Updated March 31, 2022
You’re getting ready to set off into the great unknown, exploring Latin America’s wonders.
Back home, bus travel may not be that common, or it’s considered one of the worst ways to travel. Perhaps you have heard dramatic tales about how robberies and such happen during trips in Latin America, and so you come to this article with some natural apprehension.
South America bus travel continues to be the main mode of transportation for the vast majority of people there, from poor to rich alike. Plus, the quality of service and comfort in some countries will blow your mind away and make you realize bus travel is way cool!
Allow me to share with you some tips I’ve picked up during my several decades and hundreds of thousands of kilometers of zooming around Latin America by bus, which I hope will lend you a hand in having a safe and comfortable time experiencing the region.
It depends on your needs and preferences.
If you are tall and need more legroom, or you will be getting up to go to the bathroom frequently, an aisle seat would be best. However, take some extra care for your personal items that you may be keeping on your lap. Wrap the strap around your wrist or ankle and bring them with you if you leave your seat.
I personally prefer the window seat on the passenger’s side, because I can watch the scenery go by and not the highway. It also provides me more inspiration to pass the time writing poetry and an escape from whatever adventure movie is being shown on the television. I also feel that a window seat helps me better secure my belongings and keep an eye on my stowed baggage in the cargo hold underneath the bus, as I can look out the window when the bus stops and monitor what’s being unloaded during a stop.
The amount of legroom between seats largely depends on the class of the bus or the class of the cabin you’re in, similar to an airplane. Most long-distance buses give you the option for coach class (tighter seats that semi-recline) and VIP class (wider seats, more legroom, and fuller recline).
Another factor is the average height of the national population: In countries where the people are generally shorter (like Guatemala, Ecuador or Peru), seats will be placed closer together, while citizens in places like Chile and Argentina tend to be taller, and so more legroom is provided.
Buses in Latin America are kilometers ahead of other countries when it comes to reclining seats. You can choose between the less-expensive 150º recliners to more expensive 180º lie-flat camas.
You can go even further if you reach deep enough into your pockets and splurge on one of the cama-suites. These buses have 180º recliners that are partitioned off from other passengers, and a curtain provides total privacy from the aisle. These types of buses are usually available on bus routes running at night and are most common in Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.
Some routes, especially longer distance trips, only depart at night. Most companies have an extra driver aboard that will change positions with the other after four hours or so of travel. The most luxurious buses are usually equipped with GPS to aid police to locate the vehicle in an emergency, and night buses usually make fewer stops because fewer people are hopping on and off at night.
the other advantage of taking a night bus is you can save money otherwise spent on lodging, but this only works if you can rest well on a bus. Again, the higher-class the bus, the more likely they offer blankets and pillows, just like an airline.
The other option and a really sensible one is just breaking your trip into shorter segments. This will allow you to savor the countryside as it passes by, seeing the landscape in daylight and exploring more towns along the route. In some countries, it is more economical to take several shorter bus rides over one long route.
The safest place for your larger baggage is in the bodega, a big enclosed and locked compartment underneath the bus cabin to which only the bus staff have keys. The majority of companies give a receipt for items checked into the bodega, which you must keep safe until you reach your destination, in order to retrieve your luggage.
Keep valuables and necessary medications with you on board. Safeguard your passport, money and banking cards in a money belt worn under your clothing, below the beltline and against your skin. For added security, you can keep some money in your sock or elsewhere on your person. Never keep these items in a backpack or similar bag, as those are the most vulnerable items to “disappear”!
For your carry-on bag, it is safest at your feet, with one leg through the strap. Luggage stored on the overhead rack easily disappears, so as a rule don’t use it.
A simple, locally made shoulder bag can carry an amazing amount of items. For example, in my modest backpack fits a bottle of water, an assortment of food and snacks collected before I board or buy at rest stops, a book to read, my mobile devices, a journal and pen, a small clock, toilet paper, and handkerchief. Wi-Fi is reaching saturation on all long-distance buses now, but the service often only works in or near large cities.
If you need to take medication regularly, also keep that in your carry-on bag.
Another thing easy to forget is a jacket, especially if the air conditioning is cranked up or you are traveling through high altitudes at night. A large shawl or poncho also works wonderfully, as not only can you wrap yourself in it, but it also makes a nice blanket or pillow, or pull it up over your head to block out the adventure movie being shown.
The upper-class buses have meal service included in the price, often with a choice of meat, chicken or vegetarian entrées. In Argentina and Chile, wine or other spirits are offered with your meal or in between meals.
If the bus company doesn’t offer an onboard service, then it will stop at a roadside diner for meals. These restaurants might not be to your liking in terms of what they serve or the price, but if you’ve packed food into your carry-on, you can opt to have a picnic instead.
But don’t go wandering off too far! You’ll want to hear when the reboarding call comes!
These stops also allow passengers to use the restroom. The toilet on board the bus is only for urinating. If you need to do “further business” and you have a long way to go until the next scheduled rest stop, then it's fine (and common) to ask the driver for a courtesy stop.
Sometimes you might have to hang out at the bus terminal for a while, whether waiting to board your bus or waiting for the next one to leave.
Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t let yourself be distracted, especially from your belongings. Keep your bags at your feet or side, with your legs over the top of them, or an arm or leg through the strap. Alternatively, you can check your bags into a terminal baggage locker room, or with the bus company. Both services will give you a receipt, and this will allow you more freedom.
Don’t flash money. Keep enough spending dough in your pocket, and while they are now ubiquitous, it’s wisest in the terminal to keep your smartphone, camera or any other electronics stowed away until you’re onboard the bus.
Do not accept food, drink or cigarettes from strangers as these might be drugged with scopolamine or other knock-out substance!! The exception is you're being sold food from vendors who the driver allows boarding the bus at intersections. This is common and safe.
So, kick back and enjoy the ride. Relax if you encounter unforetold adventures like a flat tire or sheep crossing the highway. Life happens along the way.
Lorraine Caputo is a travel writer, poet, and translator. She has authored ten guidebooks for South America. Her literary works appear in over 150 journals in Canada, the US, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa; 18 anthologies and twelve chapbooks – including the collections of travel poetry, Caribbean Nights (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014) and Notes from the Patagonia (dancing girl press, 2017). For more than a decade, she has been traveling through Latin America, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her travels on her Facebook page.
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