Bad Ideas Booking Buses: South America

Most of my backpacking throughout South America went without planning, however, that doesn’t mean I didn’t do research before leaving home.

One thing I didn’t feel like I understood well before leaving was how traveling by buses was actually going to go. How will I book them? Are they just like the ones here? How do you know what’s safe?

When everything except for the flights in and out is about to be buses, I feel like these are all fair concerns to have. Every person and website gave the same general reassurances, “It’ll be obvious.” “Don’t worry about it.” “You just figure it out as you go.” “It’s not that hard.” Mmhm thanks but not my definition of helpful.

I know for certain I took well over a hundred buses, taxis, moto taxis, motorcycles, etc. and from each of them, I’ve established a love hate relationship with traveling South America by bus. Or more accurately, I stopped being surprised and truly learned what it means to roll with the punches. Take a lesson from my mistakes on the following bad ideas when booking buses.

No problems except the horn never stopped blaring.
No problems except the horn never stopped blaring! Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

There are usually timetables available at the bus station, online if you’re not too far off the beaten path, or in the endlessly knowledgeable minds of your fellow travelers and hostel reception. If I knew I was taking a common route, which was most of the time, I’d check out of my hostel, head to the station and book the next bus onward. Sometimes that goes just as smoothly as it sounds. Sometimes you accidentally travel on the busiest days of the year.

What just about every bus looks like along the gringo trail.
What just about every bus looks like along the gringo trail.

Case Example #1: My first ever bus ride from Medellín to Guatapé, Colombia

Thank god I had found a friend to go on this first journey with me. Anna is Canadian, in her early 30’s, well traveled, and took me under her wing. I can say with certainty that it was the only time I’ve traveled with someone who met me with a homemade gourmet sandwich (the bread was soaked to perfection in olive oil) for what was to be a long day of bus riding. Unfortunately, the rest of the day didn’t go quite as smoothly. For starters, know what days make up local holidays.

My favorite taxi option in Brazil.
My favorite taxi option in Brazil.

The bus station was a mosh pit. I can’t believe I wasn’t robbed because I was a sitting duck, completely unable to move as the mob of intimidating men, women and infants closed in around me from every direction. There had been 30+ different bus company options and lines I couldn’t make head or tails of. The destinations are apparently printed in each of the company windows so we went for the first one spotted spelling out Guatapé. With part one accomplished, now we and our monster backpacks were in a desperate struggle against every Colombian and their pushy mother to reach the awaiting buses.

A window is all the entertainment needed for a long bus ride. Medellín to Guatapé, Colombia.
A window is all the entertainment needed for a long bus ride. Medellín to Guatapé, Colombia.

I kept watch on my Colombian opponents, undecided if they were mugging me or not, as I simultaneously tried to understand what all the words and numbers written on my ticket might potentially mean. By the looks of it, the only appropriate behavior here was to hold your ticket at arms length above your head, shoulder your neighbor, and scream. It was a mad house.

Anna and I are separated and I see her climbing onto a bus. I read something that tells me it’s the wrong one, but I’m still packed into the mob and she can’t hear me call her name. I plead to the women blocking me to let me through and the answering venom in their eyes tells me I said the wrong thing. I try again, this time pointing to the rapidly approaching departure time on my ticket. They pause, look at me a second time, and fall over themselves laughing at the misunderstanding made by my terrible Spanish. They grab me – actually take my shoulders in their hands – and shove me forward through the swarm.

It was my first introduction to the Latino temper. Once I understood it, I came to appreciate it. As Americans we like to silently boil away for an extended period of time before finally and spontaneously exploding into flaming masses of fury. These people shout at waiters, they shout at their dentists, they shout at the wind but just as quickly they say their peace and move on happily with warm smiles and crushing hugs. I’ll argue it’s a healthier, only louder, lifestyle.

Mototaxi drives down a road in Guatapé, Colombia.
Mototaxi drives down a road in Guatapé, Colombia.

I yell to Anna and she climbs off the bus moving steadily against the human tide towards me. Then I meet my guardian angel in the form of a young Colombian cop. She looked exhausted and never said a word as she gently took my ticket, read it, and led us to our bus. The driver helped us place our backpacks in an undercarriage as she even silently paused the line of passengers climbing on board so we were certain to get our seats. Don’t listen to the rumors about Colombia being a scary place; the people with names I’ll never know were of the most generous I have ever met.

Case Example #2: From the jungle to the coast of Ecuador on Election Sunday

Now, this entire situation normally could have been avoided except for the fact we were running on a very tight schedule. We had less than a week to get from the Ecuadorean Amazon to the coast, down the coast, and to Montañita for Carnival. If you want to experience the biggest party spot in Ecuador to ring in the infamous Carnival, it’s Montañita. And if you want any hope for a place to sleep, you better make it to your months-in-advance reserved bunk on time.

Carnival sunset on the beach in Montañita, Ecuador.
Carnival sunset on the beach in Montañita, Ecuador.

Here’s how the 48 hour whirlwind went:

  • One semi-sinking canoe from the jungle back to civilization
  • First long walk to a bus stop
  • A bus to a roadside drop off
  • Second long walk until the jungle tour’s jeep finally decided to show up
  • Standing an hour on an overcrowded bus from Misahuallí to Tena
  • A three hour bus to a midnight arrival in Quito
  • One freezing night on the floor of the Quito bus terminal
  • One illegitimate bus to Santo Domingo
  • Another bus from Santo Domingo to Esmeraldas
  • The 6th and final bus to beautiful Mompiche, our final stop and arrival to coastal paradise.

Apart from overly crowded buses, the trip went roughly as expected up until that little “illegitimate bus to Santo Domingo” part. According to our trusty pal, Lonely Planet South America on a Shoestring, we would only have to kill five hours in the Quito terminal before our last bus to the coast.

Beaches to ourselves for miles on our minds. Mompiche, Ecuador.
Beaches to ourselves for miles on our minds. Mompiche, Ecuador.

Lonely Planet books are great for general or emergency knowledge in wifi-less times. Otherwise do not depend on them without crosschecking the facts. More than that, it’s too easy to use LP as a crutch instead of growing a pair and trying your best Spanish asking locals for answers.

As we pulled into Quito just after midnight, I had every toe and finger crossed hoping this would be a terminal with a roof. Ecuador’s capital city is at a higher altitude and gets pretty damn cold at night. I had been in the other 2/3 terminals, both of which were entirely open-air. Thinking only of the five hours we had to kill through the middle of the night, I let out an audible, “Whoop!” when we pulled into this station with a real building, walls and roof included.

We dropped our heavy bags beside the double-sided line of company windows in easy distance for when ours would open and start selling tickets. A lesson I never took from observing the local travelers was to carry a blanket (buy a poncho!). Instead, we did as backpackers do and wore our entire wardrobes.

Upper deck, front row, best seat in the house. Border crossing Argentina to Bolivia from Humahuaca to La Quiaca.
Upper deck, front row, best seat in the house. Border crossing Argentina to Bolivia from Humahuaca to La Quiaca.

Other than alerting a wandering cop every time the same strange man sat down with us yet again, our priority was to be first in line on what was sure to be a hectic travel day. It was technically Sunday already, Election Day in Ecuador, and we weren’t the only ones bus station camping with the same plan. Only everyone else had a slightly better plan because his or her buses actually existed.

5am came and went and by now, long lines of people were crawling from ticket windows around the room. Why was our ticket window still not open? Frustrated, I left my group to watch our things and went to see if I could find some answers. I tried asking the families waiting in lines already about buses to Esmeraldas, but considering the sun wasn’t even up yet, everyone ignored the irritating foreigner and I turned back towards my friends more anxious than before. Somewhere we had missed something.

The only clue for finding the bus stop in Mompiche? Stopped buses.
The only clue for finding the bus stop in Mompiche? Stopped buses.

One kind man caught up to me and in his best effort to speak English told me what I had started to assume: There were no direct buses to the coast today and we had to go first to Santo Domingo. My only response was to point in disbelieving question at the one line I had watched grow from nothing to densely winding around the corner out of sight. “Si,” the kind stranger said with a smile at our successful communication, and went back to his spot in line.

We could have been first in line. Now we didn’t have a chance at getting on a bus until hours from now. We hadn’t had a solid shower or sleep since days ago before we left for the Amazon. As I started back towards the girls to let them know what I had learned, a tall, thin and briskly walking man passed me muttering, “Santo Domingo? Santo Domingo?” under his breath like a music festival drug dealer trying to make his sell without getting arrested.

I turned and followed him along with a handful of others. We gathered together as he rapidly double checked everyone listening was looking for a ticket to Santo Domingo, then with absolutely no further details said, “Sígueme.” Follow me.

“MOMENTO!” I said, and for the first time stopped moving as he stared back at me.

I’m traveling with two others, I said. Get them and be quick, he responded. Incredulous, I asked how I’m supposed to know this is ok when you haven’t told us anything? He mockingly laughed my concern off calling me a confused mochillero, which means backpacker but more technically, backpack. This was when I realized that the key to learning any language is insult and exhaustion.

From somewhere deep in my pissed off brain, I cut his laughter off telling him in my most fluent Spanish to date that he would explain exactly what his plans were and how much a ticket was before any of us went anywhere. He stopped laughing, nodding to me respectfully and said in his first attempt at a genuine tone that it is perfectly safe, $6 USD (slightly more than the station) and would take us straight to Santo Domingo’s bus terminal. With one quick look at the line growing even longer, the shady offer sounded good enough to me.

One way or another, everyone needs a lift through South America. Mocoa, Colombia.
One way or another, everyone needs a lift through South America. Mocoa, Colombia.

I sped towards my friends rapidly going over what the best approach to this explanation would be. In typical fashion, I butchered it, “Get up, grab your bags we have a bus! The guy is super shady but I’m pretty sure it’s legit and the other option is that line,” I said throwing my head towards the mass of people as I swung my bag over my shoulders. They followed suit while groggily passing through a spectrum of emotion that turned from confusion to skeptical to completely sketched-out as the skinny man saw me and started the group out the bus station doors.

Taking slow steps, a deservedly obvious “F- this” stayed stamped on their foreheads from 20 feet behind the rest of the hurrying group. I started to individually question everyone pursuing the man. Is this normal, was it safe? “Si, no te preocupes niña”, they all answered back. Yes, don’t worry girl.

Naturally I began to assume that in choosing to follow this highly organized group of kidnappers, I was walking my friends directly towards their immediate deaths. These people had even roped a baby into the mix to throw us off the scent of danger! Once outside the terminal, we walked nearly two blocks through the morning air, turned left onto a side street and saw – thank god – a bus. Old and beat up, but a bus nonetheless stood out of view behind a concrete wall.

“I mean, there’s a baby,” I said to my skeptical friends as we got close, “they all says it’s fine, there’s no way they can all be together on this, plus…there’s a baby,” I whispered as we climbed onto the bus. The interior was that of any city bus; hard backed and bottomed, not built for long distances. Taking three open seats close to one another, we made a safety blockade of our backpacks and tried to sleep as we winded through mountain valleys for a long, ass numbing ride onto Santo Domingo.

Insanely treacherous, insanely beautiful roads of South America. San Agustín to Mocoa, Colombia.
Insanely treacherous, insanely beautiful roads of South America. San Agustín to Mocoa, Colombia.

2 thoughts on “Bad Ideas Booking Buses: South America

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