I spent several months traveling from Costa Rica to Ecuador and it was all done on local buses. I found that it was a cheap and enjoyable experience and not at all the tales of horror and doom that many had written of in other blogs. But not all buses were created equal you can can splurge and get a bus with with air-conditioning, reclining seats (cama or semi cama) or beds and (usually) toilets or you can get the chicken bus which provides a hard seat shoulder to shoulder with…. well chickens…
An overnight bus journey can also save you money on accommodation for a night and, in some countries, the cost of a meal. In Costa Rica the driver stopped at McDonalds and everyone got a chicken sandwich as part of the “included meal” Riding in a bus also allows you to experience views and glimpses of country life that you wouldn’t get on a airplane.
So here is the low down on how to book and travel on buses.
Where to Book?
Some countries allow you to book tickets online and this can be handy if you are not in a central bus station. In Costa Rica I booked with Ticabus which are the best bus company to use in Central america for comfortable long distance journeys. For 55 dollars I got a overnight bus (17 hours total journey) with reclining seats and meals/snacks. I booked online as I was not being picked up at a central bus station but in Jaco. I simply stated that I would be journeying from there and at 1 am I waited by the side of the road. For 30min I stood wondering if I was in the right spot or if the bus would stop, but they did and I had a relaxing journey to Panama city.
In the station
The cheapest option is to buy tickets in the station. I did not know before arriving that bus tickets are subject to haggling, a concept unheard of in Europe. But you can bargain the price of your ticket and they will sometimes throw in extras like a fully reclining seat for the price of a normal seat etc. This can only be done in the station. You will also find more options for travel in the station as not every company is online. I never had a issue with getting a bus when I arrived on the day and always managed to get a seat for a good price. Locating a bus is also very easy. When you enter the bus station there will sometimes be sellers aggressively trying to get you on their bus, even going so far as to pick up your bags and put them on a bus! Otherwise you simply need to wander around and look at the large signs posted on top of the booths to see where the buses are going and then work your haggling magic!
Prices varied drastically depending on what part of south or central america you were in. The cheapest buses I found were in Peru and Bolivia although they were also some of the worst ones. Generally (besides Argentina) you can generally get a luxury tourist bus with tvs and meals in most of the hot spot areas but local transport is also available for just a few dollars. It all depends on how you want to travel. I never spent more that 60 dollars on a bus and in Bolivia as little as 6.
Hop on and off
In Peru there was a Hop on and off bus called Peru hop that was a pretty great way to experience allot of touristic areas without any worry about transport. It starts in Lima and ends in La Paz (or visa versa), and you can decide on your ticket combination. They will pick you up at the location of your choice in one of the cities on the route and drive you and a bunch of other crazy backpackers to all the historical sites in that region with the option of hopping off and staying in one of the cities and hopping back on another day. Tickets start at 159 dollars.
Tips for the bus
Wear warm clothing – Overnight buses are notorious for putting on the aircon. The first overnight bus I took in South America was in Costa Rica it was a hot muggy evening and when I got on the bus I was confronted with a freezing cold interior and the people on the bus dressed in winter jackets and wool hats! I was shocked… I was so cold I hardly had a moment’s sleep and could not access my warmer clothing from my bag under the bus.
Put everything you need in a daybag – Once on the bus your bag that they place underneath is not returned until the journey’s end. They do this for security reasons and you will get a tag that has to be handed in to the driver to get your bag back, so don’t lose it!
Bring a wire lock – Rather than sleep with my bag wrapped around my ankle I bought a lock with a length of wire that I would secure to the bus chair or overhead rail. This would give me peace of mind to sleep knowing that no one could remove or open my bag stealthily.
Take those bathroom breaks – Most buses do not have bathrooms or if they do they are not something you want to use. There will be breaks through at rest stops along the way and take use of them!
So that’s it enjoy your journey and take advantage of this great way to explore the world!
If you want some inspiration check out this blog post on epic bus routes in South America Spectacular Bus Routes in South America