How To Survive A Long Distance Bus Journey In Colombia

by Stephanie Walsh on February 5, 2013 · 17 comments

in Colombia, South America, Travels

Colombian Bus - Long Distance Bus Journey

I’ve been on my fair share of long distance bus journeys in Colombia and beyond, over the past couple of months, but only recently on a trip to Pasto, in the south of Colombia, did I really feel like I was in some sort of battle for my safety! This article could easily have been titled How NOT To Survive A Long Distance Bus Journey In Colombia, but we’re gonna assume you learn from our mistakes.

Not Off To A Great Start…

To be honest, we were just unlucky with the whole journey. We were heading to the popular and insane Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (Blacks and Whites’ Carnival) in Pasto but by the time we got to the bus station, all of the buses were sold out…with one exception. We were so relieved to have found some available seats on the last bus going to Pasto, so we booked it immediately. When we returned to the bus terminal that night, we waited and waited for the bus to show up. About an hour later, we were told that the bus ‘wasn’t showing up’ (yeah, apparently they can just do that!) so the police were called in to try and help get all the stranded passengers onto another bus.

The replacement bus was so crappy. Every seat was broken and reclined so far back, that you could almost taste the smelly seat in front of you. On top of that, we were also sitting opposite the bus toilet and we were going to be there for the next 9 hours. Last but not least, a bus station official climbed into the bus to make an important announcement to the passengers: “Just make sure the driver doesn’t break the speed limit.” Literally.

As if we were not already off to a great start, within five minutes of leaving the terminal, the driver almost crashed into another car. We were not going to be getting much sleep during this journey!

Colombian Roads – Horizontal Roller Coasters

If you’re unfamiliar with what it’s like to drive through the Andes Mountains, then basically imagine a horizontal roller coaster. Colombian roads are the bendiest roads ever, where you are driving in a straight line for no more than 3-5 seconds before the next 90-180 degree turn comes along.

Windy Colombian Roads

Winding Colombian Roads

I don’t know whether driving in the pitch black of nightfall was a good or bad thing. For one thing, I was glad that I couldn’t see the extremely sharp drops into river gorges, a few centimeters from the bus wheels. On the other hand, I couldn’t see the extremely sharp drops into river gorges, a few centimeters from the bus wheels!! I really hoped our speed-loving driver could!

For the next 9 hours we dozed in and out of sleep, constantly awoken by a sharp turns and the feeling that the bus was about to topple over. I will admit, at times I was very scared for our lives. Not only did the bus driver not slow down at all, at the sharp bends, but he also consistently overtook other large buses and trucks at these bends and he rarely kept on his side of the road! It’s not surprising then, that we almost crashed into an oncoming pick-up truck when our driver, once again, tried to cut corners (literally). I was awake to see the oncoming truck brake within an inch of my window seat.

Google Maps Screenshot of some of our journey

Google Maps Screenshot of part of our journey

We Survived! With Our Help, You Can Too!

We had one too many dodgy moments on that bus journey but it taught us a few valuable lessons (that we already knew). Most importantly, don’t leave it to the last minute to book bus tickets, especially if you are traveling to a popular event or during a festival. We have been on countless other bus journeys through Colombia and the rest of them were fine, even enjoyable.

How To Survive A Long-Distance Bus Journey In Colombia

A lot of what happened to us was out of our hands (especially the possibly-drunk bus driver situation), but if you do find yourself on a terrible bus journey, there are still some simple tips you can follow to make it less nightmarish:

 

Tip #1: Go with a reputable bus company like Bolivariano. At least they’ll show up.

Tip #2: Bring warm clothes and earplugs. The air-conditioning and bad TV on these buses are extreme. If you hate the cold like me, then even a great bus will be unenjoyable when you’re freezing.

Tip #3: Bring water and snacks, especially if you will be on the bus for 6-12 hours.

Tip #4: Try to get a night bus, if it is going to be a really long journey. That way you can sleep through most of the journey.

Tip #5: Consider taking travel sickness tablets, if you have a weak stomach/hangover.

Tip #6: Keep your valuable items on your body while you sleep and tie/lock your bag to the storage racks overhead. If you have any large bags in the bus compartments underneath, make sure you have a lock to secure them closed. Keep an eye on the boot when people get down and take their bags…as they may ‘accidentally’ take yours.

Tip #7: It is normal to pass through several police checkpoints, while on a long-distance bus journey. Have your passport near at hand in case they ask to see it.

Tip #8: Most buses will have toilets on board, but others won’t. Make the most of bathroom pit stops along the way, as often, there may be just one.

 

Have you ever been on a long-distance bus journey through Colombia, or anywhere else with crazy bendy roads? How was your experience?

Photo Credits – Colombian Bus & Winding Colombian Roads

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Amanda February 5, 2013 at 7:28 pm

That sounds pretty terrifying!! Yikes.

Good tips at the end, though – I’ll keep them in mind if I ever find myself faced with long bus rides in Colombia!
Amanda recently posted..A Non-Camper Sleeps in the Jungle. With Monkeys.My Profile

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2 Stephanie Walsh February 6, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Thanks Amanda! Hopefully your future experiences will be better than ours! :)

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3 Marcela Diaz February 9, 2013 at 11:18 am

Actually, I must say that Colombia its more than just food, I mean there’re tons of places that are must-see, many amazing cities to visit, I have an advice for all travelers who are planing their trip around Colombia: This search engine http://andestransit.com/ could help you finding the best bus option around Colombia because Bolivariano is a good one but always is better to have more options.

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4 Jeff | Planet Bell February 10, 2013 at 8:35 pm

In central China on the road to Juizhaigou from Chengdu, we were on a brutal mountain road in a bus that didn’t look road-worthy. At rest stops they’d hose the brakes down with water and steam would billow out like a geyser. Around one bend my wife’s head hit the window, and on several occasions we were tossed from our seats and into the back of the chair ahead of us.

Come to think of it, the road was winding and brutal, but the drving was worse.
Jeff | Planet Bell recently posted..4 Tips for Surviving the Most Dangerous Part of 3rd World Country TravelMy Profile

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5 Stephanie Walsh February 11, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Oh god, sounds like you had a similar, if not worse experience! Seems to be a common theme with extended travel…maybe it’s inevitable that we’ll all face a nightmare journey at some point! ha Thanks for commenting Jeff!

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6 Jeff April 26, 2013 at 3:09 pm

The pain and suffering on those bus rides is horrible at the time, but it makes for the best stories, and most vivid memories, after the trip.
Jeff recently posted..A Wildlife Photography FailMy Profile

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7 Bethaney - Flashpacker Family February 15, 2013 at 2:07 pm

The only thing that really scares me about travelling in South America is the long bus journeys. I’m just not sure I could handle it (with a toddler!). Especially with all those twists and turns!
Bethaney – Flashpacker Family recently posted..Three Awesome Walks in New ZealandMy Profile

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8 Stephanie Walsh February 18, 2013 at 2:35 pm

I know what you mean Bethany…and flights in South America are still so overpriced, so it’s a thing that turns a lot of people off. Hopefully you still get to come here someday and enjoy all it has to offer! :)

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9 Ted February 25, 2013 at 10:51 pm

I haven’t been in Columbia but I read travel magazines featuring great places to see at that place. I have road trips for the past years but not with a bus, I see that you seem to enjoy the nature while on the trip. Well, my favorite past time gadget was my tablet, where I can enjoy music and films. Just make sure to fully charge everything or bring spare battery to survive a long travel. The roadmap made me dizzy but thanks for the useful tips! I’ll keep them in mind, it’s better to be safe and know all these pointers to avoid any delay or boredom on travel.
Ted recently posted..Study released shows Wisconsin ranks 7th in vehicle-deer collisionsMy Profile

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10 Stephanie Walsh February 27, 2013 at 10:59 am

Good point Ted! We do love our gadgets too! Hopefully you’ll get to come to Colombia some day! :)

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11 Runaway Brit March 3, 2013 at 4:13 am

I have been on a few scary bus rides in Colombia, and many other places in South America. The worst buses were in Bolivia, they were real bone-shakers. Peru had the windiest roads, we literally went in circles down the mountain side until I became dizzy (I have never suffered with travel sickness).

We had the biggest near-miss in Colombia, however, when the bus zoomed round a corner only to find that the road the other side had completely subsided. We screeched to a halt on the brink of a rather large chasm in the road. We definitely cheated death that day!

My top-tip is to wear a sleep mask. If the worst happens, there’s not much you can do about it, so it’s best just not to watch the journey :-)

Good luck!
Runaway Brit recently posted..Skye: Scotland’s Island ParadiseMy Profile

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12 Stephanie Walsh April 12, 2013 at 10:58 am

Haha love that tip! And oh my god that sounds terrifying! The roads are always falling away here…you never know what you’re going to see (or not see!) when you drive around the corners here! Very scary!

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13 flip April 19, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Looks like a scary trip but the view seems to be very beautiful though!
flip recently posted..Top 15 Philippine Travel Blogs for 2013My Profile

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14 Britany May 9, 2013 at 1:32 pm

The warm clothes tip can not be stressed enough. You may THINK you’re dressing warm when its 80 degrees outside when you get on and you’re wearing long sleeves and pants… but then you spend 12 hours chattering and desperately trying to curl yourself into the fetal position, which really doesn’t work in bus seats! I usually wore my winter coat on the buses in Colombia, even when it was hot out. The air conditioning is absolutely insane.

Great tips! Buses don’t have to be terrible if you’re prepared!
Britany recently posted..The Salt Flats of Bolivia — Exploring the Bizarre Beauty of Salar de UyuniMy Profile

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15 Stephanie Walsh July 15, 2013 at 9:38 pm

Literally!! We ordered these Arctic type jackets from Rei a while back and have only used them for extreme air-conditioning situations here in Colombia so far! haha

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16 ashree June 14, 2013 at 10:11 am

Whoa looks like terrible roads! Never had any of this before, but if I do I’m sure to keep your tips. Good post!

Regards.
http://www.jakpost.travel/

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17 Stephanie Walsh July 15, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Thanks! Hopefully you don’t have to put my tips into practice too often! :P

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