The most common and typically cheapest way to travel throughout South America is by bus, which can make for some long rides to get to your desired destinations. If you plan to take any of these three common bus routes in Colombia, Peru and Chile — or any long bus trip in South America for that matter — then these bus ride survival tips are for you.
Three common bus routes in South America
1. Bogota to Cartagena, Colombia
A popular trip to take on a bus in Colombia is from Bogota to Cartagena, where you can enjoy the heat and energy of the Caribbean coast. The direct bus route to Cartagena from Bogota usually takes around 18-20 hours. This route takes you through diverse landscapes of Colombian countryside and passes through lesser known towns along the way. Buy your ticket with Copetran or Berlinas to guarantee a faster and smoother ride. Check out our guide for what to do in Cartagena in 24 hours.
2. Lima to Cuzco, Peru
The most popular bus route taken in Peru is from Lima to Cuzco, as many make the trip out to see the famed Machu Picchu. If you go direct, this trip can take anywhere from 22 to 27 hours and heads through the rocky and narrow roads of the Andes.
If windy mountain roads make you nervous, there is a safer route that stops in Arequipa with a duration of about 36 hours. Peru Hop offers a number of ways to break up this trip with cool stops like the Huacachina desert oasis in Ica on the route south from Lima. Whichever path you choose, make sure to book your Cuzco accommodation ahead of time to have the peace of mind that your trip will end with a hot shower and a comfortable bed.
3. Valparaiso to Puerto Varas, Chile
Another common lengthy bus ride in South America is from Santiago to Puerto Varas, as many tourists are drawn to this scenic “City of Roses.” The bus from Santiago brings you to port city Puerto Montt, where you then take a short ride on a local bus to Puerto Varas. With a travel time of about 12 hours, this trip is definitely amongst the shorter of long bus rides, and is therefore recommended to be taken overnight. Chile’s main bus company Tur Bus offers several seat class options, from “semi cama” to “premium,” which provide an easy upgrade to the comfort level of your trip. Book a stay in Puerto Montt to try the famed seafood or find a place in Puerto Varas to feel at home in the City of Roses itself.
Survival Tips for the Savvy South American Bus Traveler
1. Do your research: Probably the most important tip is to check online first if there are flights to your destination for cheaper or an equivalent price. The last thing you want to hear upon arrival to your destination is that someone made the same trip in a fifth the time for half the price.
We recommend the GreenToad Bus Guide: a free guide with routes, maps and suggested itineraries.
2. Leave late: The best way to start your long bus trip is by boarding the bus and going straight to sleep, especially if the bus is under 24 hours. This trick of taking an evening departure bus means less daylight hours wasted on travel and also means money saved on that night’s accommodation.
3. Upgrade if possible: Always ask about bus seat upgrades before buying your pass. On long bus trips there are often varied classes of seating, such as the ones mentioned in Chile as well as VIP type seats available on select routes in Colombia. This means more leg space, farther seat recline and larger, more cushioned seats, often for a very low additional cost as compared to Western prices.
South American Bus Journey Packing List
1. For Safety: Keep your valuables close. It is expected that you will store your larger luggage under the bus for the duration of the ride, which means that these belongings will not be with you for hours on end. Make sure to bring valuables such as your passport, money, cards and cellphone in a small bag with you onto the bus.
2. For Warmth: Bring clothes for the freezing cold, even if you’re headed to the desert. Many buses in South America, especially in Colombia, tend to keep the air conditioning on full blast throughout the trip. If you packed a blanket or a sleeping bag, bring it with you on the bus. Otherwise, wear a warm hat, long sleeve shirt, pants, socks and closed toed shoes to avoid a cold and uncomfortable ride.
3. For Cleanliness: In terms of toiletries, hand sanitizer is a must. There will be one single bathroom on the bus for 50 people or more, and in 20+ hours of travel, chances are you’ll need to use it. Bus bathrooms tend to be dirty and often without toilet paper, so do yourself and others a favor by staying clean through the experience.
4. For Sleeping: Pack earplugs, a neck pillow and dramamine. If you are a light sleeper or prone to motion sickness, then ear plugs and dramamine can save you from hours of misery on a bus, and the neck pillow will help avoid that awkward moment of falling asleep on a stranger’s shoulder.
5. Essentials: Bring food and water in your pack. Though there will be pit stops for food on these long journeys, they often won’t be on schedule. Prepare for the journey with a sandwich, water or Gatorade and some of your favorite snacks.
Pro-Tips for the Ride
1. Arrive early: Avoid sitting next to the stinky toilet or getting stuck with the one seat that doesn’t recline.
2. Don’t board the wrong bus: If you get off the bus at a late night pit stop, check the license plate or number of your bus to avoid some groggy 4am confusion in picking out your bus amongst the rest.
3. When in doubt, GPS: Bus drivers often speak fast and unclear. If you didn’t make out the name of the next stop, use your GPS to double check where you are and where your destination is.