If you travel for more than a few weeks in South America, chances are you’re going to encounter a night bus at some point. For us, it was the sole use of transport for 14,000km, from Uruguay to Colombia. Without a shadow of a doubt, the best night buses are in Peru, and hands down the worst are in Bolivia. Chile and Argentina tend to provide decent quality transport, whilst Colombia is acceptable but not fantastic.
Here are our general tips for booking a night bus in South America:
1. Full cama, semi cama, non-cama
Cama in Spanish means ‘bed’. Typically, full cama goes back 160-180 degrees (though even the best 180 degreers are still not entirely flat as advertised). These are the best option for long distances, because even if you don’t put your bed all the way back, you’ll have more legroom. In Peru, you’ll even get a leg rest that pulls up and becomes horizontal to create a real bed effect (see top image).
Semi-cama tend to be around 140 degrees, which is fine for easy sleepers, but comparable to a plane seat for those of you who struggle to sleep on transport. If not specified as full or semi cama, you can assume the seats are rubbish, and not worth entertaining for a night bus. Always check the degrees you’re getting for your money.
2. Don’t play with fire
Wherever you travel, make sure you’re with a reputable company. Our most horrifying journeys have been those that we booked through a cheap little stall where we were able to negotiate the price. Not only does this risk the bus quite literally falling apart (try spending 7 hours of windy mountain roads trying to stop the bottom of your seat from sliding onto the floor because it isn’t attached to the back), you’re also putting yourself at risk of less reliable drivers. In Peru, Colombia and Bolivia, many people at the wheel of a bus can be compared to very lucky Mario Kart contenders more than they can professional drivers. To top this off, in Bolivia drink-driving is a problem from drivers, who don’t see an issue with having a few beers at the dinner stop.
There have been several bus crashes in South America hitting international news recently, and bus accident rates are far higher out here than in the UK. Even if it means paying a little extra, make sure your company has new-looking, clean buses and that the price they’re charging indicates they are hiring good drivers.
3. Choosing a seat on a night bus
When you book your night bus, whether online or in-person, you’ll be able to choose your seat. If you have an eye mask or are able to sleep in the face of bright lights, always choose the front seat, whether at the top or bottom deck. These have more legroom, and don’t have someone slamming their chair back into you. You’ll have to book early to catch these though, at least 3 days in advance, a week if possible.
Should those seats be gone, try and catch the seat next to the stairwell to give yourself more breathing room. Avoid anywhere near the toilet; the smells can get incredibly unpleasant. Also avoid the back of the bus, as the bus attendant (yes, every bus in South America has an attendant, like cabin crew) will need to rummage around in the back for meals, drinks and blankets throughout the trip.
4. Timing your night bus arrival
When looking at the night bus timetables, lots of people prefer the idea of leaving earlier rather than waiting around in the departure bus terminal until 10 or 11pm. However, depending on the length of the journey, leaving earlier may put you at greater risk. If, say, you have an 8 hour bus to take, leaving at 8:30pm may sound appealing, but you’ll arrive in the destination terminal at 4:30am the next day. Therefore, waiting for the 11pm bus and arriving at 7:30am, when taxi ranks are full and shops are open, would be far preferable.
South American bus terminals are typically not very nice places, nor are the surrounding streets as they’re normally built in the cheapest part of town, so they’re not somewhere you want to be hanging around until things open. As you probably know, Latin American life tends to happen in the night-time rather than early morning, so at least there will be people going about their day around you if you depart later.
5. Food and drink on night buses in South America
Not all companies will offer this, but the top companies in Argentina and Peru definitely will. Some will also provide a small breakfast and coffee. Check what’s included when buying tickets.
In Colombia and Bolivia, you’re expected to pay for your own dinner when the driver has a half hour break at a truck stop (restaurants in those places are normally pretty good value and know how to get food out to you fast, so don’t hesitate due to time) or buy from one of the many street vendors who will hop on and off buses to sell you their wares – if you ever find yourself on the same bus as a lady selling chicken wings with potatoes on the Quito – Tulcán route in Ecuador, BUY THEM, THEY ARE DELISH.
6. Toilets on night buses in South America
In Bolivia, this is unfortunately irrelevant, because it’s the driver’s responsibility to clean the toilet, and so instead of doing this icky task they keep the toilet locked for the entire trip (they stop for toilet breaks at truck stops every few hours). However, in all other countries, it’s important that you check your night bus is going to have a toilet – for hopefully obvious reasons.
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