We’ve covered a lot of ground since last December when we started road-tripping across the US. We driven, flown, water-taxi-ed, Uber-ed, boat-ed, biked, and walked, but mostly we’ve traveled by bus. It’s a reliable, cheap, and common way to cover ground, especially here in Latin America. We’ve taken chicken buses, local buses, tour buses, and yes, even night buses. Since arriving in South America, where the distances are longer and the roads a bit bumpier, night buses have become a tradition. Although it’s no one’s travel dream to spend a night being jostled around on a bus, we’ve found it kills a few birds with one stone: it’s a great way to cover some serious ground (at least 10 hours of travel), get (some) sleep, and avoid paying for a night at a hostel.
We took our first night bus in Southern Mexico back in February, but really got our start doing night buses in Colombia, where we took a total of 4 night buses in less than two weeks. When you’re pressed for time (we were headed to Ecuador to meet a friend), it’s definitely a pretty good option to do one night on a night bus, one night in a hostel, and so on, but I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise. With practice, you can definitely get a decent night’s sleep on a bus, but not a good one. You’ll need to rest well the next night, so I wouldn’t recommend doing back to back night buses if you can help it.
What’s a night bus like?
There are usually two tiers for a night bus: regular and premium, although the names do change for every bus company. The regular tier is usually on the second floor (these are all double-decker buses in our experience), and the seats recline to about 140 degrees. There’s usually a meal and a hot drink included, along with at least a few movies played on an overhead screen, usually dubbed in Spanish. The premium tier is usually on the bottom floor, the seats recline to 160 degrees, and sometimes you get a personal TV screen where you can choose from a library of movies and TV shows, just like on a long-haul international flight. The bottom floor always has fewer seats as the bottom floor also stores luggage and has space for the attendant and the driver. In our experience, the buses in Colombia and Peru usually have Wi-Fi on board, but I wouldn’t plan on relying on it too much. On our last night bus for example, I had over 10 MBps down for the first several hours (awesome!), but it didn’t work at all the next morning. Sometimes we use the Wi-Fi to find a hostel in the new city, but sometimes we just skip it.
We typically opt for the premium seats if the trip is over 10 hours and it’s no more than about 25% more expensive. When you have to sit on your butt for over 10 hours (we’ve taken 24 hour buses as well), you’ll be thankful you paid for a little extra comfort. The longest we’ve done is about 24 hours, but there are 4-day journeys from Lima to Sao Paulo and the like. We’ll hold off on those for now!
On our first few buses in Mexico, we just took our day bags and made it work, but since arriving in South America and having longer trips (16+ hours), we’ve refined our strategy. We always bring eye shades, plenty of water, a warm layer (sleeping bag for Andrea, socks and jacket for Doug) in case they crank up the AC, and entertainment of some sort. We both have Kindles, but also download and put movies and TV on a cheap extra phone we have. We’ve also started bringing a food bag along, where we keep water (not included in your ticket cost) and snacks. I’m allergic to dairy and the meals they give you often have dairy. Plus, you never know when you’ll get hungry. We also bring some anti-motion-sickness drugs. Since getting into the Andes, the roads tend to twist and turn, which can upset the tummy. Nowadays we also bring along a toothbrush and toothpaste.
Generally, we arrive at the bus station around 30-40 minutes before departure to make sure we have time to check in, tie off all breakable straps and buckles on our bags, check our bags, and buy any last-minute snacks for the journey.
When do you take a night bus? What do you do?
We usually aim to get on a night bus around 5:00 or 6:00 PM after a full day of walking or some other type of physical activity. Especially for the longer rides (16+ hours), you do start to get restless on the second day, so we’ve found that it’s good to get on nice and tired. I usually try to eat a full meal before getting on as I can never quite trust that the food they give us won’t have dairy. Andrea and I like to watch the city go by for the first little bit, and then we either chat, plan for the next city, whip our our Kindles to read some, or we pull out our extra cell phone to watch a movie or some TV. I usually hang out until around 11:00 PM or so and then recline my seat all the way back, put on my eye cover, hide my belongings, and pass out until they wake me up for breakfast.
The second day, we try to drop off our things at a hostel, grab the hostel’s free breakfast (if we’re lucky), and then get the hell out of there, otherwise we end up spending the whole day lazing around. In Medellin, we hit a couple of museums, a few churches (of course), and then just walked around a park. In Bogota, we jumped straight into a walking tour of the city, and then in Cali, we actually just took the day off to book all of our Machu Picchu stuff and hang out. We only spent about 36 hours in Bogota, so we were tired!
Are night buses safe?
In our experience, yes, although your mileage will vary. We chose not to night bus around certain parts of Mexico due to safety concerns, and you should always ask other travelers, locals, and hostel staff about the safety of any particular route. When in doubt, travel during the day or find an alternate, safer route.
The worst that’s happened to us was one attempt at petty theft. We were taking an overnight bus from Cali to Ipiales, Colombia (about 10 hours). Andrea and I were seated towards the back of the bus. Me in the aisle, Andrea by the window. We usually put our day bags with our valuables under Andrea’s leg rest or between us, and then leave the food bag overhead or under my feet by the aisle. We figure if people are going to take something, it’ll likely be the easiest thing to grab, so we put the least valuable bag towards the outside. I had my leg run through the strap of my backpack and all the zippers were facing inward, but other than that, I was fast asleep, dead to the world. In the early morning (maybe around 4:00 AM), Andrea felt a tugging by her feet. She woke up (thank goodness) and figured out what was going on: the guy in front of us was rifling through our bags while “looking for his water bottle.” Andrea gave him the benefit of the doubt and did look around for the waterbottle before kindly, but quite firmly, telling him it was not there and to look elsewhere. She kept an eye on the guy, but did fall back asleep. A couple of hours later, upon arrival in Ipiales, a passenger towards the front of the, but on the other side of the bus started wailing that his bag and his passport were gone! The guy who “lost his water bottle” was the only passenger missing and we all realized what had happened.
Lesson: Keep your valuables very well hidden and close to hand! Andrea is definitely the MVP of this story as I had no idea what was going on. The guy whose passport was stolen had put his bag with his passport in the overhead compartment, which was definitely not the smartest move.
Andrea does occasionally feel sick on night buses, especially on mountainous roads in the Andes. Her stomach has been a bit delicate since Utah, so she usually brings along dramamine (for motion sickness), melatonin (to sleep), and Pepto-Bismol (for tummy trouble). She’s done quite well with those three and hasn’t ever thrown up. I on the other hand, actually had one particularly bad incident on the 24 hour bus from Cusco to Lima in July. At the time, we had two visitors: Andrea’s sister Marina and our college friend Dan. We’d arrived at the bus station about 25 minutes before departure and had no food whatsoever. Andrea and Marina stayed to check us in while Dan and I went in search of food. The Cusco bus station wasn’t in the best area and there weren’t many food options. Just as I was about to give up and just use our emergency snacks, Dan pointed out a juice shop that happened to offer one dish: lomo saltado. I was a bit nervous about eating from a juice place, but lomo saltado is one of my favorites in Peru and it only cost $4 soles (about $1.30 USD). It usually costs about $7 or $8 (this should have been a warning sign). With no time to waste, Dan and I ordered 6 portions (1 for each of us, plus an extra for us guys) and ran back to the bus station.
We get on the bus and Dan and I immediately demolish our food. Marina isn’t super hungry and only takes a few bites while Andrea’s sensitive nose realizes it’s the not the best thing to eat. Ravenous as I was, I finished off Andrea’s portion and picked at Marina’s. Just a few hours later, I start to feel pretty queasy. To make a long, unpleasant story short, I ended up puking twice and had a bit of diarrhea over the next 3-4 hours. Needless to say, it was not my favorite night bus. Since then, we’ve also added a toothbrush to our night bus toolkit.
Lesson: Be wary of too-cheap-to-be-real food and always bring a toothbrush!
All in all, I wouldn’t exactly say night buses are our favorite way to travel, but it’s a useful way to cover some serious distance and we’ve gotten better and better as we go.