South America is a huge continent. Unfortunately, traveling between destinations here can be very difficult. Trains are rare and for whatever reason, flights are extremely expensive. Because of this, the most common means of transportation is long-distance buses. While some might cringe at the thought of traveling 24+ hours in a cramped vehicle, the buses here are notoriously luxurious. You can find buses that feature fold-flat beds, hot meals, videos (in English), and even wine. The buses and types vary by country, but generally there are the following classes:
Conventional: Single level bus usually with a single bathroom at the back. Seats are slightly better than a coach airplane seat, with a large leg/foot rest and decent leg room. They usually don’t serve food but stop every six hours or so at nice rest stops.
Semi-cama: Can be a one or two level bus, with seats that recline more than conventional buses and have more leg room. They will often include a hot meal and drinks on long trips and have TVs and a bathroom. Usually non-stop.
Cama-ejecutivo: Same as semi-cama, but wider seats and they recline more (to around 135 degrees)
Tutto Letto: Two story buses with wide, fold flat “beds” with tons of room and hot meals/wine/etc.
For my first South American bus experience, I splurged for a cama-ejecutivo ticket from Via Bariloche from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu, a 17 hour journey. I bought my ticket online for 940 Argentine Pesos, or about 120 USD. I arrived to the bus station in Buenos Aires (which is bigger than most airports I’ve been to…it has nearly 100 “gates”) fifteen minutes before my departure. After checking my backpack underneath, I went to my assigned seat on the top level of the bus. The seats were incredibly comfortable–significantly wider than a coach airplane seat. The headrests were perfectly padded and shaped to keep heads from falling to the side when trying to fall asleep. The legroom was amazing. With my seat reclined and leg rest deployed, I could comfortably extend completely.
The bus left on time and the TVs above turned on to play 3 or 4 American blockbusters with Spanish subtitles. A few hours in, the bus attendant came through to provide lap desks for dinner. We received drinks first—coke, sprite, water, or wine. The cups were small but the attendant seemed to be OK with giving refills once or twice during the meal. The dinner consisted of a rice, ham, and cheese mix, some crackers, and cookies (see picture). I was thinking that it was pretty skimpy, but then the attendant made a second round to serve us the entree—a hot plate of meat and potatoes. Not the best food I’ve had but more than sufficient (similar to airplane food).
I was able to sleep overnight without any trouble due to the comfortable seats. When I woke up, I was surprised to see we had already arrived at the bus station in Puerto Iguazu (2 hours early). Overall an “A-“ travel experience.
My second bus journey was a 24 hour marathon from Foz do Iguazu to Rio de Janeiro. I went to book the tickets online a week in advance but apparently Pluma’s website only allows Brazilians to book via their website. Luckily I was in Buenos Aires, so I just went to the bus station and visited Pluma’s ticket office. I was shocked to hear the price—400 Pesos (<40 USD)! I was quoted 244 Reais (~110 USD) on Pluma’s website. Lesson learned: always buy tickets in person if possible.
This time I was on a Conventional bus sitting next to a nice mom who helped me with my Portuguese. It was one level with a bathroom in the back. Sadly, the TVs didn’t work and there was less leg room and reclining than the first trip. However, the biggest difference was the amount of stops. We first stopped in Londrina to pick up more passengers and then we stopped four more times at rest stops to eat and use the bathrooms. These Brazilian rest stops are extremely nice, with free Wifi, clean bathrooms (you have to pay though), and good food. Unfortunately, the food wasn’t particularly cheap compared to American rest stops. We also made a few stops to Pluma warehouses to pick up some kind of packages and drop them off at another office (which was a 30+ minute wait the second time).
On the one hand, it was nice to get out and stretch my legs for 30 minutes every few hours at the rest stops but it made the journey much longer. After about 12 hours the bathroom began to smell, and by the end of the trip the odor was quite strong. On the bright side, the mountain views between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were outstanding. For the price, it was what you would expect (similar to the American train trip). However, it was a far cry from the first bus journey. Overall: “C”
With bus fares often being half of the price of flights, the South American buses are highly economical. For anyone who has plenty of time, buses (particularly in Argentina) are the way to go.