Apart from hitchhiking, cycling or stealing a car, the bus is the cheapest means of transportation in South America. Therefore if you prefer traveling cheap, like us, you will find yourself sitting on the bus long hours, since distances are measured on a very different scale than in Europe. In South America, a 10-hour ride is considered short and distances that look like 3 hours on the map, might actually take 8 because of the poor road quality in the Andean countries. If spending the day on the bus is not your thing, we suggest travelling by night: you save time, and the price of the night’s hostel stay. In this post you’ll find useful tips about bus transportation in South America.
Bus seat in South America: Semi-cama vs. salon-cama
Long distance buses in South America are most of the time double deckers. Upstairs are the normal sized, reclining seats called semi-camas (meaning “half-bed”, although it’s definitely not half as comfortable!) with a leg holder, so the legs are at 40% angle.
Downstairs there are much less seats but they are bigger, they come with a small pillow and there’s a row with 1 seat only (so the person has no immediate neighbour). This type is called salon-cama and is, of course, more expensive.
We travelled in salon-cama once (got a free upgrade), and in my experience it’s not worth the extra cash: the seats don’t recline more than the semi-camas. The only difference is that I could put my legs up next to me because there was enough space. Oh well…
How to survive a night bus trip in South America?
If you travel by bus, make sure you take a lot of jumpers and jackets with you on board, because they try to freeze you to death in 98% of the cases: the air con is on full, and the locals seem to like it. While I look like a Michelin man, they are in shorts and t-shirt! I also take my small sleeping bag to use as a pillow – it’s a lot handier than those travel pillows that you can’t use for anything else!
Food service on the bus
In Brazil, Argentina and Chile, most of the companies have food service on the bus according to the time of the day. For dinner, there’s biscuit, juice and a small sandwich which has meat (100% rule according to our experience). If you are vegetarian, you can try to arrange a vegetarian sandwich when buying your ticket, but so far we were just smiled at. In Bolivia and Peru the food service varies according to the bus company – in general, the lower the price you pay, the less likely there’s food service at all.
Luggage: on board or in hold?
As for the luggage, big bags go to the hold inside the bus, hand luggage size can go onboard – as usual also elsewhere. Rumours go around that there are thefts in the hold and on board, however it never happened to us – even when the bus was driving around without us during a break. But just in case, I always put my backpack under my seat.
In Argentina, it’s customary to tip the baggage handler when giving the bag (the usual amount is 5 or 10 ARS).
If you see the bus driving away without you…
…no need to panic! During both day and night journeys, the buses stop regularly for a break, and sometimes they drive off to a service station to wash the windows, etc. without any warning. We were a bit shocked the first time, even more so because all our bags were left on board with all valuables. But nothing bad happened.
South American bus ticket purchase
In Brazil, Argentina and Chile we always bought our tickets to the next destination days in advance, sometimes even upon arrival (so handy, not needing to go back to the bus station!). There are some bus ticket booking pages, but there’s always a fee for using them, so we buy our tickets directly at the station.
There are different bus companies operating for each route and they have booths at the station. It’s worth shopping around as prices vary.
Paying with both debit and credit card is usually free. In Bolivia and Peru however, we’ve been buying the tickets at the time of departure, because the closer we get to the departure time, the cheaper it is – up to the point that the cheapest is right when the driver turns on the engine!
Bus times and ticket price websites
On these websites you can compare prices, check travel times – and buy tickets if you want:
- Busbud.com – in many South American countries
- Rome2rio.com – in many countries, many bus companies are connected to their system
- Ticketsbolivia.com – Bolivia (often didn’t give any result, but bus times are quite unpredictable in Bolivia)
- Redbus.pe – Peru (many bus companies are not there either)
- Buscaonibus.com.br – in Brazil
- Clickbus.com.br – in Brazil
- Recorrido.cl – in Chile
- Pasajebus.com – in Chile and Argentina
My favourite South American bus company was Andesmar – the buses are modern, the price is good, the food is good too. They have services in several South American countries.
Border crossing in South America with bus
At both border controls, all the passengers have to get off the bus and go through customs with their bags, which may be checked. Officially it’s not allowed to cross borders with fruit, vegetables, seeds, plants and a few other items, but practically the checks are lame and no one looks around on the bus.
At the border, expect long waiting time. You need to write your destination address on to the immigration form, so prepare with that – even if it’s just a hostel you saw online but have not booked.
Anything we forgot? Do you have any question? Feel free to ask us in the comments!
Don’t miss any of our travel stories!