Traveling South America by bus is one of the cheapest, most convenient and [sometimes] comfiest ways to get around. You see, hailing from Land of the Free and Home of the Terrible Public Transportation, we’re continually delighted by how easy it is to catch a bus in South America. You’ll see us smiling even if said bus is a late 90’s junker that is plastered in Virgin Mary stickers and filled to the doors with potatoes.
With local buses picking you up wherever you may be and the longest routes running as far as 5,500+km (buckle up for Lima to Buenos Aires!), you’ll probably find yourself traveling on at least one bus in South America. It can be quite an adventure. Even if you do your research, you’re best expecting the unexpected. So today, we’re sharing what we know. From the average cost of bus travel in South America, to tips for picking the comfiest seats, to things we’d never travel without (like a Speakeasy Travel Supply scarf!!), here’s what you should know before taking on the whole of South America by bus:
Bus Travel in South America is really quite great.
Most travelers fall into bus travel in South America because it’s the cheapest way to get around. That’s certainly true, but oddly enough, we’ve grown to love this method of overland travel for plenty of other reasons. Buses in South America are efficient and easy. There always seems to be a bus going where you are at just the right time. You can hail them from the station, or pick them up right off the highway in some places. Hey, and usually, you’ll get some funny stories, free of charge.
Bus travel is super affordable.
International flights in South America are usually way more expensive than the distance should warrant. Domestic flights aren’t so bad, but the extra fare can add up when you’re taking on the whole continent. The average cost of bus travel ranges from $1-2 per hour in Bolivia and Ecuador, $3 per hour in Peru and $5-6 per hour in Brazil and Argentina. Considering you also save yourself a night in a hostel on overnight buses, that’s not so bad. If you’ve got more time than money, traveling in South America by bus will save you loads of money over time.
But not all buses are created equally.
There are some good South American buses and some really, truly terrible ones. Some offer a service so cozy that they’ll have to drag you off at the end. Other routes are run with an outdated fleet or are notorious for delays. The standards vary tremendously from one country to the next. The long-haul buses tend to be a bit rougher in Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia, while buses in Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay or Brazil are quite nice.
As for the best bus companies in South America? Everyone has their favorites. We’ve used or heard good things about: Cruz del Sur (Peru), MovilTours (Peru), Pullman (Chile), Tur-Bus (Chile), Andesmar (Argentina), FlechaBus (Argentina), MARGA (Argentina), Util (Brazil). With these premium carriers, you can usually expect a plush seat, functional toilet, and on-time arrival.
… all bus seats aren’t created equally either.
We’re not just talking front or back of the bus, here. Many buses in South America are double-deckers. The location of your seat will correlate directly with how soundly you sleep. We recommend avoiding seats under the TV or next to the bathroom. If you’re super lucky, snag a front-row seat on the top level for serious views.
The most comfortable bus companies in South America offer semi-camas (160*) and an upgrade to full camas (180*) so that you can get shamefully comfortable. For the additional cost, you’ll also get a real night’s sleep, food and wine, and control over your own TV. It’s the closest you can get to business class on a backpacker budget, so we’d say camas are worth the splurge on longer routes!
So what’s so ugly about bus travel?
South American buses get a bad reputation for bag slashing, pickpocketing, and full-on highway robbery. We’ll be honest. The lesser crimes happen quite often, but violent crime is pretty rare. On daytime buses, your biggest risk is usually the driver’s bad taste in techno or sleeping through the popsicle lady. As for overnight buses, we recommend sticking to well-traveled routes and using direct buses when possible.
And you better keep an eye on your stuff.
There are a few basic precautions you can take when traveling South America by bus. Get travel insurance and take photos of your valuables along with their serial numbers so you have a record in the worst-case scenario. As for bus travel specifically, it’s essential you keep your valuables close. Anything under the bus, tucked under your seat, or in the overhead compartment is a ready target. To prevent having your bag slashed, you should always keep your bag in your lap or in front of your feet.
I also dig traveling with a scarf with hidden pocket (made by Speakeasy Travel Supply), to keep important items like passports, cash, and cards hidden away. You have no idea how many times you’ll need to pull out your passport when you’re traveling by bus here. Speakeasy Travel Supply makes these sneaky scarves in a variety of prints and weights, so you can even find one that matches your lipstick (if you’re into that kind of thing). I have three if that tells you anything about how much I love them!
Finally, many companies will check your big bag like you would at an airport. We never leave anything valuable in our main luggage, but we still recommend throwing a lock on for good measure. Also, don’t lose your claim tag!
But the best part of bus travel is that it’s a genuine adventure.
We’ll admit it. This style of long-haul travel isn’t for everyone. Buses can be comfortable, but they can also be pretty miserable. Most companies aren’t shy about shoving a video camera in your face as you board the bus — you know, in case you turn out to be a criminal. Armed policemen may lazily dig through your bags at late-night checkpoints in search of cocaine. You might have to watch the menu sequence for White Chicks 73 times before the bus attendant realizes it’s still playing. Here’s a scenario: Ecuador has an affinity for gory action movies. Imagine watching Undisputed III: Redemption beneath a broken speaker, in a very upright seat, with a busted air-conditioner overhead, next to a smelly locked bathroom, while navigating very windy roads.
If you’re not open to experiencing every human emotion in a single moment, bus travel in South America is probably not for you. But if you are willing to go anywhere you may find a story, here’s our advice…
Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Dude. Invest in the following or prepare to suffer:
- Earplugs and an eye mask because it’s worth looking like an idiot
- Sea-bands and Dramamine for bumps in the road warm socks and a sweater for Sub-Arctic conditions
- A Speakeasy Travel Supply Scarf to tuck away your importants
- A padlock to protect the things in your main bag
- Snacks + Plenty of Water for long stretches of road with no snacks in sight.
But we swear. It’s worth it.
Traveling South America is more than just a cheap way to travel. It’s amazing because of the adventure, the efficiency, and the serious backpacker cred that you get once you’ve survived your first long haul bus ride. Now venture forth, adventurer! You’re in for a wild ride.
This post on bus travel in South America is in collaboration with Speakeasy Travel Supply. We received a travel scarf with hidden pocket in exchange for our honest review, but we’ll never share anything we wouldn’t pay for ourselves (Scout’s Honor!). If you click through one of the links on our site, you’ll help support our blog at no cost.