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.
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.
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.
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!