So I thought I would provide the intricate details on how to navigate the transport systems available to you while backpacking the southern continent. Coming to South America with very little information as to how to get about was pretty rough, and I’m going to try and help you avoid some of the mistakes I made. Pay mind, the transport systems differ between countries, so I am going to give a breakdown based on those I have visited.
1) Snacks: It’s the worst feeling to be ravenous on a very long bus ride! Plus, when you are that hungry you are less picky about what is offered, so when a local climbs onto the bus with chicken and rice of dubious origin you take it. Then regret it for the next two days.
2) Water: self-explanatory, but be sure that you don’t drink so much your bladder will explode, especially on buses without built in sanitation.
3) Passport: almost all bus companies will ask for your passport and put your credentials on your ticket. Have it ready to pull out.
4) iPod: DO NOT let your friends scare you by saying it will be stolen! Your iPod is your absolute best friend for these long journeys. Don’t leave your best friend behind!
5) Entertainment: if you have an iPad or laptop, make sure to download lots of movies and that you have a full battery. For those of you who don’t get carsick (unlike me) bring a good book or two!
6) For those that do get carsick, DRAMAMINE!
7) Appropriate clothing: buses can range from cold to uncomfortably warm, so wear removable layers or bring a nice fluffy jacket. Oh, and socks! You mustn’t forget warm socks! Feet are the first to freeze.
Reciprocity Fee: Attention Americans, Canadians, and Australians
For the countries Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil there is this pesky little thing called a reciprocity tax! Before you complain, realize the reason you are being taxed is that your country charges the same amount to their citizens on entering your country. Read more on my post regarding the South American reciprocity fees!
Ugh. I hate the public transportation in Ecuador. The entire bus system is wacky, drivers only stop when you make it abundantly clear you want to get off, and they are almost always overcrowded. If you are looking for amenities, forget about it. But if you are looking for cheap (although rather hassling) travel then this is your stop. Don’t EVER purchase tickets online! There is no guarantee you will be able to make it to the terminal in time for your bus, or find it for that matter! Sorry, but the excellent electronic system and e-tickets back home just don’t work practically here. Once you arrive at the bus terminal, there are usually multiple bus companies leaving on the hour to wherever you want to go, so definitely buy your ticket at the station from a teller. It’s cheaper, and you’re guaranteed to not miss your bus.
Depending on how remote the area which you are traveling to is, you might be riding next to a man holding a chicken. He might let you pet it if your lucky. Also, once you get into seriously out-of-the-way places, the lovely shiny bus terminals disappear. The only way to find a bus is to ask a local, and they will tell you what time it comes and where to sit and wait. I like the small town buses because they usually are open air rancheros! Which are excellent for nice afternoon rides as you can feel the passing landscape! Other public transport in Ecuador is cheap and straightforward. Public bus systems in Quito cost only $0.25, but are terribly crowded so keep your valuables close at hand! Taxis are also usually relatively cheap within the city, but make sure you confirm the price before getting in.
Ecuador —> Peru Border Crossing
Okay, we have all heard horror stories of tourists getting totally ripped off at border crossings, or worse being threatened with physical harm. These timers had me a bit rattled when I was on a bus from Cuenca to Mancora, and was crossing the border around 1:00 am. However, I was needlessly worried! Peru has recently built a new border facility. It’s big and official looking, with guys in uniform carrying guns. The process was pretty painless as Americans don’t need a visa to get into the country, so within twenty minutes I was back on the bus and fast asleep. I have heard that crossing the border near Guayaquil can be a bit more dodgy, and not to attempt it at night if possible.
Peru’s buses are fantastic, and you can take them everywhere in country. For instance, instead of paying upwards of US$300 for a flight from Lima to Cusco, you can instead take a comfy overnight sleeper bus that arrives the next morning. But there is a trick to it. First, I recommend either Cruz Del Sur or Civa bus companies. They are reliable and comfortable, even if a bit more expensive. Next, you will be faced with a choice, you either take the semi-cama seat or the Cama seat. TAKE THE CAMA! It usually comes out to be about an extra ten dollars, but in return you get a huge seat that reclines almost all the way down! On these lines, you also get special amenities, like power plugs for mobile devices, wi-fi equipped with cell reception, and a tasty dinner/breakfast! Not bad for less than US$80. Tickets for these buses should be purchased online or with the help of your hostel staff. Taxis in Peru are also straight forward, but make sure they are using the meter when you get in.
Argentina and Brasil
I’m doing these together because the systems are very similar. They are also extremely privy compared to other South American countries. Make sure to check both flights and buses for in-country travel, because sometimes they will be equal cost, in which in that case just take the two-hour plane ride! For safe, comfortable buses use Cruz del Norte bus company. International plane fare is ridiculously expensive, so try to cross borders using a bus! As for taxis, both countries are fond users of the meter, so make sure it is on once the driver starts going! Otherwise, a gruesome argument may ensue. The public bus systems and metros are also straightforward, and if you are not sure which to take get advice from your hostel!
I will add info for Chile and Bolivia after I visit them myself!