So you’ve finally decided to do a backpacking trip in Latin America, only to realise that the distances between main cities are far, flights are not cheap (compared to Southeast Asia and Europe) and overland travel is the best way to get around and stretch your budget.
Jon and I travelled overland in Latin America for about 9 months, from Mexico all the way down to Patagonia. Okay, not completely overland. We did have to take a couple boat crossings on our trip – one between Panama and Colombia (bypassing the notorious Darien Gap) and from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales in Chile. If you are planning a big trip in Latin America, here are some tips for overland travel in this region:
Choose the Right Bus
While it’d be tough (and expensive) to escape the chicken buses in El Salvador and Honduras, there are decent buses in most parts of Latin America. Do some research on bus companies to travel with. Check online reviews, ask your hotel/hostel for recommendations and check with other travellers. Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico had some of the most convenient buses we’ve been in Latin America. They have VIP buses with reclining seats (cama/semi-cama), wifi and an on-board toilet. Some of these bus rides even included meals.
One of the best bus rides we’ve been was between Buenos Aires and Santiago. Apart from the comfortable reclining seats, we had hot meals on board and a glass of Malbec for a good night’s sleep!
Prepare for the “Chicken Bus” Experience in Central America
In Central America (particularly Guatamala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras), the more common way to get around is by taking the humble “chicken bus.” Despite their brightly painted facade, the chicken bus experience is not as colourful as you think. These buses are often overcrowded, delayed and uncomfortable but it does get you to where you need to go (and you don’t have a lot of choices!). Check out the post below for tips on how to survive a Central American chicken bus ride.
RELATED POST: A Guide to Riding Chicken Buses in Central America
Do Some Research Before Taking an Overnight Bus
If you want to spend less time travelling during the day and save a bit on accommodation, consider taking an overnight bus. Make sure to do some research before booking anything though! Ask the locals, other travellers and check your guide book if it’s safe to travel in that city or country at night. Safety is a big concern for most travellers so don’t risk it if you read or hear anything dodgy about travelling at night.
We barely travelled at night in Central America but we didn’t have any issues travelling at night between main cities in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Safety is relative in these areas though.
Be Smart about Border Crossing with the Same Bus
There are bus companies that go from one country’s border to another (this is more common in South America). This type of transport tends to be more expensive but could potentially save you a bit of time looking for the bus station or waiting for the next bus. This is especially useful when you want to avoid staying the night in border towns. The only border town that I highly recommend for a quick stop is Ipiales in Colombia. The Las Lajas Sanctuary is definitely worth a look.
Choose Your Seat Wisely
Location. Location. Location. Apart from getting the right kind of seat (reclining chairs, please). Where you sit on the bus is also key to having the best ride. I suffer from motion sickness so the front or middle part of the bus is my personal choice. Getting the very front seats for double decker buses is also a great choice if your route goes along stunning scenery. We had front row seats at the top deck during our trip from Medellin to Salento (your entry point to Valle de Cocora) – which meant panoramic views of Colombia’s impressive highlands.
Brush Up on Your Spanish
The biggest challenge when travelling in Latin America is getting your message across. From asking directions on where the bus station is situated to buying your tickets, learning a few phrases in Spanish comes along way when getting around Latin America. Bring a phrase book if you’re just starting out.
Prepare for Motion Sickness
One of my biggest fears before travelling around Latin America was the windy roads. It was a struggle at times, especially along the Peruvian Andes. The route in and out of Huaraz (gateway to Huascaran National Park) is one of the most horrific rides I have ever experienced. The motion sickness combined with the altitude was not a great mix.
Preparation is key if you suffer from motion sickness like me. Apart from taking motion sickness pills (I used dimenhydranate), stay hydrated while travelling and check the route on Google Maps so you have an idea of how to go about the journey.
Secure Your Stuff
One of the lessons we’ve learnt while travelling in Latin America is to never let your guard down. We had no issues with safety travelling from Mexico to Colombia that we became complacent and didn’t take one of the safety notices we found on Wikipedia about bus travel in Ecuador. During our short bus ride from Otavalo to Quito, my GoPro was stolen out of one of our backpacks which was placed on the floor next to my legs. We didn’t notice this until the end of the journey and the driver and conductor didn’t even bother to help us out. Keep your bag on your lap or somewhere within sight.
Familiarize Yourself with the Stops
Sometimes there is more than one bus terminal so make sure to do some research on which bus stop you need to stop at and how to get to the centre or your onward destination from there. Again, brush up on your Spanish or write it down somewhere so you can talk to the driver ahead of time about where you need to go.
Bring Some Entertainment On Board
It does get boring every now and again to travel over 4 hours in a day. Read a book, watch a movie or listen to music to keep your spirits up until the end of your ride. Otherwise you’d be stuck listening to some random Spanish songs or watching some confusing Caribbean music videos.
Pack Some Snacks and Water
While some bus companies provide snacks the selection is often limited so it’s best to bring enough food and drinks for your long journey. If you travel on an overnight bus it’s good to have some breakfast (granola, muesli bars) ready for when you wake up.
Wear Comfortable Clothes and Shoes
Buses can get either too hot or too cold so bring an extra jersey or blanket just in case. For two of our bus rides in Bolivia (to and from Uyuni, gateway to the Salt Flats), we had one very warm and another extremely cold bus ride.
Enjoy the Views
The best part about travelling overland is you get to see more landscapes along the way. One of the most unforgettable journeys we took by bus was during our trip from Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile where we passed along the snow-capped Andes mountains.
Travel with A Companion
Ensure that seat next to you is taken by someone you know by travelling with a companion. It’s so much easier to have another person to talk to, watch over your stuff when you go for a nap and simply share that whole experience with you. If you’re on your own, try to strike up a friendship at the bus station beforehand!
Do you have plans to travel overland in Latin America? What country are you most excited to visit? Let us know.