Bus travel in South America
South America, Travel Tips

Surviving Long-Haul Overnight Bus Rides in South America

[adinserter name=”Travel Tips”] Backpacking through South America presents some interesting challenges.  Unlike other popular backpacking destinations like Europe or Southeast Asia, each country is rather sizable; getting between cities by air isn’t always an option on a backpacking budget, leaving many travelers to move about almost entirely by land.

By my calculations, I traveled approximately 21,017 kilometers (13,059 miles) by bus during my 8 months of travel across the continent last year and I’ve already tacked on a few thousand more since my return.

Bus rides between major cities in South America can often take well over ten hours.  The good news is that most depart in the evening giving passengers a chance to sleep during the ride.  This limits the number of daylight hours that are spent traveling rather than sightseeing as well, and saves you the cost of a night’s accommodation.

I won’t lie to you, though–these bus rides are not exactly what I’d call fun.  It takes a talented individual to sleep well in an upright position, or to even remain in a seated for such long periods, sometimes up to 24 hours straight.  Yes, you read that correctly–24 hours on a bus.  The longest ride I’ve yet to endure was a full 24 hours between Caracas and Santa Elena de Uairén, Venezuela, though I’ve heard even longer routes do exist (between Peru and Brazil, for example).

So long as you know what you’re in for and show up to your bus well-prepared, however, you can minimize your suffering on these long-haul bus rides from hell.  Here is the best hard-earned advice I can give you on how to do just that.

1. Beware the AC

I’m starting with this tip because I can’t tell you how many of my bus rides were absolutely miserable simply because I underestimated just how powerful the air conditioning would be.  You know how airports and flights are always ridiculously cold no matter how hot (or cold) it is outside?  These buses are no different.  Pack clothes that can be layered on thick when the arctic winds begin to blow, wear long pants, real shoes with socks, or even better yet, bring a blanket or sleeping bag on board with you.  Some buses will even offer you a blanket; take this as a sign of what’s to come and for the love of all things holy, TAKE IT.  If you’re anything like me, being uncomfortably cold means there’s no chance you’ll get a good night’s sleep (or any sleep at all, for that matter) and there’s nothing worse than arriving to your destination only to pass out from exhaustion first thing.

2. Keep everything of value in your carry-on

Your large bag (backpack or suitcase) will be transported underneath the bus, away from your watchful eye.  Don’t leave anything in that bag that someone might want to steal, and I mean nothing.  You should be locking your luggage when you travel anyway, but even still, there’d be nothing stopping someone from slashing into your bag with a knife if they really wanted to.  Keep all electronics, cash, credit cards and your passport on your person or in your carry-on bag (preferably also locked) and store it underneath your feet, never on the overhead shelf.

3. Don’t expect to arrive on schedule

As a good rule of thumb, add at least one hour to the estimated time of your trip.  Sixteen hours is never really sixteen hours, sometimes eight hours turns into eleven, and sometimes fourteen turns into twenty.  Even if your bus doesn’t blow a tire or get stuck behind a truck that’s falling off a bridge (true story), the time the agent tells you is almost always overly optimistic. Bus travel in South America

4. Bring snacks and water

Chances are the bus will make a number of pit stops en route to your destination to let people buy dinner and breakfast and for bathroom and stretch breaks, but there’s no way of knowing exactly when those pit stops will be or what kind of food options will be available. When the bus company does provide a snack (as some VIP buses do) expect it to be carb-heavy and nutrient-poor; if you suspect you’ll want something a little healthier, it’s best to just bring your own.

5. Keep a stash of toiletries handy

Many buses have a bathroom on board, but often they are without toilet paper or a way to properly wash your hands.  The same is true for the bathroom stops along the way.  For this reason, it’s a good idea to have your own little stash of toilet paper and hand sanitizer.  In my experience, it’s always better to be safe than disgusting sorry. And when you’re nearing your destination in the morning, you’ll feel instantly refreshed if you’re able to pop into the bathroom and brush your teeth, cleanse your face with a moist wipe, or even apply a spot of makeup.Colombia bus travel

6. Invest in an eye mask and earplugs

Many buses will be equipped with entertainment systems as well, though an unfortunate trend I saw repeated over and over again in South America was the preference to play violent movies (Death Race 3, anyone?) at incredibly high volume late into the night.  The glow of the TVs is blinding and the sound effects can be deafening–defend yourself against both if you have any hope of sleeping before midnight.

7. Charge up all your electronics before your trip

There’s nothing more disappointing than getting on a long bus ride only to find that your iPod/iPhone/Kindle is just minutes away from powering down.  You may even want your camera handy, as the scenery along the way can be pretty spectacular.  Make charging your electronics a part of your pre-bus checklist so they’ll be ready for that moment when you just don’t feel like chatting with your lovely seat mate anymore.Colombian Andes

8. Don’t be afraid to upgrade

Many bus companies will offer multiple seating options.  The cheapest option will be your average bus seat.  A slightly more expensive seat is what’s known as “semi-cama” (cama meaning bed in Spanish) which means you’ll be able to recline slightly more and have a place to rest your feet.  The best and most expensive option is called “full cama” and allows you to recline to a respectably comfortable position, almost as if you were lying in a bed. These seats are often much wider as well and will definitely give you the best chance of sleeping; as an added bonus, you may just end up with a personal entertainment system and free WiFi on board.  In my opinion, there’s no shame in upgrading to a pricier seat if it could potentially save you a lot of very real physical pain.Bus travel in Latin America

9. Research flight prices before you choose to bus

You may just find that when traveling within a country, domestic flights are not actually outrageously expensive. Here in Colombia, the airline Viva Colombia offers flights that are often less than $100 one-way (I’ve heard of people booking for as little as $60) which is often comparable to the price of a bus ticket or only slightly more expensive.  If you’re time-poor especially, this could be the way to go.  In Bolivia I was able to find a flight between Santa Cruz and Sucre for around $50; sure, a bus would have only cost me about $20, but in the end I saved myself more than 10 hours of travel and a whole lot of hassle.

Tips for surviving those unavoidable long-haul, overnight bus rides in South America

Have you been on overnight bus rides in South America?  What’s your best advice for long-haul bus travel?

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22 Comments

  • Reply Jason January 27, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    Chicken buses excluded, I love long-haul bus travel in Latin America! Probably because I had done so much long-haul bus travel in South and SE Asia before I ever got on a bus in Latin America and my first ride was on a semi-deluxe bus and I was in awe of the fact that I could recline my seat to a near-vertical position and that it had enough cushion to support my lazy body. I immediately took a liking to these semi-deluxe buses and tried my hardest to make traveling on them work whenever I needed/planned to make a long hop.

    I too recommend splurging/upgrading. I remember that luxury liners in Peru like Cruz del Sur offer(ed) killer deals on booking made several days in advance, and sometimes traveling like a king there for $1/hour. But when you can’t get those deals and the difference in cost between the cheapest bus fare and some more expensive fares is not prohibitive, I would definitely recommend splashing out for long journeys.

    When possible, I also recommend booking front seats on the upper level because the views can feel semi-panoramic.

    Stretching frequently and taking full advantages of any stops made along the way is something your body will thank you for immensely, even if you are feeling too lazy to get up when the stop is made.

    In addition to fully charging your batteries, I would recommend those planning to make several long-haul journeys invest in a USB battery pack and ensuring that it is fully charged before each departure.

    And maybe, just maybe downing some Immodium AD or some other constipator if you embark on a 48+ hour journey and want to follow the “solo urinario” rule in effect for most of the bus bathrooms, when they exist/are unlocked for use.

    As far as banditos and bus falls are concerned, cruzar los dedos!

    • Reply La Mochilera January 27, 2015 at 10:03 pm

      When compared to Southeast Asia the QUALITY of buses in South America is definitely better, that’s for damn sure. The chicken buses were a bit much, and the sleeper buses were never as comfortable as I hoped they would be (except when I had some Valium or something hah).

      Forgot about riding in the top front…that IS the best seat, most of the time. Once though, our bus was driving on a crazy windy road during heavy fog and I was positive I was going to have a front row seat when we plunged over a cliff or collided head-on with another bus. Instead someone started puking very near us and we vacated the seat immediately. This was also the night we got delayed by five hours because a truck had gone off the road in front of us. Scary times.

      Carrying a USB battery pack is something I’ve never considered. I’m not the tech-iest person in the world so I probably didn’t even know those existed until I read this. And you’re the second person to mention Immodium, and ew…I don’t think I would ever want to purposely constipate myself…!

  • Reply Ashlea Wheeler January 27, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    This is a great list! Will definitely come in handy for my planned bus rides between Bolivia and Peru this year. Thanks for your tips Leah!
    Ashlea Wheeler recently posted…My 3 strangest travel momentsMy Profile

    • Reply La Mochilera January 27, 2015 at 10:05 pm

      So glad you found it useful, Ashlea! I wish somebody had told me about the AC beforehand. Even nowadays I still underestimate how cold it can be…next time I’m taking my sleeping bag for sure!

  • Reply Carly January 27, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    This is my third trip to South America and I think this is a fantastic list Leah! My first ever bus trip in South America was for 26 hours (!!) and my third bus broke down in the middle of the night which meant I arrived in Cusco 9 hours late. I now joke that you’re not really travelling until your bus breaks down.

    • Reply La Mochilera January 27, 2015 at 10:07 pm

      Thank you, Carly! And I’d have to agree…I don’t know many people (anyone?) who haven’t had crazy bus incidents while traveling through South America. It’s like a rite of passage!

  • Reply Renuka January 29, 2015 at 1:24 am

    Helpful tips. I don’t know about overnight buses anywhere else, but it’s quite a tiring experience here in India. I guess your tips are valuable for any long bus journey.
    Renuka recently posted…Travel Blogs Have Redefined ‘Travel’My Profile

    • Reply La Mochilera January 29, 2015 at 4:57 pm

      I can imagine bus rides in India being pretty hectic!! Are the buses nice there? The nice thing about South America is that Brazil manufactures these super fancy buses so they are pretty widespread in every country because it’s not terribly expensive to import them.

  • Reply Justine January 29, 2015 at 2:09 am

    Obviously I’ve only ever traveled in Colombia. I’d heard such horror stories about buses in Colombia but I only had good experiences. My first bus from Bogota to Rio Claro was super nice and I was overly excited to find out it had WiFi that actually worked (it’s the little things that make me happy)! I think we’ve talked about this before but you’re so right about the AC. They CRANKED it on the buses in Colombia. I always carry a light sweatshirt on planes and buses, but I was still freezing. Ha, and the movies are crazily violent and insanely loud…earplugs are a great idea. I’ve also noticed that people don’t generally use earbuds in Colombia; they just tend to blast their music from their phones. Again, earplugs are a great idea!
    Justine recently posted…La Cordillera Blanca: Peru’s Forgotten High-Altitude PlaygroundMy Profile

    • Reply La Mochilera January 29, 2015 at 4:59 pm

      My most recent trip to Santa Marta reminded me that the AC is not to be underestimated. I left Medellin wearing long pants, boots with socks, and carrying several t-shirts and sweaters to layer on. I ended up using weird things like a dress to cover my legs and a tank-top as a head scarf because I STILL was fucking freezing. I must have looked like an idiot. Taking my sleeping bag next time, no question.

  • Reply Victoria@ The British Berliner January 30, 2015 at 1:18 am

    So many good tips. I like taking buses in Europe as the view and constant change from country to country can be magnificent. As for developing countries, I prefer to fly and as you say, flights there tend to be enormously cheap. I flew from Vietnam to Bangkok for $25 and Bangkok to Bali for $50. You couldn’t beat it LOL!
    P.S. Take the AC tip very, very seriously. Oh, and ear-plugs LOL! Thanks for sharing. 🙂
    Victoria@ The British Berliner recently posted…It’s bizarre. It’s quirky. It’s THE WYLD!My Profile

    • Reply La Mochilera February 1, 2015 at 10:55 pm

      Yeah, same is true in South America! The landscapes really do change drastically and it can be quite beautiful. I wish it was cheaper to fly between countries. I’ve never heard of a flight for anywhere as cheap as that between capital cities here! If only…
      La Mochilera recently posted…Month in Review: January 2015My Profile

  • Reply Kelly January 30, 2015 at 11:23 pm

    Such a great list of tips about long bus rides in South America! I will be sharing this post with anyone who asks me about bus travel in South America. In my handful of long-haul and overnight bus rides around the continent, I was so fortunate that none of them broke down (phew)! But I did find that most of them weren’t on time and they definitely varied in quality between each country.

    I would definitely recommend keeping your valuables on (or close to) you at all times, especially on the overnight buses. In the middle of the night, I awoke to find that we had stopped and the bus was full of people without tickets who had just wandered on. One man was leaning over me trying to grab my stuff – boy, did I have a heart attack! I guess it’s all part of the adventure though 😛
    Kelly recently posted…Hiking The Inca Trail To Machu Picchu: Day 3 & 4My Profile

    • Reply La Mochilera February 1, 2015 at 10:57 pm

      Wow, you did get lucky! I experienced several flat tires and a few other random events that caused delays. Yeah, the valuables thing is really important. My fear of theft on these buses is what typically keeps me from using any kind of sleep aid as well…I don’t want to be so out of it that I wouldn’t notice or wake up if someone was gong through my things. Can’t believe you woke up to a guy trying to rob you! What an awful feeling that must have been!
      La Mochilera recently posted…Month in Review: January 2015My Profile

  • Reply Dave Wheeldon April 20, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Leah, I am planning a 4 month trip to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia and if there is any money left, also part of Chile. Hopefully, more of the continent next year. Since I live in Isla de Margarita, and have not yet travelled Venezuela, I do have to do that next year. Despite my friends and family saying I am crazy to be doing this at my age (I am 76 and so they are right), it is my dream. I am nervous about doing this but I take inspiration from ladies such as yourself who have just gone out and done your thing. Anyway, I digress. The reason for my e-mail is that I would like to be able to show you my plans for the first stage of my trip (Colombia) and get your comments. Obviously, you know the country well and so your advice would be invaluable. On reflection, this is probably a little nervy of me asking this, so I understand if you are unable to help. Btw, I do love your blogs.
    Dave.

    • Reply La Mochilera April 21, 2015 at 2:58 pm

      Hi Dave!! I’m so honored to know that I can inspire people such as yourself. I don’t think you are crazy one bit to want to travel, in my opinion it is never too late. And I’m thrilled to hear that you are already planning your travels despite the less-than-positive reactions from friends and family. Not everyone understands! I’m more than happy to give feedback and/or advice on your travel plans. If you want to email me, you can find my email address (or a contact form if that’s easier) on the contact page of my blog (look for it in the menu at the top of the screen). So pleased to receive such a lovely message from you. Thank you for stopping by, looking forward to talking more!

  • Reply Jon August 4, 2015 at 1:11 am

    hey! great post!
    thanks so much
    can i ask what the buses look like on the inside? im going to south america for the first time and im kinda worried about what the conditions of the buses are and also how safe i am from getting robbed
    Do you happen to have a link to any photos?
    thanks 🙂

    • Reply Leah Davis August 4, 2015 at 1:33 am

      Hey Jon! The bus interiors vary wildly from one to the next and depending which country you’re in, which company you’re traveling with, etc. There are “VIP buses” which are really nice inside, have bigger seats and more legroom, and there are local buses, which are cramped and run down. My best advice for keeping your belongings safe is to travel with your valuables on your person (under your feet, not overhead) and keep them as close as possible especially when you sleep. It’s up to you to keep your things safe and keep yourself from looking like an easy target for theft.

  • Reply Bianca September 12, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    Soon to backpack s.amer solo as a female. Feelin like im preparing for war, yet hoping to chillax n get on latino time vibes! Question for you/readers: debating buying a bag lock for the backpack (those metal cord type doodads like a bike lock basically)—is it worth it? It seems overkill but idk…ill be living in hostels n whatnot so better to be prepared? But really theres no way to conpletely avoid a slasher, right? Do you think said lock would attract more attention? Thanks in advance

    • Reply Leah Davis September 12, 2015 at 10:30 pm

      Hi Bianca! I’m excited for you to start your travels! I definitely advocate buying a lock for your bag, at least to lock anything that’s valuable in case the hostel doesn’t provide locks/lockers of their own. I’ve had things stolen from hostels before (straight out of my bag, which I had forgotten to lock just for a short time) which is why it feels extra important to me. There are locks available that aren’t easy to cut (sorry I don’t have any specific brands to recommend) and I can’t imagine many thieves going through all that trouble anyway. They typically look for the easy target, not something they have to work at. Hope that’s helpful!

  • Reply Bianca September 13, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    Wow Leah thanks for the quick response! I was thinking of something like this:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000MWSZNA?ie=UTF8&tag=ordintrave-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B000MWSZNA

    And honestly my pack is new and unused as of yet, but i am pretty sure that unfortunately the zippers themselves aren’t going to be easily lockable, but I might be able to find a way to make it work…

    • Reply Leah Davis September 13, 2015 at 7:02 pm

      If you have a smaller daypack, maybe just keep your valuables in that one and keep it locked instead of your big pack? Hostel lockers are usually only big enough for small electronics anyway. Just a thought. That lock looks legit!

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