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.
Tips for 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.
Also, why not play travel trivia with your travel buddy and see how well you know your upcoming South American destinations? Think of it as a pub quiz on wheels and a fun way to pass time on those long travel days!
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 I like to come prepared with plenty of layers and a travel pillow of my own.
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.
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 footrest.
Cama Ejecutivo means ‘executive bed’ and the seats lean between 140-160 degrees, and they include a footrest.
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!
Do you have any other bus travel tips to share?