You’re getting ready to set off into the great unknown, exploring Latin America’s wonders.
Back home, bus travel may not be that common, or it’s considered one of the worst ways to travel. Perhaps you have heard dramatic tales about how robberies and such happen during trips in Latin America, and so you come at this article with some natural apprehension.
Bus travel continues to be the main mode of transportation for the vast majority of Latin Americas, from poor to rich alike — and the quality of service and comfort in some countries will blow your mind away!
Let me share with you some tips I’ve picked up during my several decade and hundreds of thousands of kilometers of zooming around Latin America by bus, which I hope will lend you a hand in having a safe and comfortable time experiencing the region.
Window Seat — or Aisle? …. Driver’s or Passenger’s Side?
It depends on your needs and preferences.
If you are tall and need more legroom, or you will be getting up to go to the bathroom frequently, an aisle seat would be best. However, take some extra care of your personal items you may be keeping on your lap by wrapping your wrist or ankle around them and bringing them with you if you leave your seat.
I personally prefer the window seat on the passenger’s side: I can watch the scenery go by (and not the highway – thus providing inspiration for poetry and an escape from whatever adventure movie is being shown). I also feel a window seat helps me better secure my belongings and keep an eye on my stowed baggage in the cargo underneath the bus, as I can look out the window when the bus stops to monitor what’s being unloaded during a stop.
Seating Comfort: Leg room and reclining seats
The amount of leg room between seats largely depends on the class of the bus or the class of the cabin you’re in, similar to an airplane. Most long-distance buses give you the option for coach class (tighter seats that semi-recline) and VIP class (wider seats, more legroom, and fuller recline).
Another factor is the average height of the national population: In countries where the people are generally shorter (like Guatemala, Ecuador or Peru), seats will be placed closer together; in those where the populace is taller (Chile and Argentina, for example), more leg room is provided.
Buses in Latin America are kilometers ahead of other countries when it comes to reclining seats. You can choose between the less-expensive 150º recliners to more expensive 180º ones.
Or – if you reach deep enough into your pockets, splurge on one of the cama-suites. These buses have 180º recliners that are partitioned off from other passengers, and a curtain provides total privacy from the aisle. These types of buses are usually run at night, and are most common in Peru, Chile and Argentina.
Some routes – especially longer ones – only depart at night. Most companies have an extra driver aboard that will change positions with the other after four hours or so. The upper-end buses are usually equipped with GPS to aid police to locate the vehicle in any emergency, and night buses usually make less stops because fewer people are hopping on and off at night.
You can decide to save money on lodging and take an overnight bus – but this only works if you can rest well on a bus.
Or, choose to break your trip into shorter segments. This will allow you to savor the county a bit more, seeing the landscape in daylight and exploring more towns along the route. In some countries, it is more economical to take several shorter bus rides than one long one.
The safest place for your larger baggage is in the bodega, a big enclosed and locked compartment underneath the bus cabin to which only the bus staff have keys. The majority of companies give a receipt for items checked into the bodega, which you must keep safe until you reach your destination, in order to retrieve your luggage.
Keep valuables and necessary medications with you on board. Safeguard your passport, money and banking cards in a money belt worn under your clothing, below the beltline and against your skin. For added security, you can keep some money in your sock or elsewhere on your person. Never keep these items in a backpack or similar bag, as those are the most vulnerable items to “disappear”!
For your carry-on bag, it is safest at your feet, with one leg through the strap. Luggage stored on the overhead rack easily disappears. Don’t use it as a rule.
Creature Comforts...and Necessities
A simple, locally made shoulder bag can carry an amazing amount of items: a bottle of water, an assortment of food and snacks you collect before you board or buy at rest stops, a book to read, your mobile devices or journal and pen, a small clock, toilet paper and handkerchief are just some things you can squeeze in. Wi-Fi is reaching saturation on all long-distance buses now, but the service often only works in or near large cities.
If you need to take medication regularly, also keep that in your carry-on bag.
Another thing easy to forget is a jacket, especially if the air conditioning is cranked up or you are traveling through high altitudes at night. A large shawl also works wonderfully: not only can you wrap yourself in it, but it also makes a nice blanket or pillow, or pull it up over your head to block out the adventure movie being shown.
And Speaking of Food...
The upper-class buses have meal service included in the price –often with a choice of meat, chicken or vegetarian entrées. In Argentina and Chile, wine or other spirits are offered with your repast.
If the bus company doesn’t offer on-board service, then it will stop at a road-side diner for meals. These restaurants might not be to your liking in terms of what they serve or the price, but if you’ve packed food into your carry-on, you can opt to have a picnic instead.
But don’t go wandering off too far! You’ll want to hear when the reboarding call comes!
These stops also allow passengers to use the restroom. The toilet on board the bus is only for urinating. If you need to do “further business” and it’s still a good while until the next scheduled rest stop, then usually the driver will honor a courteous plea.
Hanging Out at the Terminal
Sometimes you might have to hang out at the bus terminal for a while, whether waiting to board your bus or waiting for the next one to leave.
Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t let yourself be distracted, especially from your belongings. Keep your bags at your feet or side, with your legs over top, or an arm or leg through the strap. Alternatively, you can check your bags into a terminal baggage locker room, or with the bus company; both will give you a receipt, and this will allow you more freedom.
Don’t flash money. Keep enough spending dough in your pocket, and while they are now ubiquitous, it’s wisest in the terminal to keep your smart phone, camera or any other electronics stowed away until you’re on board the bus.
Do not accept food, drink or cigarettes from strangers as these might be drugged with scopolamine or other knock-out substance!!
So, kick back and enjoy the ride. Relax if you encounter unforetold adventures like a flat tire or landslide present themselves. Life happens along the way.
Lorraine Caputo is a travel writer, poet and translator. She has authored nine guidebooks for South America. Her literary works appear in over 100 journals in Canada, the US, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa; twelve anthologies and nine chapbooks – including the collection of travel poetry, Caribbean Nights (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014). For the past decade, she has been traveling through Latin America, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her travels at: www.facebook.com/lorrainecaputo.wanderer.