Thinking of backpacking around South America? Love them or hate them, the long distance buses are an essential part of budget travelling this vast landscape. But what’s it really like to sit on a bus for more than a day?
I travelled from Quito, Ecuador to Lima, Peru in 38 hours on a bus and managed to enjoy it!
South America is massive. As a British person, it is almost impossible to get my head around just how big it is. I complain on a mega-bus to Leeds when I’m at home, but here a short journey is 10 hours.
There are many companies running overground services across Peru, but Cruz del Sur is like the first class option. It’s a bit more expensive, but the seats are huge and sometimes you even get a private TV screen. So this was my choice of company when I took my epic 38 hour journey from Quito to Lima.
I was about to get a little bit of a shock…
Cruz del Sur outside of Peru is much less than posh. My bus arrives late into Quito – already having travelled 30 hours from Bogota, Colombia and with only Colombian nationals to transport, it seems they are less worried about comfort. Where were the big, comfy seats? Where is the working toilet? No dinner? And why is the TV playing old Rick Astley concerts!?!
The efforts usually experienced are just for us privileged travellers – not for local people. It was really cheap though!
The gang I am about to become a part of have been on the bus for 30 hours already and some are travelling all the way to Santiago, Chile (maybe another week away!!). But they are in great spirits – everyone is smiling, laughing and joking. It’s not easy to feel bored or miserable with a group of Colombians even if you are sitting on a rock hard seat.
I was very lucky to be sat next to a man from Bogota, who was heading to meet his Canadian girlfriend in Lima. He was super friendly and most excitingly had Game of Thrones on his laptop -giving us both a welcome break to the videos the bus driver plays – I wasn’t joking about Rick Astley concerts!
Simply looking out the window is a delight in itself in South America. Mountains, volcanoes and deserts may be whooshing by you at any time. I can spend hours people watching through towns and villages.
The toilet stops are something else… We all trudge off the bus, toothbrushes in hand and follow the sign that reads ‘baño’. The toilet has no door and everyone needs to go. I snigger childishly as several people discover to their horror that it is currently occupied by our constipated bus driver!!
It’s great to see the stars from the window as I drift off to sleep.I sleep well on buses. The engine rocks me and my podcast keeps me from being awoken by any snoring.
Waking up on day one on a bus is quite surreal. Knowing that I am going to be sleeping yet again in that same seat is hard to get my head round. My neighbour has done this once already though, so I can’t complain.
We cross the border around 11am and although I can’t be bothered to move, I am ultimately quite grateful to stand up for a while. The queues are chaotic and no-one knows which line to get into. As always, I am nervous they won’t let me in, but of course they do.
I’m excited to be in Peru again, but already miss Ecuador!
The driver leaves us for an hour at an over priced restaurant in a northern beach town in Peru. Staff leap from all directions if we try and use the bathroom without buying something. A small group of us wander down the street to a place with wifi and amazingly Falafel burgers.
The friendships made in these situations are quite intense. With nothing else to do, life stories are often shared to pass the time. I probably know more about these people than some of their family members do.
Another night passes and we finally arrive in Lima first thing in the morning. I’m almost disappointed to have to leave my seat now. There is a weird feeling when travelling on a long journey where you almost don’t want it to end. Arriving in an unfamiliar place, it can be hard to leave the easy feeling that develops on the bus. But very quickly this passes and the excitement of exploring begins once again.
I know that some of what I’ve written probably doesn’t sound great, and may put you off long distance bus travel. But I genuinely love these long trips. Time to think and contemplate places I have been and where I am about to go. Time just to stare out of the window and look at the incredible landscapes. Going to sleep to mountains and brilliant stars, and awaking in the desert.
It’s not just a journey to the next place, it’s part of the travelling experience itself.
My Essential Bus Tips
- Get a good podcast or music. This is good for gazing out the window and helping you sleep longer.
- Take a light blanket – you won’t need a full sleeping bag
- Take snacks – you will get food somewhere on the journey, but you can’t guarantee this will be nice/ edible!
- If you can, book early on a longer trip – you’ll get a better choice of seats.
- Don’t expect the internet to work.
- If it’s a really long trip, book your first night accommodation in advance. Maybe I’m lazy, but the last thing I want to do is start to walk around with my backpack when I’m tired from the bus.
- Get tips from other travellers you trust on which bus companies to use. There are more than the travel guides suggest.
- For my safety tips when taking the bus, see here
What’s your most memorable overland travel experience?
38hours? Wow! I took many many long trips in SA but I think my longest was 22hrs. I was really impressed with the long distance buses in Chile, Argentina and Brazil; so comfy and much better than planes, I thought!
I know – a bit of a crazy choice! but gave me more time in Colombia and was cheap! 🙂 I really liked the one I took in Chile too and internally in Peru. A lot of places in SA do seem to have done a good job on their long distance bus travel.
I did 12 hours from Sucre to La Paz and I thought I would die of cold. There was no toilet on the bus either. I wouldn’t try your trip in Bolivia…
Ha – I feel for you. I did that trip too – my blanket definitely came in handy!! 🙂
Bolivia is one place where I think I would definitely recommend paying extra for a bus service. I did have some comfy + nice toilet bus experiences there too. Your more likely to get a decent driver then too. But the very budget ones are notoriously bad.
I admire you for staying so positive. I would not have survived that. Well, I wouldn’t even have gone on a bus journey that long. 15 hours is my limit 😀
Ha ha – thanks. The ever changing views and incredibly/ relentlessly jolly Colombians on the bus were probably what made it such a good experience. Maybe best to keep it down to 15 hours if at all possible though – if anything for the sake of your bum 😉