Craig and Linda Martin are world-travelling Kiwis, blogging and podcasting at the award-winning Indie Travel Podcasts. ...Find out more!
South America is a large continent, and plane travel from country to country can be prohibitively expensive for backpackers. Trains are almost non-existent, and car hire can be a bureaucratic nightmare, so to get around you'll probably be using the long-distance bus system. On the whole, the network is well-developed and buses are comfortable, safe and fairly priced.
There will probably be a variety of different companies servicing the route that you want to take, and they usually won't all be equal. Ask around to find out which are the most comfortable and have the best safety record - talk to a local or visit the online forums. Price doesn't usually vary wildly (in Brazil, almost all companies charge the same price for the same route), but if there is a difference, find out why. The cheapest option is probably the cheapest for a reason - go mid-range instead.
Some companies offer an online store to buy tickets, but it's generally a lot easier to buy them from the bus station. Going in to buy tickets also gives you a chance to ask a few questions about the service - how long the journey is, where you'll be dropped off, whether any food or drink is included. If you're travelling for more than six hours, ask how many drivers will be on the bus - most reputable companies have a policy that each bus should have two drivers who swap over every few hours. If there's only going to be one driver, ask how often the rest stops are; driver fatigue is one of the major causes of bus accidents.
Most companies will offer a range of seats for their long-distance service, with the most common being semi-cama, ejecutivo, and cama. Semi-cama is the cheapest, but you still get a fair bit of leg room and the seat reclines significantly more than your average plane seat.
Ejecutivo seats are usually wider and recline a bit more than a semi-cama, while full cama seats lie flat or almost flat. If you're interested in being able to lie completely flat on your journey, make sure to ask if the seat reclines the full 180 degrees or just 160 - it's a completely different experience.
The clerk will show you a plan of the bus and you can choose which seat you want. I like to sit at the front on the upper story of double-decker buses, as you get a good view, more leg room, and no-one's in front of you to recline their seat onto your legs. Choose a seat that's as far away from the toilet as possible, and close to the front without being right next to the door or the stairs.
If you're travelling overnight, you should buy your tickets at least the day before, and a lot more in advance during busy periods. Since you'll probably be arriving by bus, ask in the bus station when you arrive to get an idea of times, prices, and when you need to buy your tickets to leave again, even if you're planning to stay for awhile.
Large pieces of luggage are stored under the bus and you'll be given a ticket or token so that you can prove ownership when it's time to collect it. We haven't had any problems with theft but many other travellers have noticed that their bags had been riffled through when they picked up their luggage at the end of the journey. The best way to avoid this is to keep your bag with you - try to get down to carry-on size anyway, as it's much easier to get around with less stuff. I use my bag as a footrest when sleeping on long-distance buses - it means I can have my legs higher up, making it a lot easier for me to get to sleep.
Whatever you choose to do, keep valuables with you, preferably on your person. If you use a moneybelt, keep it out of sight at all times, and don't flash around expensive possessions.
If you're travelling overnight, it's important to get some sleep. And if you're anything like me, this might not be the easiest task. If you're prepared, though, you can significantly increase your chances of getting forty winks.
Make sure to bring warm clothes with you, as some buses abuse the air conditioning. You may be offered a blanket, but this is not standard for cheaper seats - if you want one, bring your own or use your jacket.
Many overnight buses will play movies, often at full volume, but these are usually switched off at around midnight. Earplugs can come in handy in the meantime. The bus will have curtains but light does get in, so use an eyemask or fashion one out of a scarf. And an inflatable pillow is worth its weight in gold.
Bus travel in South America is a good way to get around. Just make sure you're prepared for it!