By on August 19, 2014

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Traveling by bus is the preferred mode for the growing middle class throughout Latin America. White collar workers, government employees, and students take long-distance buses for many reasons. First, it is much less expensive than flying. Second, buses reach a lot more destinations than planes. Finally, even those who own cars prefer to let a professional do the driving, thus minimizing wear and tear to their own cars and the stress of dodging out-of-control big rigs and stray animals for hundreds of miles.

The stereotype, of course, is that all buses South of the Border are chicken buses– second-hand American school buses with psychedelic paint schemes, tinted windows, and chrome galore. In fact, luxury buses– built in Brazil and Europe– are very common and often have more amenities than commercial airliners. Make the jump to learn more about them.

The Buses. Along the Pan-American Highway, three brands dominate. Busscar (Brazil), Marcopolo (Brazil), and Scania (Sweden). Many are double deckers.

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Accommodations. All the buses have TVs hooked up to DVD players up front, constantly blaring bad American movies. Think Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2, Fireproof (starring Kirk Cameron), or any Kevin James movie.

All luxury buses have a toilet in the back, as the long-distance buses make very few stops.

The seats recline, some up to 160 degrees. One Peruvian bus company even offers a business center onboard, complete with printer and fax machine.

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The Staff. Two drivers usually man each bus. And they are always men. They switch off after a few hours of driving, as it is very fatiguing work. The express bus from Osorno, Chile, to Punta Arenas, Chile, which cuts through Argentine Patagonia, for example, takes over 28 hours.

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The waitstaff onboard the buses puts the flight attendants of American legacy carriers to shame. Their uniforms are chic and tidy and they will go out of their way to make their passengers’ trips pleasant. Even after a couple of days on the road, they look like they just started the workday an hour ago. It’s unreal.

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The meals. On the most fancy of coaches, you get a meal just like on an airplane. When you buy your ticket, you have the option of beef, chicken, or vegetarian meals. And they are actually delicious. When meals are not available onboard, the bus will invariably stop at a clean and reputable restaurant. The photo below shows a meal I had during a stop in the Argentinean Lake District. The restaurant was at the base of a cliff and a waterfall behind the eatery provided the ambiance.

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The worst meal I had on a luxury bus was in Honduras, where I was served a Burger King breakfast sandwich, and it still wan’t half bad. Here it is, served in a cute bus shaped box.

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For a summary of my Pan-American bus journeys, by the numbers, click here.

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34 Comments on “Riding the Luxury Buses of Latin America...”


  • avatar
    Jean-Pierre Sarti

    very cool, i am always interested in land based travel. any issues crossing borders? how many palms did you have to grease to make it through?

    • 0 avatar
      Jim Yu

      Ha! I ranked them already. The only border where I had to pay a dubious fee was at the Mexico-Guatemala border.

      http://hooniverse.com/2014/04/01/ranking-the-border-crossings-along-the-pan-american-highway/

  • avatar
    Scott_314

    Nice article. I took a luxury bus in Peru and was impressed though a bit frightened. It was a sports-car bus. It had four front wheels on two axles and a 0-60 time of about 9 seconds judging by feel. The four front wheels allowed rapid turns on switchbacks in the mountains. The driver drove very very fast, but very very smoothly.

    I couldn’t handle the stress looking out the front window, a massive bus approaching a hairpin turn at maybe 130km/h, so I closed the blinds and closed my eyes.

    I think it was a scania k113trbl.

  • avatar
    JuniperBug

    I took one of these from Lima to Cuzco (about 20 hours). The bus was air-conditioned and featured leather seats that reclined to near-horizontal, wi-fi, as well as an attendant that came around with food. Interestingly, they had a big digital speedometer at the front so that all passengers could see our speed. It changed colour when the bus went over the speed limit. It was not at all what I imagined travelling through the Andes to be like. Unfortunately, the majority of the trip was overnight, so I didn’t get to see much of the scenery.

    In some cities, the bus terminals are also quite luxurious – not far off of luxury lounges in airports.

  • avatar
    bills79jeep

    The bus would HAVE to be nice for me to spend 28 hours on it! What’s the price difference between this and a flight?

  • avatar
    Nick 2012

    Must one be fluent in Spanish to use the bus network in South America?

    • 0 avatar
      Jim Yu

      Not necessary. I know basic Spanish and was fine. The bus drivers definitely don’t speak any English and the bus stations see an occasional gringo or two. As long as you know your destination and can understand time and numbers in Spanish, you will be fine.

      Once, I had to get off in the middle of nowhere in the Atacama Desert because I wanted to see a ghost town called Humberton. When the bus stopped, the attendant came up to me and said in Spanish– We have arrived; this is Hamburger.

    • 0 avatar
      JimC2

      You probably need only be affluent, although I bet a little bit of good manners and a little bit of Spanish certainly help.

      To Mr. Yu, thank you for the very interesting article.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    No interior shots of this luxury? No luxury meal pictures? No tidy staff photo?

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    Mexico has some not-quite-luxury buses for long distance trips, and the “spare” driver is usually sleeping in a compartment in front of the luggage compartment, under the seating compartment. If you don’t know that, it can be disconcerting to see the new driver crawl out from under the bus and get behind the wheel. Where does the tandem driver on the luxury bus go when he’s not driving?

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    I recall in the good old days, when GM buses ruled the market, everything else was crap!

    • 0 avatar
      RobertRyan

      @Volt 230
      In Europe and to a certain extent in Australia, you get these Busses. Usually, European based such as Scania, Volvo or MAN. We also get Asian versions by Hino, Isuzu and others

      • 0 avatar
        celebrity208

        I believe the only (true) American bus mfgr is MCI now. Prevost is volvo and the others are Daimler or some other european mfgr.

        It’s probably another artifact of our American landscape and roads. Nimble euro busses can navigate our roads but the reverse is not true. At least that’s the theory I came up with just now.

        • 0 avatar
          HotPotato

          Although, Americans did build arguably the sportiest bus I know of — the Flxible Flexliner with the headlights hidden inside the bumper, the Porsche-style torsion-bar suspension, and the enormous tires. That thing handled like a beast compared to the listing airbagged MCIs of its day. Dina kept building them in Mexico for several years after Flxible folded. That thing would make a crackin’ motorhome.

    • 0 avatar
      Ce he sin

      Probably only in North America, I’m in Europe and have never seen or heard of buses by them. Buses here and in Latin America are usually built on rolling chassis supplied by truck makers – Volvo and Scania are the ones usually seen, sometimes you see them from Merc or MAN.

  • avatar
    55_wrench

    + What Lorenzo said!

    Over 35 years ago I was lying at the side of the road somewhere between Cabo and La Paz after a single vehicle motorcycle crash. My spine was fractured, I couldn’t even get up, and my buddy on his bike (and me) wondering what to do next.

    This short version of a Greyhound bus , with A/C, smoked windows, radio-equipped with all the comforts of the ones up north, pulled up in the clearing, the driver stepped out, opened the luggage compartment door, slid a piece of painted plywood out and 2 or 3 people carefully slid me onto it. Someone undid an air access plate where I could see the engine, and into the luggage compartment I went. The door was shut, and I got an air-ride trip to the bus station where a ’69 Blazer and two medical techs greeted me for the ride to the hospital.

    All in all, a fantastic usage of available resources to help a tourist in need.

  • avatar
    Buckshot

    Bus travel has many positive sides here in Europe also.

    If you go by car you have to worry about burglars, vandals, finding a parking spot, police etc.
    They arrive on time, not like Swedish trains that are always late.
    They don´t scare the sh*t out of my wife like planes.

    Just check before the trip how long they drive without stopping.
    I remember a trip to the alps some years ago when i was on a bus to the Austrian alps. If i don´t count short stops for fuel and changing driver, they drove for about 30 hours with one stop. To much to be comfortable.

  • avatar
    hoonthatprado

    Bus travelling in Latin America is great! Done it in Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and all over Central America.

    Almost all the buses are built in Brazil, including Scania. Normally the truck companies provide a rolling chassis (Scania, Volvo, Merc, VW etc.) and then the bus companies built the body on it (such as: Busscar, Marcopolo or as the one in your first pic, Irizar).

    Only in Ecuador you find almost only Hino and Isuzu trucks and buses (although they don’t make the large luxury buses), don’t know what the reason for this is.

  • avatar
    mcs

    We have luxury buses between Boston and NYC. I’ve never taken one, but they seem even nicer than the Latin American versions:

    http://my.limoliner.com/limoliner-services/limoliner-fleet/

  • avatar
    JaySeis

    Late ’80’s and with farmer/forester colleagues we travelled around Cuzco for a week in a mid 50’s Volvo bus (imagine a front engined 40 passenger school bus). The bus was a workhouse and easily negotiated the boulder roadblocks placed at night as part of a national labor strike. However…the high mountain curves on gravel roads with no guard rails..yikes!

  • avatar
    Nico

    The thing about these “luxury” buses is that they’re not really luxury. That is, for the most part, there’s not “regular” buses and “luxury” buses.

    The buses on the photos are what all long distance buses look like in South America, or at least in the south (Argentina, Brazil, Chile – I assume everywhere else is similar but I don’t have first hand experience.). I would say almost 100% of them, for any trip longer than a few hours. Double deckers, with seats wider than even business class in a plane. Most long routes serve meals. There’s TV screens and WiFi.

    In addition to that there are some routes that will offer a special service. Extra wide seats, food and liquor. Think first class in a plane. But even the normal buses are way ahead of any Greyhound bus.

    Don’t be fooled, those stereptypical third world country awful buses do exist, and I have been in plenty of those. You just won’t find them on a 10+ hour route.

  • avatar
    Jellodyne

    I was really surprised how nice the ADO bus out of the Cancun airport was — I was expecting a chicken bus based on how much cheaper than a taxi it was. Plush seats, crappy American movie on the overhead DVD. We only took it 15 minutes into Cancun downtown, but if we go down to Playa Del Carman, Cozumel or Akumal, we’re taking the ADO for sure. On the way back from the Isla Mujeres ferry, the taxi driver took us back to the airport for the price of the bus, rather than drop us at the ADO terminal.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    .
    Looks nice but ;

    Riding The Hound you get to meet all those ‘ interesting ‘ people up close and way too personal =8-) .

    I rode all up and down the East Coast on third tier buses in the 1960’s then rode the chicken buses all over Guatemala and was glad to have lived .

    -Nate


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