So you wanna travel on a shoestring budget? Grab your backpack. Ready, set, go. There are many ways of getting from one place to the other. Cheap flights may be the fastest and most comfortable way. Still, consider bus travel in South America. It can save you money and time and be a great way to explore the continent. Last year we traveled 6 countries on 15 different buses.
What makes it cheaper than flights: you usually sleep on the bus so you save on the hostel. You normally get food. And you don’t get to pay expensive airport transport as you leave from and arrive directly in the city. A nice plus: you get to see amazing landscape.
1) Choose you Seat Category Wisely
Buses in South America are far different from buses we are used to in Europe
Long distance buses are usually superior to those “normal buses” you may know. They have two decks and three types of seat categories: Semi Cama(40% reclinable), Cama-Ejecutivo (55 degrees reclinable; with more space; just 3 seats in a row) and Cama-Suite (min. 85 degrees reclinable; space around your seat to have privacy). (“Cama” means bed)
We made the experience that even Semi Cama seats are a lot more comfortable than Economy class seats on a flight. Cama-Ejecutivo are already pretty awesome and Cama-Suite are pure luxury.
A 24hour bus ride might well feel like a cosy day in bed, watching movies and food delivery every 4 hours.
2) Buy Tickets at Local Bus Terminals
There’s usually no need to book tickets in advance. Traveling by bus is super common in South America. Every bigger town will be connected by a solid network of night buses. You might not find schedules on the Internet and they might be unreliable but don’t worry. If you can risk +/- 1 day you will always get a bus. Ask for the local bus terminal, go there, compare prices and offers — buy your ticket. Go. 1 day in advance is usually enough.
Why not buy tickets on the Internet? There might be booking platforms. However, you usually get better deals by just negotiating with the people at the location.
Expert tip: Always ask whether the ticket includes food, if the bus has heating, blankets, wifi or other perks.
To give you an idea. I went from Santiago de Chile to Buenos Aires (with a stop in Mendoza) was a 22 hours ride and cost me about USD70 (CLP: 6500 to Mendoza and 420 000 from there to Buenos Aires). The company was Empresa “El Rapido SLR”.
3) Bring Warm Clothes
Air-conditioning alarm! Many buses may resemble freezers. Be prepared to spend the night at 16–18 degrees. Careful in Bolvia: We had our only bad experience in Bolivia on our way from Uyuni to the Chilean border. We almost froze to death on a bus without heating. We took the cheapest offer but bitterly regretted it. 4°C and no heating.
4) Get Mareol
Here’s our single most useful advice: go to a local pharmacy in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Bolvia, Argentina or wherever and ask for a pill called Mareol or something against “Mareo” (Mareo is motion sickness). Take two of them (at your own risk). You’re gonna sleep up to 12 hours like a baby.
They are not exactly sleeping pills. Still, they will make you really sleepy. They shouldn’t cost you more than 50 cents per piece. Sometimes you even get them at little pharmacies at the bus terminals.
Don’t take three of them. Our friend Juan once did it. He was fast asleep for almost 20 hours, missing two meals on the bus.
5) Avoid Huayuro
We had one single bad experience with a bus company in Bolvia. They just left us at immigration at the border from Peru to Bolivia. Our luggage was still on the bus. We followed the bus by taxi and started a fight with the company when we finally got hold of them. Everything went well in the end. However, we wished we had checked reviews beforehand. Apart from this one single bad experience we didn’t experience anything bad or dangerous. Don’t be stupid — keep your valuables with you in your hand luggage, apply common sense and you’re gonna have an amazing trips.
If you’re interested in our itinerary shoot us a message and we’ll be happy to give your more details and advice.