South America is huge, and full of interesting places to explore. Distances between destinations aren’t short, there are no trains to speak of, and flights aren’t exactly budget, so you’ll probably spend a fair bit of time on buses. We’ve travelled a fair bit by bus in Chile and Peru, and we’ve picked up a few ideas that could help to smooth your journey.

To listen, hit play below or find episode 147 in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud:

For journeys of less than six hours, your best bet is to travel by day and enjoy the scenery (at least in the south of Chile, in the north it’s quite repetitive). But for longer journeys, save your days for sight-seeing and travel by night.

The buses are generally safe and comfortable, and you can increase your comfort by paying more for a better seat. The names vary from company to company, but generally there are four classes of seats on night buses.

Choose a seat

The cheapest seats are similar to seats on a plane – they recline a little but not as much as you might wish. A semi-cama reclines more, (about 65 degrees) and sometimes comes with an extendable leg rest. A cama reclines to 160 degrees but your legs still aren’t horizontal, and a full cama is basically a bed – it reclines to a completely lie-flat position and the person in front of you doesn’t encroach on your space at all.

Buying tickets

chile bus travel - flores bus terminal
A typical bus station ticket office, Chile - Bus travel in South America
Depending on the journey, it is possible to show up at the bus station and buy tickets for the next bus that’s leaving. However, for popular journeys, and during peak times, it’s better to buy your tickets at least the day before, or preferably three or four days in advance.

Make sure you know which type of seat you want, and be aware that each bus usually only has one or possibly two types of seat – so if you’re travelling with people with different seat desires, you may have to split up. Also have an idea of what time of day you want to leave.

Usually there’s more than one company running each route, so ask around to compare prices. As always though, the cheapest isn’t always the best – a middle ground should give you the balance of comfort, reliability and price that you want. You can occasionally bargain down the price, but this isn’t really standard practice.

When you buy your tickets, find out where the bus leaves from. It might leave from a different terminal from where you bought your tickets.

Leaving

bus travel in Chile jac pucon - bus travel in South America
JAC terminal in Pucon, Chile - Bus travel in South America
When it’s time to catch your bus, make sure you arrive 20-30 minutes before the departure time. Since bus travel is quite popular, the bus terminals in most towns and cities (at least in Chile) have 20 or more gates – so it’s important to ask which one your bus will leave from (it isn’t usually signposted). You’re usually given a range of numbers (for example, 8-13) and you should keep an eye on all the buses that arrive at these gates.

Make sure you’ve packed a bag for carry-on that includes a jumper, ear plugs and your passport. It’s also a good idea to take some food and water – even though some companies advertise that they serve breakfast, it’s often very minimal. Most companies provide a pillow and blanket, but an inflatable neck pillow is a great idea for long night trips as well.

Your main bag goes into the storage compartment under the bus. Make sure you keep the ticket the conductor gives you, as you’ll need it to get your bag back. This system is relatively secure, but it’s always a good idea to keep your valuables on you and not in your main bag.

Bus travel in South America is a great way to travel – enjoy!

To listen, hit play above or check in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud.

Your thoughts on "How to catch a bus in Chile and Peru podcast"

  • Hi, My boyfriend and I are about to set off on an RTW trip. We were planning on traveling mostly by bus through most of South America, but have heard recently that it is not safe to do so, almost at all. Is this true? How do we know which companies are safe & reputable? Any info would be great. Thanks!

    on April 12, 2010 at 10:46 pm Reply
  • No, that's nonsense. We've been travelling trouble-free for over two months. Last night we had dinner with a family of four who regularly travel through South America. You may be pick-pocketed in local buses or combis (minibuses that run a set route) and the quality of the mechanics and drivers can be below par for first world countries but overall there's no need to expect danger. While travelling long distances, choose an "executive" bus and you'll be fine. We talk about some of the companies we've travelled on in the podcast, but you're best to ask local friends that you make which bus is best for each particular leg of the journey.

    on April 13, 2010 at 2:04 pm Reply
    • Hi, I am going to be staying in Santiago, Chile for the month of May and we wanted to take a bus to Peru to see some of the ancient ruins there. What bus lines would be travellng along this route? Thanks so much! Jessy

      on March 26, 2013 at 3:20 pm Reply
      • Hi Jessy - it really depends on what you book! There are several companies that will take you up to the border. You'll cross the border by train or taxi, and book onto another bus on the other side. The other option is to go on a private tour over the Uyuni Salt Flats (highly recommended!) which will leave you at Uyuni in the south of Bolivia. From there, you can bus up to La Paz > Copacabana > Puno (Peru at last!) > Cusco or Arequipa.

        on April 8, 2013 at 9:44 am
      • Hi Craig and Linda, Thank you so much for the information on the buses. Do you know of any tourist companies in Santiago that I could book that private tour with that you mentioned?

        on April 8, 2013 at 3:03 pm
      • Hi again Jessy, I don't have any direct contacts with tour operators in Santiago, I'm afraid. What people tend to do is bus up to San Pedro de Atacama, and book the tour there. You can normally do it the next day, or maybe stay one night... I've never heard of it being overbooked. But then again, any tour office in Santiago will be able to hook you up, with their mark-up of course. You'll want to look through these articles to get an idea of what you might expect, and how we choose the best driver on the day of the trip we did. https://indietravelpodcast.com/?s=uyuni Intrepid do a 21-day tour from Santiago to La Paz, which would be a useful template for you: Intrepid Travel - small group tours (Intrepid's one of our booking partners, so we get a commission if people buy through this link.) Intrepid use local transport in South America almost all the time, so if they're going, it's likely a bus runs there or a taxi can connect you. We've been to almost all of those places -- just not quite on this itinerary -- and they're all great. San Pedro can be a bit of a backpacker ghetto, but make sure you head out to the astronomy tour when you're there -- it's amazing! (There's a few podcast's on northern Chile/Argentina on the site.)

        on April 8, 2013 at 3:33 pm
  • Your articles are so spot on! I have yet to identify any article that was not fact. Traveling America by bus is actually the most enjoyable experience, as you will also meet some wonderful and interesting characters whilst seeing the vast country. Often you will meet less than desirable, hence I would pay for a little more to get the best seat you can. I know this sounds trite, but their are some really strange people out there!

    on June 30, 2010 at 9:09 pm Reply
  • Hey again Linda and Craig, My travel agency is a firm favorite of your site, in case you had not noticed. I am particularly interested in South America and its culture as I have many clients considering travel to this beautiful, but often misunderstood Country. You know, it amazes me, the fear people promote within countries of different tongue and looks. We experience this often in Thailand and yet we travel to western countries and violence, theft, prostitution and all the negative human behaviors are ripe and big business. How do we break down these unreasonable and ill informed perceptions of Asia, South America, Africa and so on? I have many expat friends from around the globe living in and around South Asia, are they fearing their lives, no, they live fulfilling lives with all the complexities that occur in any country. Personal safety and safe keeping of your belongings is not a unique expectation to South America or Asia. Lets open our eyes and begin truly living and loving in this wonderful world of ours. Travelers can play a significant role in bridging perceptions. It is all too easy.

    on July 4, 2010 at 9:59 pm Reply
  • Agree with Craig and Linda here Heather - there really should be no probelm as long as you don't nod off on a combi with all your valuables under your seat... Also in Peru, if you get slightly more expensive 'luxury' coaches then you have a coach stewardess on there as well, and they film you getting on and off the bus and take your passport details for security reasons - it really is quite thorough and comfortable, though these sort of buses don't run every route and I'm sure everyone loves experiencing the more local kind of buses, though the luxury ones are a nice placer to start if you are feeling a little nervous.

    on July 14, 2010 at 11:02 am Reply
  • thanks so much, this is really helpful. im planning a trip for next january, febuary, and march and want to go to the major cities on the west coast, but i cant seem to find any prices. does anyone know about how much bus tickets from cartagena-quito, quito-lima, lima-santiago, and santiago-buenoes aires will cost? thank you!

    on August 20, 2010 at 7:44 pm Reply

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