Guest Author: Andrew from Winnipeg
Colombia is one of the most beautiful countries in South America. With the Pacific Coast, Caribbean Coast, Andes Mountains, Amazon Rainforest, and even a couple deserts, there is so much to see.
Flights are cheap and quick in Colombia, but it would be a shame to only have a view of the clouds when you could be looking at waterfalls, rainforests, mountains, wildlife, and yes also clouds directly out your window.
Not to mention, you’ll pass through countless little towns and villages. My favorite places in Colombia were the charming towns that I’d stop in to break up long bus rides.
Busing in Colombia isn’t completely hassle-free, however. Here are 7 things to know about busing in Colombia to make sure that you get from Point A to Point B as smooth as can be – even if it does take a few more hours than anticipated.
1. You Don’t Need to Book Online
It’s pretty easy to find buses in Colombia. All buses come and go from the city’s main bus terminal and each bus company will have an agent sitting in the terminal yelling destinations at you.
It can be a touch intimidating but just tell one of them where you want to go and they’ll point you in the right direction. There’s bound to be multiple companies going to your preferred destination so don’t necessarily take the first offer you receive. Different companies offer different levels of comfort and different times of departure.
You can try to negotiate the price. I’ve been lucky and received heavy discounts on buses that were leaving soon and needed to fill their seats.
Depending where you’re headed there are usually buses going pretty frequently so you shouldn’t be waiting more than an hour. Chances are you’ll be on your bus within 20 minutes of buying your ticket. Less popular routes though may only have one or two buses going each day.
You can always visit the terminal to check the schedule ahead of time. RedBus is a good app for checking schedules and you can buy tickets through them if you want to save a bit of time at the terminal.
2. Arrival Times are Just Guesses
This is maybe the biggest downside to busing in Colombia. Because of the terrain and uncertainty of road conditions, it can be a long ride – even much longer than what you are quoted.
If you look at the route from Bogotá to Salento, Google quotes about 7 hours for the drive. Busses are slower than cars so add a bit more time on to that and you’d expect maybe a 9-hour trip. You have to transfer buses in Armenia.
When I did this route it took about 12 hours. There was an accident somewhere ahead of us on the highway that brought traffic to a standstill for a couple hours. This is common. Some other travelers that arrived the day after me on that same route were on the bus for 18 hours. I even have a friend that took 23 hours!
Salento is a beautiful town though and I’d highly recommend it – even with the potential 18-hour bus ride.
You’re bound to run into a bit of traffic on Colombian buses. It’s usually nothing extreme but short delays are normal, if not expected.
Moral of the story is don’t make any plans that require you to arrive at your destination at the expected time. AND, be sure to bring some snacks and water in the event you’re stuck on the highway for a while. Don’t worry too much though, this happens often and if you are sat still for a couple hours there will be vendors going up and down the traffic selling snacks and drinks.
3. Buses Are Comfortable, Some More Than Others
Generally speaking, buses in Colombia are quite comfortable. Even at the cheapest rate, you’re likely to have a Greyhound-style bus with TVs and seats that recline. On less popular routes you might end up in a shuttle van but even these will usually have charging outlets and A/C.
There are different levels of comfort. If you can find one of the double decker busses, this will be one of the most comfortable bus rides you’ve ever taken. Huge seats with lots of leg room, personal TV screens, cup holders, chargers, A/C, leg rests, wi-fi, and usually a ‘flight attendant’ on board. It’s first-class without the price tag.
The premium busses also offer similar treatment. They are only one level but will give you about as comfortable a ride as you could ask for.
Basic buses are still alright. They’ll be a bit older usually than the brand-new premium and double decker buses, but they offer plenty of comfort.
Shuttle vans are the smallest choice and service some of the lesser populated routes. They have a bit less leg room and features but are still a safe and comfortable ride.
4. It’s Not Super Cheap
In most countries, busing is a much cheaper option than flying. Colombia is an exception to this rule. Flying is quite often cheaper than busing here!
There’s a strong case for flying in Colombia being that it’s often cheaper, always quicker, and you’re almost certain to arrive on time.
Despite the similar cost and noted drawbacks though, I still prefer the bus. I love the views of the landscape out the window and as far as the environment is concerned, busing is the supremely kinder choice.
5. It’s Safe for You
I don’t know anybody that had any issues while bussing in Colombia. Some travelers get worried that taking a night bus could be unsafe but I, and everyone I know, never had that experience.
Bussing is a safe way to get from Point A to Point B in Colombia, even at night. There are always at least two conductors on the bus (the driver and co-pilot), and the outside door is locked. For added safety, there is usually a locked door between the passenger cabin and the driver’s cockpit.
6. It’s Mostly Safe for Your Belongings
I have, however, heard travelers’ stories about stolen belongings on Colombian busses. And, I have a story of my own to share.
If you opt for the premium bus options, you’re very unlikely to have any problems. I think my mistake was choosing the cheapest option that was maybe lacking some key security features.
I was busing from Bogotá to Neiva, headed to see the Tatacoa Desert. I brought my smaller backpack on board with me and stowed my larger backpack full of clothes in the storage compartments under the bus.
We arrived in Neiva after about 8 hours to learn that at some point during the journey, the bus had been robbed and about 4-5 bags were stolen.
I’m still not totally clear on what happened but I guess at some point when the bus stopped to let people off, it was ambushed by a group of guys who grabbed a few bags out of the storage compartments and made off with them.
I didn’t even notice it happen. After getting over the initial shock of losing all my belongings (minus my super important stuff that I had on board with me), I asked the bus company how often this happens. They told me that this was their 3rd bus today that had been robbed.
That was the first and the last time I travelled with Cootransmayo. I never had a problem with any other company, and ever since that unfortunate incident I always carry my belongings on board with me. Subsequently, I’m traveling a lot lighter now and bringing my bags on board is quite easy.
Maybe you have some concerns about safety in Bogotá, which are warranted, but keep your belongings with you and busing will be one less thing to worry about. Also, sometimes it pays to choose a more premium bus service.
7. It Gets Cold at Night
During the day the sun is going to keep your bus warm, sometimes too warm. At night though, especially if you’re in the mountains it can get quite cold. Bring warm clothing on board with you if you’re going to be traveling at night.
You don’t want to be sitting on the bus in a T-shirt and shorts when Colombians are bringing jackets and blankets onto the bus thinking to yourself, do they know something I don’t?
Buses are a great way to see the beautiful Colombian landscape. They aren’t perfect, but you can’t really say you’ve backpacked Colombia until you have a Colombia bus story. Take the premium buses to make sure your story is just about beautiful landscape or being stood still on the highway for a couple hours. You don’t necessarily want the I-had-all-my-stuff-stolen-on-a-Colombian-bus story.
Come to think of it though, it’s given me some good conversation and I travel quite light since that incident. But be sure that you keep your valuables with you when traveling by bus in Colombia.
Oh and before you go, make sure to have good travel insurance handy. I use SafetyWing, which specializes in health and travel insurance for digital nomads, to keep me covered throughout my travels for $40 a month.
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