One of the things that we knew we had to deal with when we went on our around the world trip was taking ridiculously long bus rides all over South America. While flying everywhere would be nice, we not only wanted to experience the culture but also see the countryside.
Since we are on a budget, taking night busses is a win-win. The transit cost is low and it saves us a night of accommodations.
Buying Our Tickets
We would normally buy our bus tickets at the bus terminal. In Cartagena, the bus terminal is quite a distance from the downtown area. We went the route of buying them from the Media Luna hostel which sold bus tickets. For 120,000 or $30 each, we purchased our tickets on a VIP night bus.
The next day we returned to the hostel where we picked up our Expreso Brasilia bus tickets. The price was suspiciously blacked out. I have read that it is possible to haggle for bus tickets in Colombia and I’m sure that whoever actually purchased the tickets got them for a lower price than we paid. Either way, we got our tickets easily and that is all that we cared about.
Getting to the Bus
We wanted to make sure that we arrived in plenty of time before our bus departure time as we didn’t quite know what the process was at the station. We decided that we would leave at 4pm for a 5:30pm bus. We got a taxi a little later than we expected but were so happy that we decided to leave as early as we did. The bus terminal was a full hour away from the old town of Cartagena and we left right around rush hour.
After being a little nervous that we were going to be late, we made it there with plenty of time to spare. We showed our tickets to an agent who directed us to the right gate.
Once we arrived at our bus, we showed the driver our ticket, and he took our large bags, tagged them and stowed them under the bus. Our tickets were assigned seating which was nice. While we were not full at the beginning of the trip, we made subsequent stops where we picked up passengers. By the end the bus was completely full.
Since it was a night bus and we wanted as much sleep as possible, we booked a VIP bus. While it wasn’t the double decker busses that I had seen online – with standard bus seating on the upper level and very posh seating on the lower level, it was sufficient.
We were quite excited when we saw the bus was equipped with personal TVs on the headrests as we were looking forward to watching a few movies before we want to bed. Unfortunately, only the TVs on the left side of the bus worked and we were on the right side. I figured I would just read until I got tired but the reading lights did not work either. From sunset which was around 6pm until 11pm when I got tired, I basically stared out the windows into the dark. We would have taken out our computer and watched a movie on there but did not want to draw attention to ourselves or show would be criminals what we had in our bags.
I expected our bus experience to be similar to our bus from Belize City, Belize to Flores, Guatemala – filled with foreigners. This was not the same though… the two of us and a caucasian girl were the only gringos on the bus.
The thing that we read over and over again online about the busses in Colombia was how cold the busses are. I’m talking arctic temperatures where people are wearing hats, scarves and gloves just to keep warm. Andy and I are both naturally cold so we got freaked, packed a ton of warm clothes to add as needed and even bought a blanket to cover us.
While we were still cold, it was not nearly as bad as we had read it would be. I was very happy as riding in a refrigerated bus sounds like hell to me. My fingers are crossed that the rest of our busses are not freezing cold.
Everything that we read said to keep all bags with valuables on your body or between your legs. While I thought that might be overreacting, all of the locals did the same thing. After being on the bus for a while, I saw why. When people get up to go to the bathroom, they often have to grab the upper luggage racks for support. It would be quite easy to grab a bag or at least rummage through it, especially if the owner was asleep. The only bag that I left in the luggage rack was a small bag of snacks, which were safe the entire trip.
Our bags had luggage locks on them and were placed by our feet for the entire trip. While it sucked to lose some leg room, keeping everything safe was more important to us.
The speed limit was displayed on the front of the bus. Whenever the driver went over the posted limit, the sign would flash that the speed limit was exceeded. I wasn’t quite sure if I should feel safe knowing how fast we were going or scared by how many times we exceeded the speed limit. Being a religious country, the bus has pictures of God, Jesus and Mary on the bus. I figured at least we had someone from above looking out for us on our journey.
There were 2 operators on our bus – one which drove the bus and the other was the backup driver. I believe that they kept the other alert as they were driving and swapped a few times.
It was a little bit hard to sleep on the bus, especially for me as I normally sleep on my side or stomach. Eventually the rocking of the bus and the darkness puts you into a lull.
While it isn’t solid sleep, between 11pm and 3am I was out pretty good. The noise of honking (something that bus drivers just love to do in Colombia), the movement of the bus, and people grabbing seats as they try and steady themselves down the aisle woke me up a few times during my rest.
The next night when we arrived in Medellin, we were both ready to get a good night of sleep.
While it was dark and hard to see well, you would tell that we were going up quite a few switchbacks in the mountains. The bus would cut the corners, driving in the middle of the road often and gave us near heart attacks when they passed on tight corners. I almost prefer night busses as when you’re asleep you don’t see how crazy the roads actually are or how close the bus is to other vehicles on the road.
The switchbacks caused a few people on our bus to get motion sick, there were 2 that we heard throwing up into plastic bags which contained the smell from the rest of the bus. I was very happy that I took my Dramamine to keep me from feeling sick.
Since the bus left at 5:30pm and didn’t arrive to Medellin until early morning, there was a sort of dinner service. At toll booths, vendors would get on the bus and sell snacks or hot meals. There were quite a few takers on the empanadas and beverages when the vendors arrived on the bus around 9pm.
When we arrived in Medellin, we were surprised of the number of young travelers that flew instead of taking the bus. We learned that they all took Viva Colombia flights, an airline that I had read about previously. They are a discount Colombian airline, similar to Spirit Airlines, which charges for everything from assigned seats to checked baggage and snacks. While we considered flying with them, by the time you add up all the extras and a night of accommodations, it is considerably more expensive.
We’re looking forward to more night busses on our trip, especially when we can get on the lower level of a double decker bus. While night busses aren’t the most glamorous thing, it is nice to arrive in the next city without losing any time during the day traveling.
One of Andy’s friends who had done a trip very similar to ours had told him to expect to add 2 hours on to any long distance bus ride. She was spot on – our 12 hour bus ride was actually 14 hours.