How to survive long distance bus journeys in South America

20+ hour bus journeys are inevitable in a continent the size of South America. And the good news is, they’re not as bad as they sound. In fact, the buses are pretty pimpin’, and often the long journeys staring out the window and having a nice little nap can be the antidote to activity-crammed weeks. Here are my top tips on what to expect and how to prepare for the most comfortable and enjoyable ride.

Start of the journey: full of hope…

1. Don’t underestimate the chill factor
Yes, it’s 30 degrees outside, but these buses have SUPER powered aircon, and they’re not afraid to use it. From early evening onwards, once the sun’s gone down, the bus basically becomes a mobile fridge, and you need to be prepared for this eventuality. I always bring the following: pair of leggings, pair of socks (vital, given your legs will be stretched out whilst sleeping and the tootsies get pretty cold!); cardigan/hoodie; scarf; microfibre towel to double up as a blanket.

2. Assume there’s gonna be some loud, annoying distractions on board that might hamper your attempts to sleep

Not feeling too fresh after a rocky night’s sleep

This could come in many forms. Often you’ll get mums on board with tiny kids, sometimes sitting on their laps, that will cry when their ears pop or they get bored, and they might even pull at your hair from the seat behind (this happened to me twice!). Other forms could be… insanely loud ringtones (this happens occasionally!), or the most annoying distraction of all… after they’ve shown a film, they sometimes leave the DVD menu playing on roll for hours (Sam’s actually found the DVD player and turned it off in the past!). For these eventualities, we bring an eye mask, and ear plugs. Doesn’t help with the hair pulling, but works like a treat on other distractions!

3. The food will probably be ok (or even pretty good!) but bring snacks just in case

Eating is one of the most fun things to happen on the long bus journey. Anticipating the food, eating the food, thinking about further instances of food that will happen. Generally in Argentina it’s like this: lunch around 12-1, snack (alfajore and coffee) around 2-4, dinner at around 9 or 10, then if you’re overnight, you’ll get breakfast (normally another alfajore!) at around 8 or 9, then lunch again at 1. If you mis-time these (i.e. getting on at 4) make sure you’ve eaten lunch or it’s a long old wait for dinner! Empanadas make great bus snacks, and keep well. Eat the meat ones first as they demand freshness the most! In Chile, you get fed a bit less. Further North (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia) getting fed is virtually unheard of (maybe sometimes in Peru) so bring snacks!

4. The food actually probably will be pretty good (especially in Argentina!)…

Just to give you examples of what we’ve had so far in Argentina: chicken milanesa with sweet potato mash, ham tortilla and pastifrola (jam cake thing) for dinner; chicken, ham and stuffing roll thing with ham and cheese sandwich, cake; chicken pasta; spicy bean burger with a mini slice of pizza… Lunch is generally more meagre, like a ham and cheese sandwich, but you’ll normally get a nice sweet treat too.. definitely enough calories for sitting on your bum for hours on end! There’s usually free coffee on tap too (it’s insanely sweet, strong and artificial, but you’ll probably grow to love it like us. Sam now checks for the coffee tap as first protocol when boarding!) In Chile we’ve had packaged food, and in Peru we’ve occasionally had hot food when leaving somewhere popular like Cusco, but otherwise don’t bank on food being provided.

Chicken and mash

Milanesa and home made alfajores!

 

5. Bring some good entertainment with you (prepare for the worst)

You might luck out with a beautiful view like this of the sunset…

… but in reality you might be stuck watching a Spanish dubbed 90s action film on a screen like this

Generally all buses show movies. These generally start in the evening, then they might play a couple in the evening/afternoon, then start them off again in the morning (sometimes painfully early.. 7am is far too soon to see Bruce Willis shooting at bad guys)… which brings me onto the next point: quality. Sometimes you luck out and get a great run of films – I think our best was Little Miss Sunshine followed by 127 Hours. But sometimes, it’s just terrible. Fantasy film after action after kids film… urgh. And more often than not, it’s dubbed in Spanish (though sometimes you get lucky with just subtitled). We usually half-watch one, but also rely on failsafes like Spotify playlists (it’s really worth keeping a Premium subscription for a tenner a month. The free one only works abroad for two weeks then they cut you off); audiobooks on an app like Scribd are genius and distract you for hours; Spanish learning tapes like Michel Tomas are pretty good; and catching up on diaries/blogs etc…

6. The comfort level is really good, so you don’t really have to trade up

The leg room is good, even on semi cama

We’ve almost always opted for ‘semi cama’ which is the cheaper option, and you’ll be really nicely surprised by how good it is. You get tons of leg room (enough for us giant gringos!), a little leg rest that extends to the floor to elevate your calves, wide seats, and the chairs go back 50 degrees or more, so you’ll sleep well, with just a little wriggling around. Most nights I haven’t woken up at all. We took a ‘cama’ (the best) class once as it was the same price, and it was pretty sweet, but not hugely different. Chairs went back a little further, and were wider – only 3 chairs a row in a whole coach, mad! But generally semi cama is fine. All I’d say is ask about the toilet, because we’ve been on posh buses in Peru and Bolivia for 12+ hour journeys that don’t have toilets, then you’re peeing on the side of the road (if you’re lucky) or not peeing at all!

Slight upgrade to cama

7. It can be really costly!! Cut back where you can in Argentina and Chile.

Kinda related to point 6, buses in Argentina are MAD spenny. Even compared to neighbouring Chile, they’re about 4 times the price or more. We paid about 75pounds each for our 20 hour-ish journeys, or even 110 for a really long one up the country. They’re more expensive if travelling difficult roads (e.g. up Ruta 40, a bumpy motorway that runs up the country and is only really travelled by tourist buses), and also if they’re going to really touristy places, like Bariloche in the Lake District for example (the most expensive bus, no matter which direction you approach it from). If you fancy it, hitchhike the short distances in safe places, like border crosses between Chile and Argentina, to save on smaller fares. Or check planes for longer distances. Fares in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador are much cheaper and generally far cheaper than flights, but it’s always worth checking for longer distances.

Hitching from Argentina into Chile

8. Go with the big player brands

We always went with Andesmar, the biggest in Argentina, and they were always pretty good. We’ve heard from fellow travellers they sometimes give you free wine in Wine Country and play games like bingo (though we haven’t witnessed this first hand!) The best brand in Patagonia (Chile and Argentina) is called Taqsa and they’re ace. The last bus we got had awesome 90s rave music on when we boarded (you could turn it off with individual speakers above you); it had a digital menu display at the front that told you the temperature outside, whether the loo was free etc., the drivers were lovely, great customer service, and really nice food (the best crumbly homemade alfajores…mmmm) In Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, we always just went with cost/time convenience, but in general we went for Omnileas (Peru) where possible, and just asked around in Colombia and Ecuador – the standard was pretty high. Bolivian standards were pretty low across the board :-/

9. The toilet situation is a-ok

The loos onboard in most cases are akin to aeroplane toilets, or better (at least at the start of the journey!). Bring your own loo roll, but you’ll be able to wash your hands in running water and flush. They sometimes don’t let you do number 2s on the bus, but there are regular stops for that. Standards slip in Bolivia, and sometimes Colombia – but just ask what the situ is ahead of boarding.

10. Don’t watch the clock!

Sam enjoying a nap

Hang in there, relax, kick back, and mix up your entertainment and window-staring time for optimal time-passing activity. Often there’s not a lot to look at, but staring out the window, and at the cute little towns you pass by can be a pretty fun activity in itself. Oh, and drink as much free coffee and soda as you can. Get into Spotify playlists or binge-listen to podcasts. I think I got through about 10 podcast series in just a few months!  Dream, daydream, get excited about where you’re going. Remember, YOU’RE NOT AT WORK. Enjoy that fact.

Living it up at the front on the top deck