‘Don’t look down!’ Tom Gidman on the highs and lows of bussing through South America.
Before I began my trip around Latin America, one of the biggest worries I had was the inevitable bus travel. Having been shown photo after photo of the infamous camino de la muerte, I quickly assumed that all Latin American roads were thin gravel tracks which cling precariously to enormous cliffs. The impression I had of the buses was no better. From what I had read in various travel guides, the likelihood of finding myself sat next to some kind of poultry was frankly a bit worrying. However, for the most part, my experience couldn’t have been more different. Having gone into the whole thing expecting to be aboard buses fastened together with sellotape and loaded with hoards of chickens, I was in for a pleasant surprise.
My first ride was in Argentina, taking us from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazú. Having chosen our bus based entirely on the fanciness of the exterior artwork (without realising that most were actually owned by the same company), we set off. The interior was luxurious, with huge seats that reclined all the way back. There was food served, admittedly a rather questionable ham sandwich, but still food, and the best thing of all was the the legroom. Now, being 6’7”, I might be somewhat biased, but my usual experience of leg room on British public transport normally involves forcedly trapping my head in the space between my knees. Not in South America. There are different classes available, offering various standards of cama dependent on how big the seat is and how far back it reclines. If you’re willing to spend a tiny bit more on a long journey, then the cama-suite is definitely worth a punt. Your legs will thank you.
As we moved on to Andean Bolivia and the small town of Uyuni, we did begin to see more of the nightmare buses we had read about. The most worrying thing of all had to be the scarily small wheels, which wouldn’t have looked amiss on a Mini Cooper. Fortunately we didn’t have to take too many of these buses, as they cover the more minor routes between smaller towns. We just tried to put the many, many, fatal road accident statistics to the back of our minds and attempt to sleep all the way there, and luckily arrived at our destination alive.
Given that Bolivia is one of Latin America’s poorest countries, we didn’t have particularly high expectations for the buses that took the more major routes. How wrong we were. If anything, they were nicer than those in Argentina, with the same kind of service, just bigger and better. The only chicken found on these buses was in a stew served for our dinner. It had set the standard for the rest of our journey, which would take us north to Cusco and across the treacherous Andes to Lima. By and large, we weren’t disappointed… we felt very safe. In fact, as we boarded the bus in Cusco, I would say we almost felt too safe. First we were asked to walk through a metal detector, after which we were immediately frisked and our luggage was given a thorough manhandling whilst one of the staff was filming us on a camcorder. I almost felt it necessary to ask whether this bus was going to be taking off and flying us across the Andes. It was an arduous boarding process to say the least, but inside it was yet another case of excessive comfort and comically awful television.
Now a lot of people say that the only reason they have such nice seats and big TV screens is to distract you from the sheer drops that crumble away from the roadside into the rocky valleys below. Now I don’t know about you, but if I’m about to be driven off a cliff, the last thing I’d be thinking is “hmmm, what comfy chairs”, or “what a fantastic Peruvian infomercial this is”. Frankly, I would probably be doing my best not to wet myself.
We thankfully arrived safely in Lima and I have to say, our general impression of the South American bus network was quite positive. We hadn’t woken up in any ditches and we didn’t have to deal with any overly chatty chickens. Parts of it were hair-raising, or course, but I can say one thing: it most certainly wasn’t dull. Living in a country where trains are often cancelled for reasons beyond comprehension, such as the driver having sneezed or because an ant looked at the signal box, it certainly made for a welcomed change.
Header photo: TeachTravelLearn blogspot.