Staying safe & comfortable on night buses in South America
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Travelling by night bus in South America has many advantages. It saves on your accommodation for the night, lets you travel the long distances between cities without wasting a day and reduces your carbon footprint versus travelling by air.
To be honest, as Brits who have been scarred by our experiences of the National Express service from Leeds to London, our first reaction to the thought of taking night buses in South America was ‘Ew!’, but we’ve somehow grown to sort of maybe a teeny bit enjoy them.
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In pretty much every country except Colombia – where the government keeps flight prices down to ensure access to places isolated by roadside violence – taking a night bus in South America works out significantly cheaper than flying, especially when you factor in that many airports are a long way from their city centres.
At first though, the bus system here can be a bit of a minefield, and so we’ve written this here guide to keeping safe and comfortable whilst travelling on night buses in South America.
Are night buses in South America safe?
Yes would be our answer. The vast majority of night buses in South America are safe – at least the ones with routes that a tourist would typically choose. Horror stories of buses being stopped by armed thieves may have been commonplace in dodgier parts of the region a few decades ago, but nowadays they are crazy-rare unless you’re travelling through a conflict zone (top tip: don’t).
Crudely speaking, South American night buses tend to be priced out of the budget of those who need to steal to survive. However, opportunists are still out there, and in many countries gringos are targeted because there exists the mindset that “they can afford to just buy new stuff to replace what is taken”. Rather than coming from a place of malice, stealing from a gringo is somewhat regarded as a victimless crime in some parts of the continent.
Therefore, as with anywhere in South America, you need to make sure you’re taking precautions to keep yourself and your things safe & secure when on a bus. Luckily, we’re here for you!
Here are some of the tips we’ve picked up for staying safe & comfortable on South American night buses.
Tips for safety on night buses in South America
1. Check bus company reviews
This is really important. When people talk about the safety of South American night buses, they’re usually only concerned about theft. A more probable danger is that the driver himself is unsafe; serious bus crashes in South America are much more common than in the UK.
Research a little beforehand, look for reviews that say drivers were safe/too fast/drunk (this is a particular issue with regards to the safety of night buses in Bolivia).
2. Keep your bags safe on the bus
Rule number one: never lose sight of your bag. This goes for any bus, not just night buses in South America. Well, your small bag of valuables (passport, tech, etc.), that is. Your big backpack of dirty underpants will be perfectly safe in the undercarriage of the bus – nobody wants to steal that. Besides, any decent bus company will give you a tag or sticker for your luggage when you load it in.
Don’t leave your small bag in the main luggage though, for the simple reason that it risks a good crushing.
Small bags need to come up to your seat with you, and they should never leave your person. Do not under any circumstances put them in the overhead compartment. This is prime for theft in any country in South America.
When you get onto the bus, check whether the seat rows are separated underneath or if you can see the feet of the person in front.
Be extra careful of the latter; we’ve had a jacket whipped out from under our feet via this gap, and we met someone who somehow lost a 30L backpack this way too.
Ensure your bag is tied to something, and it’s positioned between your feet with the zips facing you. If the bus stops for toilet breaks or border controls, always take your valuables bag with you.
3. Be alert in South American bus terminals
When waiting for the bus, keep real vigilance over your bags. Never put your valuables bag down, either. Just accept that it’s now a part of you, like an extra limb. Some of our friends have been caught out with distraction techniques, where a little old lady babbles away loudly at you in Spanish or Quechua while her accomplice makes off with your bags.
Bus terminals need a lot of land, so to do it on the cheap they’re highly likely to be built in one of the roughest areas of the city. Be alert from the moment you get to the terminal.
4. Carry a Decoy Bag
To throw people off, Lozzy has taken to wearing a very small handbag as a decoy on South American buses. Thieves will assume that this handbag is where her passport, phone and purse are, so will target this instead of her backpack of goodies.
It’s empty apart from a note that says ‘F you’ in Spanish, so if anyone did waste their thieving efforts on it, it’s no real loss to us. So take that, ladrones!
5. Read your ticket carefully
If you book online, make sure you read and reread the T&Cs of your reservation. It’s common when using online sellers such as busbud.com to need to print your ticket for it to become valid – if you can’t get your accommodation to do it, there are always print shops around who can print it off from an email for a few cents.
Other South American bus companies require that you present yourself at the ticket desk to validate your ticket, which is very important considering the bus brand you book with might not necessarily be the brand you travel with.
We learnt this the hard way in Valparaíso when we missed our night bus despite being sat waiting in front of it. Yep.
Tips for getting comfortable on night buses in South America
1. Choose the best seats on a night bus
We have a fuller blog post on what to look for in a night bus here, but generally speaking the bottom floor of double-decker night buses tend to be the more spacious and luxurious seats, with fewer people down there. You have to pay more for these seats, but usually the price is negligible for the increase in comfort when you’re trying to sleep, plus higher price = fewer children.
The front row may offer more leg space, but the compromise is that you often have bright lights of the TV and/or speedometer flashing in your face all night. Pick wisely!
2. Dress to destress on night buses in South America
The key here is layering. Every night bus in South America seems to start off super cold with air con pumping out, then when they want you to sleep they whack the heating up and you’ll boil. Make sure you take things that keep you warm enough but you can remove when the going gets hot.
On this note, the floors and side vents of night buses tend to seriously heat up at night, so much so that the floor once cooked some leftover takeaway rice we brought with us. Make sure you have a layer between your valuables bag and the floor to stop things melting.
3. Plan ahead for different food & drink expectations
If you’re on a night bus in Argentina, Chile, Peru or Brazil, you can expect to be fed at least a snack box and drink during your time. On budget buses, this may just be a dinner or a lunch, but on longer or higher quality buses, you may be given several meals – some of them hot airplane-style meals. In Brazil, buses often have a free water fountain, too.
Across other countries, on-bus services offered will differ, from having to eat whatever street sellers offer you when they jump on the bus or stopping at a truck stop to buy a restaurant meal.
You can usually gauge what to expect by visiting the website of the bus company and looking up their offerings, but we like to come prepared with a few (many) snacks just in case.
4. Don’t count on the bus wifi!
Make sure you bring plenty of offline entertainment to get you through the night. Though your bus company may boast wifi capabilities on their routes, don’t put all your hopes and dreams into being able to get some work done or access online entertainment on the journey.
It’ll at best be slow in the larger cities, but since you generally only go through cities at the beginning and end of your routes, the rest of the bus will likely be in blackout as you drive through the countryside.
In southern South America, we found that the bus wifi was just enough to browse social media without loading high res pictures. In other countries, it’s often struggled even to load a google search.
5. Bring a portable charger with you on night buses in South America
There’s not a huge amount worse than plonking yourself down on a 14-hour bus and realising you haven’t got enough charge to even watch a few Netflix episodes.
Only the night buses in most affluent South American countries provide back-of-seat TV screens or shared TVs (which usually blare out awful 90s movies into the night so don’t forget those earplugs!), and you therefore risk sitting there staring into space for most of the journey.
If you struggle to get to sleep in weird places, help yourself along with something natural. We did meet some British guys who realised they could buy valium over-the-counter in Bolivia and so were regularly knocking themselves out for entire South America night bus journeys, but for safety’s sake we’d recommend something more natural. Taking 5HTP, melatonin or drowsy anti-histamines as soon as you get on the bus can trigger your brain’s natural sleep cycles without restricting you from waking up if you need to. Basically, they help you get to sleep, but don’t keep you asleep.
All in all, taking South American night buses is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, we really have come to enjoy them. We get to save money on accommodation, mingle with the locals and sit in seats wide enough to pretend we’re flying first class. Safety of night buses in South America has improved tenfold in the last decade or so, so be alert but don’t worry yourself to the point of not being able to sleep. YOU’RE GONNA BE JUST FINE.
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