Tips for surviving South American bus rides

by Kim on March 10, 2013 · 50 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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{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

greg March 10, 2013 at 7:38 am

My wife and I traveled around Brasil and elected to travel by the overnight buses called laito (not sure of the spelling, pronounced late-o) it saved us some hotel fees and got us to where we wanted to go. They were pretty comfortable with nice reclining seats. It was like being a baby, you’d go to sleep one place and, miraculously, wake up somewhere else. When we got back home we had laito dreams/nightmares in which we would wake up lying in bed with a sense of panic trying to figure out where we were and where are our shoes..and pants. Very odd.

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:42 am

Good point. I love the buses because it’s two-for-one… you get where you need to go AND you don’t need to pay for a room!

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Sarah Somewhere March 10, 2013 at 8:49 am

I chuckled so much reading this. The flip-flops in the toilet… falling in the toilet!! Hideous and yet memorable, that’s for sure. Thank you for the great tips Kim, I try to avoid epic bus journeys, but it seems in South America, it’s kind of unavoidable :)

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:43 am

Yeah, totally unavoidable. Toilet incident: I’ll never forget it (even though I’d like to)

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Koty March 10, 2013 at 9:00 am

Haha loved this post. I have yet to travel in South America but I too always worried about the buses. Good to hear about all of your varied experiences and that it isn’t as terrible as some people make it out to be. Often travelers will exaggerate the danger of situations and then I find it ends up being not bad at all or even pleasant. :)

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:44 am

Yep, it really is one of those “common sense” scenarios for the most part. Now that it’s all over I look back on those buses fondly (for the most part!)

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Steve C March 10, 2013 at 9:40 am

A great list of tips. I like the one where you did your research on the best bus line to take. I never thought of doing that. I did, however, choose my battles. Maybe it’s changed by now, but a bus ride from Lima to Cusco was not even considered. It was time to fly! Also, the travel between Puno and Arequipa was one of the best train rides of all time.

I’d say if you can do a bus trip in India, you can do it anywhere! It’s best not to sit in the front seat though. Out of sight, out of mind. I don’t really want to experience in detail, the last 10 seconds of my life, (before the crash)!

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:45 am

The bus ride from Lima to Cusco was INSANE! Actually, we bused from Mancora to Lima, hung out in the Lima bus station for two hours, then got on a bus to Cusco. It took two days. I’d actually never do that again (too much!).

Been riding the buses and trains a bunch here in India. The buses are crazy! The trains are crazy too in a less crazy way (that probably doesn’t make much sense…)

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Steve C March 14, 2013 at 11:08 am

Having done both train and bus in India, I know what you mean by “less crazy”. But, wa-da-u do, walk? Or, just stay home?

Na, that’s why we do what we do. Travelers are crazy, although in a “less crazy” way!

Pay me no mind, as I’m just sit’n here at home going crazy.

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 8:12 pm

Haha, that response was kind of like a poem.

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Patti March 10, 2013 at 10:33 am

Funny, yet quite informative! I would be the one barfing AND crying! :o)

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:46 am

Haha, it happens ;)

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Hannah @ Getting Stamped March 10, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Thanks for all the tips! We will be busing all over Ecuador, from Guay along the coast making our way to Quito where we will be flying to Cusco. It was only 10,000 united miles for this flight, and I think it will be well worth it! That toilet incident sounds rough, hopefully our South American bus post won’t have any horror stories like that! Thanks for sharing!

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:46 am

The buses in Ecuador are great. Have fun!!

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Toni March 10, 2013 at 2:35 pm

How serendipitous that I read this. We are catching a very long overnight bus from Sao Paulo to Ouro Preto tomorrow and it’s a good tip about not wearing flip flops. I shudder at the thought about falling in the toilet but I guess it’s a funny story that you can retell later. Much, much later.

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:47 am

Totally much, MUCH later! ;)

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Jodi Henderson March 10, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Oh. Em. Gee. The toilet stuff is so gross! That by itself makes me not want to ever take a super long bus ride. :) Well, actually, it’s that and the fact that I’m pretty sure my back would kill me. In any case, kudos to you for having done it!

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:47 am

Thanks Jodi. Lived to tell the tale!

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Carmel March 10, 2013 at 6:10 pm

We just got home from Seattle, which was a short 3-hour bus ride on a pretty cushy bus. I was thinking about your epic bus journeys the whole time wondering, “how the hell did they do it?” Well, now I know. Sort of.

I saw someone wearing flip flops on this recent bus ride and was wondering what they were thinking. Ew. I like how one of your pictures illustrates that YOU wore flip flops. :)

I am really crying for you about bathroom incident. I swear, that’s not laughter, it’s crying.

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:48 am

Haha, true, I did have flip-flops on. But I always carried shoes too and would actually change into them before going into the bathrooms. Same with the train bathrooms here in India. No way I’d do it in flip-flops.

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Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) March 10, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Oh man, Kim, you have my sympathies and respect. We have experienced some epic train trips since being in Asia, but have largely managed to avoid epic bus routes (though we did have some 8+ bus days in the Philippines, but the buses there are like school buses, so you have to take pit stops, which sounds infinitely preferable over all the times you got up close and personal with urine). Sounds like they are unavoidable while in South America, but the important thing is that you survived them and lived to tell the tale. Whenever we have faced moments like this on our trip, I always try to remind myself that somethng that is horrible in the now generally ends up being funny (or funnier) and a good story in the future. Definitely seemed to be the case this time!

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:49 am

It’s true. The worst incidents of the time make the best stories (as long as things aren’t too horrible). Sigh. But yeah, not so bad. I’m sure we’ll be doing a lot of bus trips in SE Asia.

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Maddie March 10, 2013 at 7:46 pm

You fell in the toilet?! I’m caught between bursting out laughing and wanting to cry at how hideous that is. The buses in South America are the one thing I’m nervous about, at least once we get past the luxury of Argentina! Duly noted about flip-flops ;-)

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:50 am

The buses in Argentina are wonderful! Just enjoy them while you can :)

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Paul Farrugia (globalhelpswap) March 11, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Fantastic post once again! I give the same tips for asian buses. They can be freezing and boiling hot so wear layers.

Argentina is flying up our hit list after reading this! Wine on a bus, how civilsed.

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:50 am

Oh man, Argentina is a wonderful country. Definitely add it to the list!

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Candace March 11, 2013 at 11:51 pm

Loved this post, Kim! And I’m bookmarking it for when I finally make it to South America. I love how an entire culture can develop aboard certain modes of travel in certain countries (i.e. that is such a great detail about bonding with fellow travelers when you brush your teeth). It reminds me of all the little habits I’ve formed in the sleeper class on India’s trains. Thanks for sharing these tips, as well as for the laughs :)

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:52 am

The buses are sort of like the trains in India. Definitely it’s own rules and culture.

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Simon @ CampTravelAdventure March 12, 2013 at 6:45 am

What a great post! It can make such a difference to a long journey if you can just spread out a bit. When I was in SE Asia they regularly over sell the buses so I ended up on the floor…for 15hours!

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 2:52 am

Oh man, that would not be fun!

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Rhonda March 14, 2013 at 9:39 am

OMG..you fell in the toilet? Really? wow.. I am sorry.. I would have cried too and that certainly trumps any long bus journey story I have!

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Kim March 14, 2013 at 8:12 pm

Yep, it happened and it was horrible. Sort of funny now though (sort of!)

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Tracey March 15, 2013 at 5:16 am

Oh Kim! You are an even stronger person because of these bus experiences:) Gotta take some bad with the good and the good from your bus rides looks amazing from the photos. You saw so much. We are still mapping out planes, trains and automobiles for our adventure this post was very informative!Thanks for the perspective.

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Kim March 15, 2013 at 7:15 am

I suppose that is true!!! Really, it’s all just part of the adventure. Could have done without the urine incident though ;)

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Miel March 15, 2013 at 1:13 pm

I logged 179 hours within three weeks in SA, including 6 nights; yes, that is an average of 8.5 hrs a day. Keep in mind that we hiked Macchu Pichu for 5 days as well. This was during el nino of 1997, when we ran into people who were stuck in the mud for five days straight, realizing we had nothing to complain about.

The craziest of bus adventures was when our bus broke down about 3 hours into a 9 hour ride. We not only had to wait another 6 hours for the next bus to come, but then had to fight for a space in the aisle on an already full bus.

Fun times. Wouldn’t trade it for a plane.

Miel

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Kim March 15, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Haha, yep, that sounds about right!!! You should write a book, Miel, you have so many good stories!

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Tom and Margot March 18, 2013 at 7:53 am

Eight years ago when my son graduated from high school, not quite sure what he wanted in life, was encourage by my wife Margot and I to look at life as an adventure embracing every corner as an opportunity to experience something new and to grow by each experience.
With that reminder he planed his seven month trip with his beautiful girl friend Ali and flew to Buenos Aries to take a bus to some where in the Patagonia region for a month worth of Spanish tutoring. (late August) traveling with back-pack, by bus and staying in hostels they journeyed from one end of South America Terra Defiago) to the other (Venezuela) weaving across the Andes several times.
My wife and daughter (Sarah) and I flew to Lima for two weeks at Christmas to join them for a trip on bus eastward up a river valley to Araceepa, Wonciyou and south toward Coosco to visit Monta pecho. Also staying in hostels along the way.
Oh my God the bus trip south was the most treacherous part of the trip. But the most memorable, the beauty of the mountains, the potato fields terraced up the side them and the Oxen and wooden carts, the people with there bright wool sweaters with creased weathered faces from the cool dry climate. the food at the little markets in small villages, blonde blue eyed daughters and tall lanky American boys with there light skinned girl friends stood out and were followed by young school children so they could ask questions and touch their hair. My wife and I were 51 at the time and found the trip exhausting, but very very rewarding, feeling so blessed to have the honor of being young again in the eyes of our children.
Sorry about the spelling, Tom and Margot, we will return!

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Kim March 18, 2013 at 9:34 am

What awesome parents you guys are!

The buses in Peru really do provide the most stunning views. I love you descriptions of the people and mountain scenes outside of the window, so similar to what we experienced as well.

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Alana H. March 21, 2013 at 2:45 am

Hi there,

Great photos and advice; every time I read one of your posts, a wave of envy washes over me. That’s because I’ve always wanted to do what you’re doing. By the way, is there a great conversational Spanish booklet you can recommend for first-time travelers?

Thanks!
Alana

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Kim March 21, 2013 at 5:53 am

Thanks Alana! I don’t know about the conversational Spanish booklet. Brian and I were the worst Spanish students ever! We just downloaded a free spanish/english dictionary on our phone and used that!

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Ron March 31, 2013 at 9:51 pm

It’s been many years since my travels but these bus stories helped spark a memory of being crammed in the front of a bus, sitting half on top of our backpacks and half on the dashboard, literally 6 inches from the windshield hurling down the highway in India. I literally laughed and giggled for hours as I was able to look straight into our bus drivers eyes and see that he was experiencing the same terror as myself from the Miriad of near head on collisions. Business as usual in India:)

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Kim April 1, 2013 at 1:00 am

Oh my, you are brave!!! The Indian buses are the worst!! I drove 2,000 kilometers on those roads and I’m still not sure why there aren’t more accidents (though to be fair, there are a TON of accidents). Glad you survived with good memories :)

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Dani April 6, 2013 at 11:53 am

Great post, Kim – you sum up the South American bus experience so well, and I have to admit I had to giggle when I read that you fell on the toilet seat (horror!!) although it must have been one of the worst moments in South America for you (sorry!). We have taken way too many buses already in South America and we are soooo tired of it. We have another 24-hour bus ride ahead of us (Iguazu to Salta) and as always we make sure that our iPods are charged, we have a number of Podcasts to listen to to keep us entertained, our laptops charged to watch TV shows, and enough snacks to feed a family of five ;-) I am so glad that we both got iPod touches before we came to South America- not sure what we’d do without all the entertainment they provide :) P.S. If you book Clase ejecutivo / Clase Cama, you can usually select a veggie meal. If you book the cheap seats, you’ll go hungry as a vegetarian ;-)
Dani recently posted..Polaroid of the Week: Discovering the roots of Che Guevara

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Kim April 6, 2013 at 10:02 pm

Good tips Dani!!! I’m thinking of getting in ipod touch myself, I’ve heard so many people say that it saves their butts!! A lot of times we did book cama seats but I suppose I wasn’t good enough at navigating the system to request veggie meals. There were times I cried from hunger (not just from falling in piss, though that made me cry too!)

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Amber April 13, 2013 at 11:32 pm

I read a blog about South American buses while I was cursing Central American buses and immediately despised the blogger (I know, totally unfair) due to her portrayal of Argentine buses. I missed CATA buses so terribly while in Central America. Here, I am glad to see you included Peru and Ecuador, which seem to be a little more like Central America – hit or miss, loud, uncomfortable, but the opposite of Argentina!!
Amber recently posted..I Finally Found Heaven on a Beach in Ngapali, Myanmar

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Kim April 16, 2013 at 7:42 pm

Oh yeah, Argentina is just wonderful! One night we drank wine and played bingo on the bus… while stretched out in luxury seats of course. Heaven!

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Gina May 19, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Thanks for the tips. I think I’m heading to South America next, if I don’t get sucked back to Asia.
Gina recently posted..Wordless Wednesday: Transportation in China

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Kim May 24, 2013 at 6:38 am

Ha, do both! ;)

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Luke June 30, 2014 at 9:59 am

Hello, I will be needing to travel from Bogota, Colombia, to Huaraz, Peru (probably via Quito) to Cusco, Peru, and finally to Lima, Peru. I would like to do this via bus as I cannot realistically afford internal flights. Could I possibly have some advice? Do I need to book these buses? How long do they take? Where do I book? ex . . .

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