Taking the Bus in Latin America
Be warned!! People will tell you lies. Not big ugly unforgiving go-straight-to-jail-and-do-not-pass-go lies...but little white lies that stretch the truth. For example, “This bus comes with…”
AC: Either the bus will be overly air-conditioned and freezing, or not working at all no matter how many times you ask the driver.
Wifi: Hit or miss whether there is wifi and/or whether you are able to connect properly.
Reclining Seats: Well let’s just say it’s no lazy boy situation...the seats do recline, which mostly means less space for you since the person in front also has their chair in the fully reclined position.
Washroom: The only bus we have been on with a washroom was an overnight bus from Colombia to Ecuador, and believe us, trying to go pee on a bumpy bus ride is quite a task...! I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage per se. Especially when you are stuck sitting at the back of the bus and the fragrance of the washroom keeps wafting in your direction - ew!!
Media: Yes, this is all too true. Most busses will have a pixely screen playing some sort of obnoxious action movie or drama [in Spanish, no subtitles], and the volume is turned WAY UP just so everyoneeeeeee can hear!
Direct service: Okay this one is probably the biggest lie. The busses seem to stop an outrageous number of times, for varying reasons:
Picking up people and dropping people off at random locations on the side of the road.
All bus drivers seem to make a special stop to either say hello or pick up their wife, who brings them clean clothes and food and drinks.
Every bus will make a number of stops for various vendors who come on the bus and ride along for 5-10 minutes, each giving a speech and selling anything from fruit to tamales.
During the day, there are multiple stops every 1-2 hours for food and bathroom breaks. The one advantage of taking an overnight bus is that there are far fewer scheduled stops.
In general, my advice would be to mentally and physically prepare before taking a bus in South America. Avoiding the bus system all together would be great, but is not practical. The thing is, flying can be really expensive, and often is not an option for the places you want to see. So, sometimes you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The best advice we can give is:
Try and take an overnight bus if possible. There are rumors that these are more "unsafe", but personally we did not have any issues. Take a Gravol, pop on your eye mask, and hope to wake up 10 hours later where you want to be.
Bring water and snacks. But be strategic with your fluid intake as bathroom breaks are not always when you need them!
Try to sit at the front of the bus (away from the washroom!) and hopefully where it will be less bumpy.
Bring ear plugs and download music prior, to damper the background noise of crying children, loud action movies, whatever music the driver feels like blaring, and the diesel engine.
Hope these tips enlighten you on our experiences so far, and help future travellers make the most of what is truly a rite-of-passage when backpacking Latin America.