I think about the time on our way to Mancora when our bus came to a sudden, slamming stop and I fell into the toilet, then had to sit for the remainder of the trip in clothes drenched in other people’s urine. Yes, that actually happened.

I think about the bus strike that left us stranded in Mendoza and the ride to Rio when armed policemen came aboard and searched everyone’s bags. I think about how we have barfed on buses (Brian) and cried on them (Kim- see urine incident above) and I think about the times that we have been both squished like sardines and stretched out like royalty, drinking wine and watching movies on our very own TV screens.

South American bus travel

Squished like sardines in Peru

South American bus travel

Stretched out like royalty in Argentina

Before we headed to South American I worried endlessly about riding the buses. See, if I feel like I am racing uncontrollably towards anything (cars, other buses, the side of a mountain, etc.) I just really lose my cool. And South American bus travel doesn’t exactly have a reputation for calm, controlled driving. I’d talked to more than one person who knew someone who knew someone whose cousin/son/aunt hurled to his/her death when his/her bus plunged over a cliff in South America.

So, I was surprised to discover that South American bus travel isn’t that scary. Sure, there were a few instances when I watched with clenched teeth as we skirted the side of a cliff and maybe a time or two when I felt compelled to close my eyes and pray, but I never felt really, truly in danger.

We took some precautions. For instance, during the times when we’d heard that a route we wanted to travel was particularly mountainous or windy or otherwise dangerous, we always made sure to buy tickets with the most reputable company. Sometimes this cost a little more than going with the company whose wheels regularly fell off, but we were more than happy to pay for the peace of mind. We determined which companies were the most reputable by doing research on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum and on Trip Advisor. (P.S. Be prepared to be terrified after reading these forums. There will always be someone who knows someone whose cousin/son/aunt hurled to his/her death when his/her bus plunged over a cliff.)

So, anyway, that’s what I want to say about that. Mostly, don’t be scared. But also, do your research. If you use your head and listen to your instincts you will be fine.  

Because I consider myself a bit of a pro now, I want to share some things I learned about how to make a long bus journey as pleasant as possible. After all, you don’t want to merely survive your bus ride, you want to actually enjoy it.

Kim’s tips for surviving (and enjoying) South American bus travel:

– Carry your own toilet paper. A whole roll (two if you’ve eaten the salad. Actually, here’s a tip: don’t eat the salad).

– Don’t wear flip-flops if you plan on using the bathroom. Trust me on this one.

– Bring snacks. In some countries, like Ecuador and Peru, people will board the buses to sell you food and drink. Buy that stuff! I still remember the whole loaf of warm banana bread that Brian and I bought for $1. In Brazil, the buses stop at what I can only describe as luxury truck stops. These places have buffets, bakeries and markets. They sell artisanal chocolates! In Argentina, the buses serve hot meals (not vegetarian) and wine. However, none of this is guaranteed so make sure to bring snacks anyway.

– Bring earplugs. South American buses will play loud and incredibly violent action movies. Also, inexplicably, they will play the Three Stooges. If you want to sleep or read or otherwise hear yourself think then make sure to pack the earplugs.

– Keep your toothbrush and toothpaste in your carry-on bag. On really long rides the bus will stop and everyone will file off and brush their teeth together in something that resembles a water trough. You really want to do this. It bonds you to your fellow bus-riders.

– Prepare for all conditions. It might be freezing cold or really hot but it will probably not be comfortable. When dressing for a long-haul bus ride I’d wear both a tank top and a sweatshirt and I’d carry a scarf which I would use as either a blanket or a sweat-rag.

– Bring a headlamp if you want to read. There are overhead lights but they probably won’t work.

– Lock your backpack if it is going under the bus. Put all of your electronics in your carry on bag.

– Don’t put your carry-on under your seat or in the overhead compartments unless you’d like it to be stolen. Keep your bag on your lap and hug it.

– Try to snag the window seat. South America is a place of stunning beauty. It’s wonderful to sit and watch the world go by.

Peru

As seen from the bus. Lima, Peru to Cusco, Peru.

Alpaca Peru

As seen from the bus. Arequipa, Peru to Cabanaconde, Peru.

Torres del Paine National Park

As seen from the bus. Puerto Natales, Chile to Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. 

Brazil

As seen from the bus. Puerto Iguazu, Argentina to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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