A comprehensive guide to public transport in South and Central Americas: buses, flights, safety, comfort, prices and so on
In case you were thinking about travelling to Latin America, here’s a potentially helpful post that should tell you exactly what the title says: How to get around in Latin America. In practical terms, we’ll talk about means of transportation, prices, safety, comfort and other transport-related tips. I hope that you’ll find this piece useful 😉
Overall, from the traveller’s perspective, the transport in Latin Americas is generally more comfortable than in for example South East Asia, although much of that is done in long (very long) distance buses. However, when it comes to the way it’s organised, it’s nowhere near SEA because everything’s done for you there, while in Latin Americas you need to find your way around a bit, which is something this article can help you with 😉
How to get around in South and Central Americas
Many travellers would agree if I said that transport could eat up quite a significant portion of their budgets, in fact, it is often one of the largest items, especially when covering large distances between destinations, which is certainly the case, when travelling around Latin America. Money however isn’t the only element an ordinary traveller has to deal with in order to move around the Americas.
For instance, for a Western traveller, the local systems could appear rather different, when it comes to the general way how the local public transport works as well as getting information about the connections or just buying your bus tickets. Then there are also sometimes slightly different driving standards or things like knowing how to deal with your luggage, not to mention the language barrier if you don’t speak the local language.
Well, one way or another, in case you have decided to explore this beautiful and colourful world, I can guarantee that you’ll use the local public transport a lot. Even if combined with flights, moving around huge Latin America would require many long bus journeys, hence this practical info I’ve gathered during nearly 8 months over the 25 thousand kilometres on the road.
Means of Transportation
Inner city-wise, except for the metro systems in some of the large cities, Latin Americans often use colectivos, which is pretty much a shared taxi but only run a certain route and it often involves waiting for more passengers. It’s sometimes hard to learn what routes are operated and where are the spots to wait but it’s a great way how to get to know locals. In cities, there are also micros which are pretty much cheaper minibus versions of colectivos. Then there are classic taxis, ubers and all that…
Long distance-wise, except for the long-distance buses, which is pretty much the undisputable leader in the public transport industry on the continent, there are also sometimes shuttles, AKA vans that often run between points of interest, mostly used by tourists. In Central Americas, there are also chicken buses, which are mostly used by locals with lower incomes. The passenger trains are rather rare but those that are in operation could be rather spectacular rides.
Hired vehicles: if the budget allows you, one of the best ways to travel around Latin America is hiring a car. I would recommend taking this option, especially when travelling in some regions of Patagonia, such as along the spectacular Carretera Austral, Salta and Jujuy regions in Northern Argentina and quite a few other places of the Latin World. Car rentals are quite common in those places, however, they often come with various restrictions, when it comes to crossing the borders and so on.
Furthermore, watch out for what kind of insurance you’re paying for because the road quality in some remote regions could be quite bad and you don’t want to be responsible for any damage. Some travellers also like to purchase a car if they’re planning long trips. It can also be tricky to cross borders in those. My tip would be to always double-check your options, before purchasing or hiring a vehicle.
Flights are pretty much the same as anywhere else.
Hitch-hiking is apparently rather common in Patagonia but with one exception, I haven’t tried it.
Nearly every larger town or tourist destination is served by an airport. When it comes to prices, the unwritten rule is that flying between Latin American countries isn’t exactly a cheap affair, however, domestic flights could get rather affordable.
Some of the local low-cost airlines also appear to be making their money from the check-in luggage, which was nearly the same as the flight itself on few occasions for me. Expect service à la Ryanair or worse though, except for flying domestically in Argentina, where even the low cost felt like some BA flight…
Safety on the road
In several Latin American countries, the machismo culture is naturally also implemented in the drivers’ attitude on the road. To be honest, this kind of men’s stupidity is far from being only a Latino phenomenon but let’s stick with the topic and cut to the chase. Basically, in various locations across the continent, I’ve been in numerous situations when a bus driver mistook his job for a terrifying van or a bus race.
Thankfully, I was never in an accident, but in situations when tour vans were racing each other on the dirt road on steep hills between Cusco and Machu Picchu, anything could have happened. It’s not just the speed, there are more elements that make driving in Latin America different, like for example road quality, the hilly landscapes as well as things like slower cars driving in the fast lane on highways, which makes the faster vehicles zig-zagging all the way.
The quality of the roads also vary from place to place but generally in Argentina and some more populated regions of Chile, the road was nearly perfect and in other places, your drive will be on an unpaved road. The better roads are naturally between larger cities.
I haven’t looked into statistics regarding the safety on Latin roads because it’s useless to compare such numbers. If you have asked me if I believed that the driving standards were more dangerous in Latin America if compared to Europe, I would have said yes, but…
…but then in some places in Latin America, there are often worse roads so people are forced to drive slower than in Europe and there are also fewer cars on those roads and so on. But the main reason why such comparison would be pointless is that you will need to take many buses regardless of that – because there’s often no way around it – and no statistics would not change anything about that.
Safety on buses
As for the onboard safety in buses when travelling, much has been written about various crimes, particularly in Ecuador, regarding the use of Scopoliamine AKA Devil’s breath to knock you off and still your belongings on a night bus journey. I must say that the bus safety precautions in Ecuador were slightly higher than anywhere else I’ve seen. Passengers being searched when entering buses in Guayaquil, cameras installed onboard and so on.
Stories of stolen luggage as well as of the full-on bus robberies were going on about the night buses in Guatemala. I don’t know what are the actual statistics of such crimes. I’ve personally always woke up with all my luggage but there are reported cases when this wasn’t the case. Those are however of older dates so maybe the situation has been resolved by the increased security measures imposed in the country.
The thing is that the bad stories make the news, while the 99% of normal stories don’t. I’m not saying that there’s no danger but shit can happen anywhere and mainly most of the time it doesn’t happen. I mean, would you write a review about your bus journey if everything went normal? “The ride was uneventful, we stopped for dinner and the bus driver was OK.” Just how many such reviews there are?
My simple advice would be: use the normal precautions, keep your hand luggage on your knees so no one can nick it and you should be fine. In case you were interested, at the bottom of this piece, you could find more general tips regarding safety when travelling in Latin America.
Comfort on buses
Comfort also vary from country to country as well as from company to company. Argentina and Chile were often at the Western European levels (or even above) especially when you’ve booked the full cama seat (180 degrees declinable) and the whole South America was rather decent. Central Americas were sometimes a bit more tricky. Some companies have offered a decent enough 1st class service but a lot of the local traffic is covered with former US school buses from 60s AKA chicken buses.
When it comes to travelling in those iconic machines, I must say that first I’ve found it to be a charming and somewhat romantic experience. However, after taking a night chicken bus across Nicaragua where I (as the tallest person on the bus) was squeezed to the seat with the least space above the back wheel, next to a lady with a child, on a small double seat originally designed for kids, which consequently left me with about as little as ½ of physical space I needed, I’ve decided not to travel long distance with chicken buses anymore.
A word of advice: take a warm jumper with you on the board, like in SEA, in Latin America, they are also a bit nuts about air-cons and while it might be 40C outside, inside it often gets quite freezing. A power bank, as well as some good movies or some cool music playlists designed to make you fall asleep, is also not a bad idea in case you were travelling alone 😉
Bus schedules and tickets
The websites such as Rome2Rio or Busbud would offer only about 1/2 of all the connections one can pick from. The only way to get all information is to ask physically in the Bus Terminal. Except for the massive terminal in Panama City (I can’t think of any other place), it’s not like in Europe where you can buy a ticket for your destination from one cashier. Every company have their own office, from which the sellers and various touts shout the names of destinations.
A word of advice: if you have time upon your arrival to any town, check your options for your future departure, unless you are staying near the terminal. The reason for me mentioning this is that in many places, the terminals are on the outskirts of the cities, sometimes even nearly 20km out of the centre, like for example in Cartagena or Quito. To make it even more complicated, some cities have numerous terminals serving different destinations so you have to take a taxi or public transport to change the terminal.
Upon your arrival to any terminal, especially if you look like a foreigner, once the touts see you, they will advise you where to find the right place to purchase your ticket. The touts often know where you’re going, because nearly all of the visibly foreign travellers are riding the same Gringo Trail south to north or wise-versa. As for getting your bus ticket online, there are some online sellers but you would just overpay the journey by at least $5 each time and in many cases, you’d have to print the ticket to be able to use it.
Because there aren’t many passenger trains, buses are covering the majority of public transport on the continent. For this reason, Latin American bus terminals are often full of life, where many street vendors conduct their business as well as where millions of other things and activities take place. It can get rather loud and if you don’t speak any Spanish, I strongly recommend learning at least numbers as well as how your destination is pronounced.
Luggage and safety features on buses
The safety features you might be used to from Europe, such as seat belts vary across the continent. For example, in Chile, we kept being rather strictly reminded to wear them while in Bolivia they weren’t many seat belts installed.
As for your “checked in” luggage, in South America, I was always given a little token, the other part of which was attached to my luggage. It was only handed to me once they’ve checked the token against the label on my luggage. FYI, in Chile and Argentina, this was done by semi-uniformed lads who expected small tips in exchange for their services.
In Central America, the whole process was rather different. The luggage was either stored on the roof of the vehicle or you’ve just chucked it in the booth among everyone’s luggage. There was no one coordinating the luggage handling upon arrivals or departures. No one ever took mine but the precautions to prevent it were close to nothing. If you are a bit paranoid, sit above or under the area where you’ve stored your luggage, if possible. Well, you normally get an assigned seat but people seem to ignore it quite often…
Below, you can see a table with how many kilometres I have covered in each country and how much it worked out in cost per 100km in each country I have visited. FYI, I’ve simplified the original route I’ve travelled by getting rid of various detours, to make it as direct trip as possible.
FYI, for about 80% of the distance covered, I’ve taken advantage of the more expensive and luxurious long-distance buses. As I’ve mentioned above, there are mostly also other options for taking local buses. Those are a lot cheaper, but at the same time, they are far less comfy and more importantly they are also more time-demanding.
On the other hand, the local buses offer a more authentic experience, if you have enough time and if you are OK with less physical space on long bus journeys. I’d recommend picking this option at least a few times in case you are into the local culture and authentic experiences 😉
In case you were curious, my full expenses with transport in Latin America, except the flights from and to Europe but including all the taxis and inner-city transport was: €2130. A price per 100km would then be €8,50 over the whole 25 000km (15 535 miles) trip.
- Chile: 6185km for €393 @ €6.35 per 100km (incl 1 flight)
- Argentina: 5365km for €365 @ €6.80 per 100km (incl 2 flights)
- Uruguay: 1352km for €120 @ €8.88 per 100km
- Bolivia: 1223km for €52 @ €4.25 per 100km
- Peru: 2682km for €155 @ €5.78 per 100km (incl 1 flight)
- Ecuador: 855km for €29 @ €3.39 per 100km
- Colombia: 2073km for €229 @ €11.04 per 100km (incl 3 flights)
- Panama: 1065km for €125 @ €11.74 per 100km (incl 1 flight)
- Panama – Nicaragua: Bocas del Torro – San Jose (Costa Rica) – San Juan del Sur 650km*
- Nicaragua: 1169km for €57 @ €4.88 per 100km
- Nicaragua – Guatemala: Leon – El Tunco (El Salvador) – Antigua740km for €29*
- Guatemala: 731km for €51 @ €6.98 per 100km
- Guatemala – Mexico: Flores – Belize – Bacalar 372km for €32*
- Mexico: 578km for €35 @ €6.01 per 100km
*those journeys are not included in the cost per 100km.
Useful sites for public transport in South and Central Americas:
- Rome2Rio: connections between locations, distances and so on
- Busbud: some bus connections and online booking options
- Centrocasting: Bus guide for Central American countries
Locations covered on Quaint Planet
Santiago de Chile ► Valparaíso ► Santiago de Chile ►Punta Arenas – Ushuaia – Punta Arenas ► Puerto Natales – Torres del Paine – Puerto Natales ► El Calafate (Perito Moreno Glacier, Arg) ► El Chaltén (Los Glaciares National Park) ► Chile Chico (Ch) – Puerto Rio Tranquillo (Marble Caves) ► Coyhaique – Puyuhuapi – (Carretera Austral) ► Puerto Chacabuco – Quellón/Castro ► Puerto Varas – San Carlos de Bariloche (Arg) ► Buenos Aires ► Colonia (Ur) ► Montevideo ► Punta del Diablo – Cabo Polonio ► Montevideo ► Salto ► Concordia (Arg) ► Puerto Iguazú (Iguazú Falls) ► Salta ► San Salvador de Jujuy ► Tilcara ► San Pedro de Atacama (Ch) ► Uyuni Salt Flats Tour (Bol) ► Uyuni ► Sucre – La Paz (Death Road Tour) ► Copacabana (Lake Titicaca) – Isla del Sol – Copacabana ► Cusco (Per) ► Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu) ► Cusco ► Lima ► Máncora – Montañita (Ecu) ► Puerto López ► Quito ► Ipiales (Col) – Pasto ► Tatacoa Desert ► Bogotá ► Medellín ► Villa de Lleyva ► Santa Marta – Cartagena – Rincón del Mar Necoclí ► Capurganá ► Puerto Obaldía (Pan) ► Panama City ► Las Lajas ► Cerro Punta ► David ► Bocas del Torro ► San José (Costa Rica) ► San Juan del Sur (Nic) – Ometepe ► Granada ► Managua – El Rama – Bluefields – Corn Islans ► Léon ► El Tunco (El Salvador) ► La Antigua Guatemala – Lake Atitlán ► Lanquín (Semuc Champey) – Flores (Tikal) ► Belize City ► Bacalar – Tulum – Playa del Carmen – Mérida – Valladolid – Cancún ✈️ .
Other practical posts about travelling (not only) in Latin America
- Budget: in case you were interested, here‘s an article listing the country-by-country basic expenses for a traveller in Latin America
- Safety: Few safety tips on how to secure your valuables, what to watch out for and more could be found here
- ATM withdrawal charges: Some practical info, including the list of free-of-charge ATMs in Latin America, can be found here
- Border fees: To find out how much will you have to pay to enter or exit certain countries in Latin America, please click here
- Packing list: What to take with you for an extended trip as well as some security tips could be found here
- Pre-trip preparations: Few things you can do ahead of time before you’ll become frantically busy prior to your departure are listed here
- Cheap Flights: few tips on how to score a cheap/er flight, better seat on a plane, where to get a nap at a particular airport and so on