Epic South American Adventures… by Bus

While searching for some games to download for one of our countless epic S. American bus journeys, I was surprised that one of the most popular games in the Google play store here in Brazil was “Bus Simulator”, a little less popular being “Bus Simulator 3D” – I suppose it just goes to show how the South Americans love buses! However, I decided to stick with solitaire for now…

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A typical cramped cooperative mini-van (usually only travel once ALL the seats are taken)

I honestly find it hard to believe the days (actually weeks now) we’ve spent on buses on this trip – anything from comfortable new double-decker sleepers, to antique creaking, squeaking local mountain village buses complete with a cargo of cuey (guinepig) food and smelly cheese brought in by an equally smelly passenger. I do hate bus travel especially on the longer routes – the dirty, busy stations, the seemingly endless waiting and being forced to eat so much junk food and truly awful coffee. I never set foot in one in the UK if I can help it, however it’s unavoidable here and especially for us as carting around paragliders and camping gear means that internal flights are impossible or very expensive. Without this problem and on long routes, flying is actually often cheaper and obviously faster, but it does also lock you into a schedule (which we normally needed to keep more flexible) as you have to book in advance to get these cheaper tickets. We were the only dumb ones to take the entire 30+ hour trip from Salvador to Rio in the bus!

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No, not a dead body in the hold – just the driver taking a nap!

While night buses are an efficient use of time and help with accommodation costs, they are not at all nice in my view (though Xioating, being able sleep anywhere at any time enjoys the excuse for extended rest!). For some reason they always turn the air-conditioning to the max in Colombia and Brazil. This can catch out naive travellers like us (despite the warnings in the guidebooks) who can’t comprehend the Arctic temperatures these buses can achieve and hop on without changing from our 40 degrees tropical clothing. After spending one very long shivering sleepless night like me, you’ll learn!  The view is of course limited to the frequent glare of passing traffic and the occasional town lights which (for me anyway) makes the time go very slow, and it is sometimes scary – like our breakneck rally race into the Colombian mountains on a bumpy winding road where all you can see is the dim outline of trees rushing past as the bus bounces and slides around the corners. In Colombia especially, you also have to just try to accept the blind overtaking of lorries around corners to preserve the hard won momentum.

On the plus side, buses here are generally pretty good (certainly better than in the UK) – they’re mostly cheap, numerous, frequent, nearly always have friendly drivers who help with luggage and are mostly comfortable especially in Brazil and Peru (though nothing could really be comfortable over 24hrs!). And like flying, there’s often a choice of class including sleeping seats which go quite flat, for a price of course. In Colombia the WIFI was great (better than any place we stayed at) and seemed to be in nearly every bus, even mini buses. Brazil in contrast was rather disappointing – all our buses advertised WIFI but it has absolutely never worked even in a top end sleeper bus. The drivers just shrug and walk away if questioned about it. The WIFI in Peru only occasionally worked.

Day buses can also offer the opportunity for some extensive daydreaming (and even blog writing!) for those like me. Though not to be counted on, we’ve also been on some truly beautiful and spectacular roads which you’d just miss if flying over it all.

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El Cocuy milk truck (stand in the back and dodge the milk being poured in)

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Our very welcome ride in the back of a government official pickup truck in Colca Canyon in Peru

Occasionally situations called for alternative transport to busses if there were none available. In S. America it is quite easy to hitch a lift in or on whatever might be going your way which is often free or maybe for a small donation. This included; the El Cocuy milk truck in Colombia (a fun but smelly, incredibly slow and roundabout way to get up and down the mountains), motorbikes, supply trucks, the back of pickup trucks, in various cars/taxis and rickshaws and once Xiaoting got a rather slow and uncomfortable ride in a peddle powered ice-cream trike! All these trips were interesting, but not always the fastest or most comfortable means of transport!

Bus Travel Advice

On our travels, we learnt several hard facts the hard way, so this summary should help you get there a bit more smoothly and with a bit less stress:

In Colombia and Peru buses stop almost anywhere (except for the long distance express or tour buses of course). In Brazil they will only stop at designated areas in town, but will stop at random places out of town, though on hi-ways it’s best not to count on it.

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Our fun ride up to the paragliding launch in Roldanillo in Colombia

We heard stories of bags going missing from buses from overheads and the trunk, so keep an eye on it if you can, and keep your baggage tag and tickets safe. In Brazil (and sometimes Peru) the system is very secure – they check your ticket, then put a tag on your bag and the corresponding sticker on your ticket so they can be matched up later. Colombia was only sometimes this thorough. For the posh long distance buses in Peru the baggage system was very fussy but secure requiring an airline-like check-in system, but at other times on other busses there was no tags or security at all.

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Expect flat tyres, but don’t expect any spares even in smart-looking buses like this one in Colombia

For night buses, wear long sleeves and socks, take water and maybe something for a pillow. But some of the up market buses in Brazil and Peru provide a thin blanket and a pillow, water and some snacks which they’ll mostly advertise, but there is no such thing as up market in Colombia, so you need your own. We found sleeping bags a comfortable solution to combat the cold. I also had an eye-mask (stolen from a plane) and headphones which were useful to block out some of the bustle of people getting on and off or the loud TV speakers in some Peruvian busses.

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Landslides like this one in Peru are not uncommon

In Columbia the buses double in price for national holidays so try to avoid these if possible, though for us on this length of trip, it was not. And during holiday periods also beware of different, limited or non existent schedule as we found on Boxing Day in Colombia! Also in Colombia and Peru we were often overcharged compared to the locals when getting on local buses (though this was not normally much). We found the trick was not to ask “how much” but to simply hand over what you think it should be (if you have a rough idea!) Companies often vary in price, speed (number of stops) and comfort if they serve the same route, so get advice on which to take, though it’s normally pretty obvious as in the bus station – it’s the company with the biggest queue! And though not necessary in Colombia, for the long distance routes in Brazil and Peru you must have your passports ready when booking and boarding or they won’t let you on.

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Roadside repair of suspension in Peru

Book early if possible to get a good seat – the very front on bigger buses is good as you don’t have some annoying person squashing you as they put their seat as far back as possible and you are more likely to get a view out front. Unfortunately there is nothing you can do in advance about that damn kid behind you who enjoys repeatedly kicking you in the kidneys unless you sit in the back. But this we do not recommend as the ride is normally very bumpy indeed in the back and the toilets can start to be unpleasant after a few hrs on the road. Especially in Colombia don’t be surprised if your booked seat is taken though, but we found that people will mostly move if you wave your ticket at them and stubbornly wait!

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1st of 2 flats in 10 minutes in Peru

Don’t count on a schedule, especially on the longer routes. Though departures can be on time, arrival times are aspirational at best (if not; no earlier than) and seldom achieved. Our supposedly 16hr bus from Governador Valadares to Salvador in Brazil was 2 hrs late leaving and arrived in Salvador 4 hrs late. Also, the local cooperative mini-vans typically only leave when completely full which in our experience can mean a 30+ minute wait. Flat tyres are common because of the tyre and road quality – In Peru our taxi had 2 flats literally in the space of 10 minutes! And I’m frankly amazed that in Colombia that we only experienced one flat tyre, but it did delay us a good hour as the bus had no spare and we has to go to a repair shop. Landslides are also common due to the rough and ready road building techniques, and a couple of times we came to an extended stop to wait for our road to be built!

All in all, we had some fascinating if sometimes uncomfortable bus journeys in S. America and in any case, what choice do you have…!?