How to Survive Overnight Bus Travel in South America

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from overnight bus travel in South America, it’s that no two buses are the same.

I’ve been on some incredible buses where the seats recline and the attendant comes around with a blanket and a fluffy pillow (Argentinean buses come to mind), and I’ve also travelled aboard dusty buses without air conditioning where the bathrooms are the stuff of nightmares (Bolivian buses come to mind)!

The key to making an overnight bus journey bearable is to always come prepared, and after a series of bus trips spanning from good to awful, I have a few tips to share:

A guide to overnight bus travel in South America

Load up on snacks and water

I find that the food on buses can be hit or miss, and often times it consists of pre-packaged snacks that aren’t particularly healthy or tasty. I would recommend stocking up on things like granola, nuts, and fresh fruits (if you aren’t crossing any international borders). You’ll also want to bring plenty of water on board (I would go with a 1L bottle).

Be prepared for delays

You see the arrival time that’s printed on your ticket? Don’t make any plans based on that. If you have friends or family waiting for you at your final destination, it’s best to give them a call once you’re in the outskirts of town (if you’re travelling with a cell phone) or just call them from a payphone once you arrive. It’s been my experience that buses in South America tend to encounter lots of hiccups: an engine overheating in the middle of the desert, little personnel to process crowds at an international border, and other delays that simply go unexplained. Plan to arrive later that the time you see printed on your ticket, and don’t let it stress you because there’s little you can do about it.

Bring your own entertainment

In my experience, there will either be no entertainment, or you’ll be stuck watching a really cheese telenovela from the 90s. (I was on one bus where the telenovelas were so bad that one guy finally went up to the driver with his DVD collection and convinced him to put a movie on. We were all very thankful!) I also like to make sure that my Kindle is fully charged and loaded with a good mix of books, and I like to keep my laptop handy in case I feel like doing a bit of writing.

Bundle up!

Buses can be really cold once they crank on the AC, so you’ll want to bring a few warm layers. I like to wear leggings, a hoodie, and I also keep my scarf and a light jacket in my daypack. Buses will generally also give you a blanket if you’re doing an overnight journey (that’s the case when you’re travelling in Cama Ejecutiva or Suite Primera Clase), but it’s best to have one too many layers that you can peel off, than to be shivering in your seat.

Carry your own TP and sanitizer

The not so nice part about bus travel is dealing with the toilets. When you’re doing those long cross-country journeys, the water tends to run out halfway through, as does the toilet paper (although sometimes there isn’t even any toilet paper to begin with). That means you can’t wash your hands or flush…which makes things interesting. Always, always, always carry your own roll of toilet paper and also carry some hand-sanitizer or baby wipes with you. I should also mention that some buses have signs that explicitly say that you can ONLY go pee. Their toilets are not equipped to handle anything else, so ummm, you better hope you don’t develop any stomach problems right before your journey!

Upgrade your seat for extra comfort

When it comes to choosing an overnight bus, there are a few handy terms that you should familiarize yourself with. Semi-cama means ‘half bed’ and the seats generally lean between 120-140 degrees, and you may or may not get a foot rest. Cama Ejecutivo means ‘executive bed’ and the seats lean between 140-160 degrees, and they include a foot rest. Lastly, you have Suite Primera Clase which leans to a flat 180 degrees (just like a bed!) I will say that these offerings can vary from one company to the next, but the majority of seats should fall within these guidelines. When in doubt, just ask before booking your ticket.

Choose your seat wisely

So I’ve developed a bit of a system when it comes to choosing a bus seat and I kind of have a few no-go zones. I’ll avoid sitting anywhere near the toilets if I can help it because these often go unattended and they are very unpleasant; if you’re on the top level, you should avoid the back of the bus, and if you’re on the lower level you may want to avoid the front). I would also suggest avoiding the very back of the bus (on either the top or lower level) because the AC tends to be a lot weaker, and that combined with the proximity to the engine means that it can get a bit warm in those seats. Anywhere else is fair game!

A guide to overnight bus travel in South America

Do you have any other bus travel tips to share?

15 Comments

  • benny says:

    Hey oh! Your article about overnight travel is spot-on! I am from California but have been in Argentina for 2 years now and know what its like to travel overnight in long distance buses here. Some are great, and others are ok. About a month ago, I traveled overnight from Buenos Aires to Cordoba. About an hour on the bus, our bus breaks down and had to stop and wait for another bus to take us.
    In Bolivia (although it wasn’t overnight but felt like an eternity) I traveled in two different buses; the first one was about a 7 hour trip through the jungle and mountains in a small precarious bus with no restroom.The second bus ride was through amazingly beautiful mountains and hills. I’m glad I went prepared for the long haul.
    Riding from Cordoba to Chile was also a great experience, even though I didn’t get anything to drink after the meal. On my ride back from Santiago to Cordoba, there was an annoying lady sitting next to me, tossing and turning and constantly coughing from all the smoking she did on the stops; and don’t forget the noises from the Whatsapp messages! They kept going on aloud.
    And the overnight bus rides to Uruguay have been pretty good, too.
    -benny

    • Audrey says:

      I have done the journey from Buenos Aires to Cordoba a few times too. I find that Chevalier and Sierras Cordobesas are pretty good. I haven’t experienced any break downs to date – knock on wood! And cell phone noises on buses are my pet peeve, gahhh! I was sitting behind a lady on the route from La Paz to Arica and she played games with the sound on for hours – I was so glad when her phone battery finally died.

  • It also depends in which country you are and what class of buses you take. I always used to ride the cheapest local buses. But Peru and Bolivia almost never had working toilets in the buses. So my tip is to never drink too much while on the bus or before getting on, because on those long bus rides, you never know when the driver will decide that it’s reststop time, could be 3-4-5 hours away. Oh and yes bring TP, because the reststop could be on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Rough bus rides but I also met many interesting people on these rides.

    • Audrey says:

      Ah, yes! You’ve just reminded me of a ‘toilet stop’ I had on a previous trip to Bolivia. It was basically a field on the side of the road that had lots of shrubs and bushes, so we basically had to go find our own…not too much privacy out there!

  • veena says:

    Sounds a lot like overnight bus travel in India, except we don’t have toilets on-board. Pretty much everything else goes, though!

    • Audrey says:

      I only did one overnight bus trip in India from Pune to Goa, but it’s one that I won’t soon forget. The AC was blasting and we were all shivering in there, and they also played loud music all night long! I don’t think anyone got any sleep that night!

  • Hung Thai says:

    The only experience I’ve had of traveling in a bus in South America is the ride up to Machu Picchu from the train station. It was a harrowing ride – felt like we were going to fly off the cliff at any moment. I wouldn’t mind an overnight bus ride though – at least I’d be so tired I’d sleep and not be freaking out all the time.

  • Lavina says:

    I was reading to compare overnight travel to India..and then I read your comment ‘from Pune to Goa’ 🙂
    I lived in Pune but I am Goan.
    The ghat’s (mountain pass) were terrible!
    I only took that route because it was faster and cheaper.
    You bundle up, drink no fluids 4 hours before departure and while traveling and do not eat spicy food(so that you don’t throw up) and carry earplugs- always 🙂
    Haha

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  • Gary says:

    Overnight bus trips are one of the very few parts of travel I dislike. I avoid them like the plague if I can. But yes, sometimes you have to suck it up to get to a destination. Thanks for the tips!

  • Jose Baker says:

    Great tips! I always choose my seat whenever I ride a bus especially on long trips. I feel comfortable sitting in the middle seats. I can really sleep well during overnight trips in that position.

  • Rashaad says:

    When taking an overnight bus, I try to get plenty of sleep beforehand. That usually works.

  • Excellent tips! While no two buses are the same, that certainly spices up travel. Funny about about the guy convincing the driver to play his DVD.

  • Ollie Patton says:

    Great tips. I’ll definitely bring my laptop to keep my self entertained.

  • Great blog! Wish I had read this BEFORE crossing the Gran Chaco from Paraguay into Bolivia. I got it all wrong, ended up crouched at the front window beside the driver, who slurped his cacao tea the whole journey. The the only plus was being awake to see one of the best sunrises of my life. Love following your adventures!

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