If you are planning to travel South America on a shoestring then you should expect to spend a good few hundred hours on buses. This is a big old continent and some overnight bus journeys can last well over twenty hours. Obviously trips like this aren’t a lot of fun at times, so read on to find out what to expect when using buses in South America. Also includes a small section on air travel.
Note: I visited Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina so this section only looks at travel to and between these countries. Feel free to recommend airlines and bus companies for other South American countries or pop any helpful tips you might want to share in the comments section below.
Travel by Bus
- Bus prices fluctuate from day to day, so it’s worth checking bus company sites (when available) frequently if booking advance. Companies can also offer wildly varying prices so be sure to check all available carriers for the area you are travelling in.
- Deals can be struck if buying in person at bus terminals. If you are travelling in groups of two or more, you can often net discounts if your Spanish is good enough to ask for one. Even if you only save a small amount each time, it all adds up on a trip that spans many months. These discounts are available quite readily in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, less so in Chile. In Argentina you are wasting your time even asking.
- Seats come in different classes, often with differing names. Usually, however, they come under some kind of cama ranking. Regular seats might be far cheaper but a night journey with no recline is likely to be very uncomfortable. Try and go for semi-cama at least, and full cama (can also be called VIP, executivo, super-cama, etc) if you feel like splurging.
- Try and stick with the bigger, more trustworthy bus companies where you can, especially for long-distance drives. Some we used that we would recommend are as follows: Andesmar (Argentina), Cruz Del Sur (Peru), Libertadores (Colombia) Pullman (Chile), PeruBus (Peru), Tur Bus (Chile) and Via Bariloche (Argentina). Cruz Del Sur especially take the responsibility of their passengers seriously as you can actually watch as they breathalyse their drivers before they set off for each journey.
- If you are on a night bus with more locals than tourists prepare to be annoyed. A lot of South Americans don’t seem to mind who hears their private conversations as they talk at the top of their voices, play movies and music out of their phone speakers at full volume (even when they’ve been give earphones by the bus company) and very few seem to know how to switch off or lower the volume of their phone’s keytones, message alerts of ringtones. The cacophony of noise produced can be irksome, especially when trying to get some shut eye. Earplugs are an absolute MUST if you want to get some rest but, even still, the WhatsApp message tone will become a sound that haunts your nightmares.
- Some buses have TV screens that are built into the back of the seat in front of you, like on a plane. Some, however, have screens in the middle of the aisle and these can be annoying. When you are trying to relax they can be loud and bothersome. The worst thing is when a film comes to its conclusion and the man in control doesn’t turn it off or change the disc – there was one leg where the DVD’s main menu, complete with music, played on loop continuously for about an hour.
- Wrap up warm for night journeys! For some unknown reason, air conditioning seems to get cranked up to full blast at night, when they day is already at its coldest. The majority of bus companies provide blankets but not all of them do.
- There are toilets on the vast majority of long-distance buses but cleanliness can never be relied upon and some can be extremely grim and smelly. Our 33 hour bus from Bariloche to El Calafate had a broken toilet that, when flushed, swilled brown poo water all over the floor of the toilet compartment. That was an unpleasant bus ride, spent mostly with tightly crossed legs.
- Bring toilet paper with you if you are a female. It is hit or miss as to whether a carrier will provide paper or not and even if there is, it will run out by the end of a long-distance journey.
- If you are in Peru and Colombia and forget to stock up on snacks do not fear! Snack sellers come onboard buses at most stops to sell their food, some of which is surprisingly good. This might also happen in Bolivia and Chile but to a much lesser extent.
- If you feel no shame you can board public buses in Chile without paying. Our Coachsurfer host made us do this once in Santiago and the bus driver didn’t bat an eyelid. We didn’t do it again afterwards as we felt bad but, if you don’t care about that kind of thing, knock yourself out.
Travel by Air
We travelled mostly by bus but we did take a handful of flights during our three months in South America. Although flying is more convenient and much faster than buses, flights in South America, even of the domestic variety, are rarely cheap. Some of them, in fact, are downright extortionate! Other travellers we met along the way said that bargains could be had but a lot of hard work and scouring of the internet was required to find them. Every time we searched, we only found flights that we would class as expensive. Perhaps we were just unlucky… Anyway, below is a brief summary of what we thought of each airline we used.
- Aerolíneas Argentinas
(El Calafate to Buenos Aires and Buenos Aires to Cataratas del Iguazú)
Operating under the Skyteam Airline Alliance, Aerolíneas Argentinas offers a similar standard of service as other members such as Air France and KLM. They provided us with good snacks and complimentary drinks on both of our flights. Flights were expensive, as most are in South America, but making a multi-city trip often brings down costs somewhat. Of the carriers we flew with in South America we were happiest with Aerolíneas Argentinas.
(Buenos Aires to Lima via Santiago)
SKY are a Chilean budget airline. The leg room they provide is very limited and their planes are small meaning they are easily buffeted by turbulence. We experienced some rough air on our flight and the mostly Argentine passengers clapped and cheered with relief when the plane landed safely! As with most budget airlines, food and drink is available for purchase but at inflated prices. Not a bad airline and at least the company is laying the foundations of affordable air travel in South America.
- Viva Colombia
(Bogotá to Lima)
Viva Colombia are linked to RyanAir and follow the same questionable practices that can rob customers of money for the smallest transgression. Be sure to print off the barcoded tickets they send you otherwise they will charge you astronomical fees – a disgusting £20 per person – to print a simple boarding pass. We booked our flight with them through Kiwi (who are pretty good for cheap flights) who accidentally neglected to send the correct boarding pass and we were charged. Thankfully, Kiwi were very helpful and refunded us the money promptly. The Viva Colombia staff who checked our bags were very surly and quite miserable. I wouldn’t use them again unless I absolutely had to.