Buses are a great means of transport throughout South America. With many benefits and only a few shortcomings, they’re an affordable and reliable option to get you from A to B on this massive continent. Navigating the bus system isn’t without its share of challenges for foreigners though. This guide sums up everything we learnt in our six-month backpacking trip, and trust me, we took more than our fair share of buses!
Bus Travel in South America: How Does It Stack Up?
Long-distance distance bus services in South America are generally very reliable. In our experience, if the bus says it will run at a certain time, it almost always does.
We did, however, hear stories of services disrupted by roadblocks, so it’s worth keeping an eye on groups like Backpacking South America to see if anyone else has been affected by disruptions on the route. In our six months, we didn’t personally experience any significant delays (aside from one where we travelled in a storm and the roads were cut off by fallen trees) so chances are, you’ll be fine.
Bus travel is undoubtedly one of the cheapest methods of transport on the continent.
Alternatives are available but few offer the benefits of bus travel. Hitching a ride is always an option but with potential safety issues, our lack of Spanish and the possibility of being left stranded on the side of the road, it wasn’t for us. Likewise, trains don’t really exist in South America and air travel can be expensive unless it’s booked well in advance (which we didn’t want to do, in favour of having a more flexible schedule).
With all of this taken into account, buses are easily the most cost-effective mode of transport that offer both safety and reliability.
With a range of seats available on most long-distance buses, you’ll likely find a comfortable spot to sit (it may just cost you a little more). Generally, bus seats are more comfortable than those found on airlines and as you’ll periodically have breaks to get up and stretch your legs, you won’t spend the entire time sitting down.
Seat Selection: Where Should I Sit and How Much Will it Cost?
Though there are a number of different bus classes, the two that you’ll see most often are semi cama (semi bed) and cama (bed). Think of them like the economy and business class of long-distance bus travel.
In general, the seats within each cabin will offer the same pitch and amount of legroom regardless of their location. Keep in mind that the seats at the back of the bus are likely to be the most secure (as nobody will be able to reach under your seat to your daybag), but they’re also likely to be near the toilet (if you’re upstairs in a semi cama seat). Though some of the toilets will be well maintained, some of them will be far from it, so you’ll want to consider that when selecting your seat. Personally, I’d rather hold onto my gear and be in a stink-free zone!
Making up the majority of long-distance coach travel in Latin America, semi cama seats (found upstairs on a double-decker bus) provide travellers with a reasonable level of comfort at an affordable price. Seats recline more than a standard airline seat and come with a leg/foot rest so aren’t a bad option, especially during the day.
The most comfortable class found on most buses, cama is like the business class of the coach-world. Where semi cama fits four seats across two aisles, the cama seats only three. Not only are the cama seats wider, but they’re also plusher and often covered in leather. They have an improved footrest design and offer a greater pitch, allowing guests to lay closer-to-flat to sleep. You’ll generally find cama seats downstairs in a smaller area (often only seating 12 passengers) though occasionally you’ll encounter a bus that only offers full cama, in which case it doesn’t matter if you’re upstairs or down.
For overnight travel we definitely preferred full cama seats, though we did book semi cama night bus seats on occasion and made it through fine.
Bus Facilities: What Can I Expect?
Most buses throughout South America some equipped with an onboard toilet and an attendant that will help organise your baggage. Some will supply food (whether it be a warm meal, sandwich or snack pack) but don’t count on it. A few of the buses we caught had TVs; generally, these were in the aisles, playing old movies (dubbed over in Spanish) but we did have one long-distance bus that supplied us with individual screens and English movies.
How Safe are Buses in South America?
Though we’d heard horror stories about people having their carry-on bags stolen and buses being held up during the night, we didn’t encounter one single problem in our six months of bus travel. Yes, safety can be an issue but based on our experience, you’d be unfortunate to face an issue.
With that said, it doesn’t hurt to take a few precautions when travelling through South America by coach.
- Carry valuable items in your day bag and keep it with you in the cabin of the bus. Don’t place this bag on the floor (unless the person behind you cannot access this space) or in the storage areas. As the seats are fairly wide, it’s easy to place your bag beside you until you scope everything out.
- If you’re travelling through an area with known safety issues, try to avoid night buses. We took countless night buses without incident and though we’d never warn anyone off them in general, that does seem to be when we’ve heard of the occasional issue.
- Be mindful of your clothes and appearance. We intentionally left our nicer clothes and jewellery at home to avoid putting targets on our backs when travelling around, especially whilst in cities and at bus stations – it’s good practice in general.
- Be aware of your surroundings, especially whilst at bus stations when it’s dark out.
Day Buses or Night Buses?
We travelled on countless buses, both during the day and night. From a safety point of view, we personally didn’t notice a difference.
Night buses will save you a nights accommodation and give you more time at your destination, but will generally mean you don’t get a great nights sleep and arrive groggy. For months we tried to avoid sleeping pills, struggling to sleep on night buses but once we gave in and medicated ourselves, it made a world of difference! If you do decide to hit a night bus, be sure to pick up some sleeping pills over the counter first.
By comparison, day buses will eat into your time (potentially resulting in an entire day on the road) but will likely mean you arrive feeling fresher, ready for your hostel/hotel check-in.
Both options have pros and cons so we’d encourage you to consider what is most valuable to you and to make your decision from there. If you have plenty of time, why not try both and decide for yourself?
Supplies: What Should I Take Aboard?
Though buses will often stop briefly to let people on and off (which generally give passengers a few minutes to pick up snacks) and may provide set meal break stops, it’s best to take everything you’ll need onboard with you. Some buses surprised us with a large number of stops whilst others kept charging through, with no practical opportunity to leave the bus. Occasionally we were provided with proper meals or snack packs but again, this was far from commonplace so isn’t to be relied upon.
We recommend you take the following supplies onboard:
- Correct ID for border crossings
- For night buses: Sleeping pills, an eye mask, earplugs and a neck cushion.
Baggage: What Can I Take With Me?
Baggage allowances vary from company to company but in all of our travels, we were never once limited by this. Towards the end of our travels, we had two bags each to check which did tend to be the standard baggage allowance. Nobody seemed worried about the baggage that was carried onboard/checked though so even if you are over this, I wouldn’t let it worry you.
Booking Tickets for Bus Travel
Our favourite way to book buses online in South America is to use an online booking agent; these sites are reliable and available in a range of languages which is always a bonus! We used all of the following sites:
Should you wish to purchase tickets online, you are sometimes able to do so directly with the bus company. We used the following companies whilst on our trip and recommend them all, though the ease in which you can book online varies:
- Peru: Linea, Excluciva /Superciva
- Peru (with connections through Argentina, Chile, Ecuador & Colombia): Cruz Del Sur
- Brazil: Reunidas Paulista
- Argentina: Cal Tur
- Chile: Pullman, Andesmar Chile, Turbus
Booking in Person
If your Spanish is up to the task or you’re lucky enough to come across an agent that can speak English, booking in person is a great option. If you do decide to book in person, we recommend getting to the station a day or two earlier to ensure you get the time and seat of your preference. Even with our minimal Spanish, we often booked in person at the bus station; fortunately, most of the bus representatives are exceptionally patient!
Buses in South America – Are They Really A Good Option?
You bet! Buses through the continent are affordably priced, reliable and safe. When compared with other modes of transport, coaches really do stack up.