‘The one we had in Oaxaca was a-maze-ing -so much leg room and they even played a DVD!’
‘I wish plane seats had those leg supports. What a great idea.’
‘It’s the only way to travel in South America. Just brilliant.’
Oh shut up!
I have met far too many Western tourists who rave on about how good the night buses are in South America.
No matter how much you pay or what ‘luxury’ features the bus you pick has, the fact remains you will be stuck on a jittering bus for eight or more hours until 4am. At that point you’ll be dispersed, at some remote bus station, in the middle of the dark.
They are awful, something to be endured; a necessary evil.
The most honest account of what a night bus trip in South America is like came from a Londoner named Henry I met in La Pas, Bolivia. He writes an utterly hilarious blog about travels with his girlfriend and was unflinching in his assessment.
‘It was the worst thing ever. But we snuck on two bottles of wine so it passed quickly.’
Others haven’t been so relaxed. Another Englishman we met, Ben, almost punched out the driver of the night bus he and his girlfriend Alice were on because the guy was driving so psychotically – overtaking on blind corners and acting as if the multi-tonne vehicle was an F1 car.
Our worst journey was from Trujillo on the coast of Peru all the way up to Quito in the middle of Ecuador.
Nine night hours on a bumpy ‘luxury’ bus to the border. Eight daylight hours to Guayaquil on a banged out jalopy with no legroom. Then to cap it all off, eight night hours on the fastest vehicle I have ever been on, to get to Quito. We were sat in the very front row with no seat belts and the passenger compartment door in front of us was wide open to the speed-blurred road. It was terrifying, like falling down a plug hole, so I argued black and blue with the conductor, changed seats and passed out somehow for the rest of the god awful journey.
Night buses in South America
You can fly, sure, but it will cost you waaaay more than a night bus and having to go to an airport limits your options for locations. Night buses in South America run the gamut from luxury to basic, expensive to dirt cheap and the companies are more numerous than the airlines.
Bus lines like Ortursa and Cruz Del Sol are at the top of the pile, offering cama and semi-cama (seats that go all the way back and seats that go most of the way back) night buses that have DVD players, power sockets for your laptop and a stewardess that serves hot drinks and food.
Others just give you a seat.
We have endured dozens of night bus trips in our time in South America and have found no matter what you pay or what company you go with it is the luck of the draw.
The road might be as twisted as your intestines while the driver fancies himself as the next Stig. Maybe the windows on the model bus you’re on don’t open and you get a slow smothering from all the carbon dioxide and farts filling the cabin. Or everything can go so smoothly you walk away pinching yourself.
No matter what happens, here are four things we have found you simply HAVE to do in order to survive a night bus trip in South America:
1. Pick the seats with the most leg room
This is crucial, even if you are short.
Most of the night buses we have been on offered a semi-cama seat with good leg room. Unfortunately, I am quite tall and Carmen gets sore knees even with the standard leg room on offer. So we always make sure to choose one of two positions when we book our tickets – ask the agent where you’ll be when you book. Choose the very front seats on the top floor; they have the standard leg room plus a shelf in front of the big windows you can put your feet up on.
If you can’t get those seats (they sell quick!) try to pick the ones directly behind the stairwell on the top floor. On the diagram for the seat plan there is usually a square gap separating the seats on one side of the bus. That’s the stairwell and the seats behind it have a huge amount of legroom, kind of like the safety exit seats on a passenger plane.
Another trick, if you’re feeling lucky, is when booking online pick the seats at the very back of the top floor next to the toilets. Those seats are the most undesirable so often the bus companies charge less for them. If the bus you are on isn’t busy you simply change seats when the thing gets underway to a better seat further away from the dunny. You’ll save a tonne on the price of your bus ticket.
2. Invest in a food container and a thermos
Some bus companies include meals and drinks with the price of your ticket. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.
One trip promised us dinner and breakfast – we got a plain white bread roll for dinner and a hot tray of rice and meat for breakfast – I guess it got switched. Both meals were awful but luckily we had a Tupperware container full of fresh salad and an Aladdin’s cave of biscuits and chocolate stashed in my day bag.
The buses have two temperatures – Australian summer and Arctic winter. You’ll need water, at least a litre, to survive the dry spells. But for the cold times a thermos full of tea, coffee or even hot chocolate is a god send. You can pick them up for cheap from any camping or travel shop before your trip begins. We found ours at a bookshop in Copacabana in Lake Titicaca.
3. Bring an eye mask, ear plugs and something warm
When it comes to night buses in South America, what’s written on the tin doesn’t always match what’s inside. Just because your seat reclines into a bed or a pretty good version of one doesn’t mean you’ll always get a pillow or a blanket. A great substitute for a blanket is a scarf – I picked up an extra wide one in Bolivia for very cheap and it’s served me well as a blanket many times. Plus, it’s handy to have an extra layer when the super thin one you are given isn’t up to the task!
Getting a good night’s sleep is difficult on a night bus. You’ll likely get woken up a dozen or more times feeling like death warmed up. To ensure a half decent rest, invest in an eye mask and some ear plugs. You’ll probably get given a set on the flight over to South America so keep it! If not you can pick up eye masks and ear plugs in pharmacies and ear plugs are also sold in most hardware stores.
4. Leave late and arrive early
I realise this last point kind of makes me a hypocrite, bitching about how horrible night buses are when it could be easier just to take a day bus.
But that’s not always an option.
Loads of bus routes in South America are night only, offering a devil’s bargain of departure times from between 8pm and midnight. It’s always best to take the very latest one as it will likely get you to your destination at a reasonable hour of the morning so you can find accommodation easily. This option also allows you to save money on a night’s accommodation by spending it on the bus.
Why waste a day when you can just gird your loins and endure a bus ride? A day of travel is precious and you can sleep when you’re dead!
Above all else, bring a sense of humour
Everyone stuffed into the narrow metal tube hates it as much as you do. Only Western travelers craving badass explorer points brag about how much they enjoy it so they can appear to be cool.
Laugh it off.
There’s something cool about swapping horror stories from the bus with fellow travellers so savour the pain; it will only make the sights and sounds and flavours of your destination that much sharper!