Long-distance buses are essential for traveling South America. They’ll take you anywhere! It will take you a few hours, sometimes more, sometimes less, but you will get there eventually. Since we landed in Lima in the middle of January those buses were the only way we made it from A to B, not always comfortable but reasonably priced and (almost) always there when you need them. When you look at the continent of South America it might seem small because countries are so big and spread out. To take you from Lima to Cusco for example will take you around 22 hours and that being on a good road. So we’ve gotten pretty used to spending good amounts of time on buses and even came to like it. Everything that is under 6 hours actually seems to be a short time of traveling. Darn, that will be a big change coming back to Europe and realizing that everything is so close!
There are high-end and budget options for almost every route. The more expensive buses do take everything really seriously – passport controls upon entering, tagging luggage and even filming the passengers with a camera. It’s like being on an airport. Also high-quality buses only stop in their assigned bus stops mostly only within a terminal and won’t let people get in and out anywhere else. This is because so many robberies and holdups had happened in the past. Actually night buses are known for being dangerous for this particular reason.
Cheap buses don’t really care a lot about all those regulations. They are ridiculously cheap which suits our tiny budgets, and I think that’s the only reason we end up on those vehicles of horror. Let me tell you some of our best anecdotes:
Movies and music – if you want or not
You know those nice modern buses that have a little screen and headphone slot for every single seat. Cheap buses make up for their lack of these by putting in a DVD on a small screen in the front of the bus, turn up the sound to the maximum and let us enjoy another cheap action movie with Vin Diesel. (Seriously, I think I’ve watched all his movies by now. -.-) If there is no TV available you will be entertained with a seemingly always repeating collection of popular South America salsa, and not the good kind of salsa though. And if they care a lot about your entertainment they will also keep it on overnight and grant you the sleepless night you’ve always longed for – especially if the speakers are placed right above your head.
Broken bus parts
It’s not really a big deal for vehicles not to be 100% intact. Missing windows, cracked fronts, whole steel parts missing, we’ve seen a lot. What happened to us twice is that the bus we were on had come to a complete stop and we had to wait for a replacement bus to take us to our final destination. Not so much fun standing on the side of a busy road, and even less if you are among the few white people and carry all your belongings on your back. I bet if they had something like a TÜV or a “Pickerl” here, the streets would be so empty or you would finally be able to breathe when walking on the streets during rush hour. :D
Probably the worst part of the whole experience is the people you are traveling with. I don’t want to attack anyone here, but apparently South Americans get in a real hurry when it comes to traveling. Otherwise chilling their life away, they develop a crazy urge to always go faster and arriver earlier as soon as they set forth on a journey. So if the (local) passengers feel the bus driver is taking too long to fill up gas or to let people hop on the bus, you will hear a bunch of angry: “Vamos, vamos!” from the back. However, then every single passenger has his own particular idea where he or she wants to be dropped off and gets extremely offended if the bus driver doesn’t stop the second he or she advises him to let them out. Most of those people carry huge bags of fruit or bread and one time even meat with them on the bus, put it below the seats or above and don’t bother hitting you with it when getting in our out. They will also be super comfortable with touching strangers and using them as a grip to beware them from falling. Yep, happened to me a couple of times. Oh, and do you know those horror pictures of people sticking their feet between the seats in front of them. After saying something twice, the two elderly women kindly stopped doing that, eventually.
It all starts as soon as you come close to a bus terminal and all kinds of people will approach you offering drinks, snacks and taxis, but the most dominant are those you will try to sell you bus tickets to several destinations. Those people will stand there screaming around all the different cities and approach you repeating the city’s name. It’s like a big screaming competition and sometimes they come up with something more original like LAPALAPALAPA, La Paaaaz! Then there is a complete different group of vendors – those beside the streets conveniently located near police control or toll stops. They will hold up their products to the windows of the bus or if the driver is cooperative he will open the door and 2 or 3 women will invade the bus with their snacks mostly made out of corn or their iced sodas or teas. This happened to us only a few times – mostly in Bolivia – but sometimes a guy with a suit holds a speech in the middle of the driving bus. Using a portable microphone he is telling the passengers about some health issue or other problem they didn’t know before and offers them the perfect solution for it afterwards, of course he’s got enough product here ready to buy for everyone. And the funny thing is that the people here really “fall for” these vendors. Not only the persuasive vendor on the bus but as well the street vendors. It happened to us so many times that a women came in with a basket full of sweet gelatins, nobody wanted to have one but as she stayed on the bus repeating “Gelatinas, gelatinas! Un Sol!” people slowly got tempted and every other person bought one. It’s as easy as that here. No need for nifty commercials, just persistently talk people into buying. It works, we’ve seen it!
Well, I guess this negative aspect is also due to the passengers constantly stressing about going faster, but the drivers are sooo irresponsible, sometimes thinking about it I cannot even realize how dangerous it was. They pass cars or other vehicles in impossible situations i.e. curves, even if they see it’s getting close. Then they honk to force the car they are passing, to break so they will still make it in time before they hit with the car form the opposite direction. I think they go by the oldest rule of nature: “The strongest will survive the longest!” At least it feels like they have no respect for others and just pass them for the sake of passing them. Street bumps are being completely ignored – at least for the back wheels – and they don’t show any consideration when driving on a miserable road. No wonder most buses are broken! Dangerous roads also don’t seem to scare them because they still like to keep their maximum speed which explains why every other week there is a severe accident with many deaths due to a bus falling down a cliff.
Big rant over! Wow, seems like this had to come out. These are definitely memories for a lifetime and moments that shaped my experience throughout my travels in South America. I mean reading this you will probably think: “Then just go with the expensive ones, stupid!” I could, but until now I am good and not fed up already. Sometimes I think it is even funny how this whole mess even works out. Plus, my boyfriend and I kind of figured out a good way to have a stress-free ride. I mean that’s what we’ve gotta work with – we didn’t come here for relaxing!