South America is a vast continent with a great deal of cultural, economical and ecological diversity. From the colonial cities to the towering Andes and the steamy Amazon, there is just so much to explore and learn. And like many places in the world, it’s best explored via bus.
To do an extensive tour of South America, you will need a very large chunk of time. Think months, not weeks. If you have a shorter time allowance, you may want to pick one country and explore it in depth. South America is an enormous piece of land and exploring it by bus can take a little while longer. However, bus rides make up for it in the culture, scenery and experiences you will have on the road.
Here are some suggestions for how to travel South America by bus and see as much of the continent as possible. While this list doesn’t cover all the countries in South America, it’s enough to give you a good overview – and keep you busy for a long time.
Colombia is a great northern starting point for several reasons: the people are friendly, the buses aren’t too rough and there is so much to see. Between the Andes, the Caribbean Coast and the coffee fields, you could easily spend 2-3 months just exploring this colorful country.
Bus travel in Colombia is not as cheap as in other destinations, and it’s not unheard of for a long one-way trip on a standard bus to cost up to $50.
- Cartagena – a colorful coastal city with colonial architecture and great neighboring beaches
- Medellin – once a drug capital, now a pleasant and sprawling green city
- Bogota – the mountainous capital city, full of history and culture
- Zona Cafetera – the coffee growing region with many cute smaller towns and coffee plantations
- Popayán – a southern city with gorgeous churches and unique food
It’s difficult to purchase bus tickets in advance, so plan to arrive at the station and buy them on your day of departure. Most bus trips are long and wind through the mountainous landscape, so bring some dramamine, water, and a blanket for the trip.
Ecuador may be small but it packs a large and diverse punch. There is a lot to do here from market shopping to hiking an active volcano to simply relaxing by the beach.
Bus is the primary form of travel throughout most of Ecuador. Aside from renting a car, it’s really the only way to get to most places outside the two largest cities. Buses in Ecuador are cheap and low frills, but luckily it doesn’t take more than 5-7 hours to get anywhere in the country.
- Quito – the highest capital city in the world, an elegant city with a long history, perched high in the Andes
- Banos – Ecuador’s adventure capital sits at the base of an active volcano
- Guayaquil – Ecuador’s largest city is not very interesting, but it’s a jumping off point for the coast and the Galapagos
- Cuenca – a UNESCO World Heritage City with many attractions
The buses in Ecuador may be targets for potential thieves so make sure you keep all of your belongings close, especially at the station and during stops. Don’t store your valuables under your seat or above your head – keep them in your lap.
Peru is best known for Machu Picchu. While it’s true that this is a can’t miss, there are many more interesting things to see in the country.
While there are a couple of potential train journeys in Peru (a rarity in South America), most travel is still done by bus. There are several different classes of bus in the country ranging from very basic to very nice with comfy seats and meal service.
- Lima – the metropolitan capital city with amazing cuisine
- Cuzco – the ancient capital of the Incan Empire and a jumping-off point for Macchu Picchu and other treks
- Arequipa – a colonial city popular with tourists
- Puno – a port on Lake Titicaca and the last stop before Bolivia
Try to buy your tickets a day in advance to ensure a seat. You will need to present your passport at time of purchase. Be aware that some bus rides can be long. For example, it takes 25 hours to get from Lima to Cuzco.
Buses in Bolivia are prevalent and extremely cheap, averaging about $1 per hour of bus time. You may not get a lot of comfort for that kind of price tag . Still, the bus is the most convenient way to get to most places in the country. The biggest benefit of bus travel: the beautiful scenery scrolling past your window.
- La Paz – Bolivia’s enormous high altitude capital city
- Uyuni – jumping off spot for the surreal Uyuni Salt Flats
- Sucre – a UNESCO World Heritage City with lots of history
- Quime – small town tucked in the Andes, a center for hiking
Bolivia’s buses aren’t the most comfortable or safe, so if possible, try to travel during daylight. Road blockades due to protests are a common occurrence, so check the conditions before you hop on the bus, lest you get stuck.
Argentina is a large country, but bus travelers can take solace in the fact that buses in Argentina are luxurious compared to most of South America. Prices are higher but far better value for your money: travelers can expect comfortable reclining seats, A/C and even meal service.
- Buenos Aires – Argentina’s European style capital city is a can’t miss
- Salta – a pretty northern city
- Mendoza – the heart of Argentina’s wine country
- Iguazu Falls – one of the wonders of the world, on the border with Brazil
- Ushuaia – the southernmost city in the world
Traveling into Argentina by bus gives travelers one big advantage: travelers can skip the $140 entry-fee charged to international arrivals at the EZE airport.
This post was written by Stephanie Yoder from Twenty-Something Travel. In 2010, Stephanie quit her office job, trading in corporate life for worldwide adventures and globetrotting across Asia, Australia, Europe, North and South America. Since then, she has climbed the Great Wall of China, been underground in the Colosseum, snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, and even found love with another travel blogger along the way.
Photos by Stephanie Yoder at Twenty-Something Travel
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Have you taken the bus throughout South America and have some tips or fun stories you would like to share? Let us know in the comments below!