Thursday, March 10, 2011

By Bus in South America

Air travel around South America is comparatively expensive.  For example, I just went to the LAN web site to see prices for a round trip next week between Santiago and Temuco.  If you enter the site as a USA resident, the trip costs about US$525.  If you enter as a Chilean resident, then it costs about US$100.  If you don’t have a Chilean bank account with a Chilean credit card account, then you cannot buy the Chilean-priced ticket even by going to a LAN office in Santiago.  That is what a German friend of ours found when she tried to do it.  She decided to take the long-range bus.

Many people in South America travel cross-country by bus.  Some North Americans tend to think of Greyhound travel as a bit dodgy, but they should not project that onto the situation in South America.  And there are comfortable, high-quality, inter-city services.  That bus to Cartagena in Romancing the Stone does exist, but so do other choices.

So here are some of our experiences that we feel might be worth sharing.  In Chile, we have traveled by bus between Santiago and places far to the south such as Temuco, Gorbea, and Valdivia.  We have also taken shorter trips between Santiago and Valparaiso and Viña del Mar.  We have also gone from Valdivia to Osorno, and then from Osorno across the frontier to Bariloche, Argentina.  In Peru, we have traveled between Lima and Huánuco.

Most of our trips in Chile have been on Tur-Bus.  We have found them to be completely satisfactory and reliable in every regard.  Tur-Bus tends to be a little more expensive than some other choices.  In Santiago, Tur-Bus operates from the bus station near the Universidad de Santiago Metro station.

Tur-Bus has the best checked baggage control.  You give the attendant your luggage to stow underneath the passenger area, and you will get a tag for each one.  The attendant gives it back to you after checking your ticket against the tag.  A good system!

Another leg might not have been so good.  Our Osorno-Bariloche leg was on TAS-Choapa.  The loader there expected a tip, which I never saw on any Tur-Bus trip.  Of more concern was what happened at Bariloche.  Local youths unloaded all the luggage and aggressively demanded tips.  The bags were taken off the bus before the claiming passenger even presented the ticket.  We got all of our things without any problems, but there did seem to be a potential for theft.

Day legs are on inter-city busses with reclining seats.  Long trips offer a sleeper bus option.  You can get a double-decker bus-cama, or “bed bus.”  The lower deck has seats like first-class in an airplane.  They fold down into completely flat beds for sleeping, and there are a number of places where you can safely stow your hand luggage.  This costs more.  When you decide which option to take, don’t forget to figure that the overnight on the bus is one day’s bill that you will not pay to a hotel.

In Peru in 2009, we had an interesting experience.  I have been writing about a failed rebellion in 1812 that took place in the Andean city of Huánuco.  This city is in the eastern Andes, about halfway down to the Amazon basin.  It is an eight-hour bus ride from Lima.  There is an airline service to Huánuco, but it is much more expensive.  Besides, I needed to see the central highlands from Tarma and La Oroya through Cerro de Pasco and on to Huánuco because that was the line of march followed by the royalist troops.  So we took the bus!

We took the day bus up to Huánuco.  It cost about US$25 or so, and that included a lunch served by the attendant.  The trip was fine, and the only problem was that the latrine facility filled up and had to be closed.

Having seen the countryside that I needed to see, we decided to take the more comfortable sleeper bus back to Lima.  This cost some more, of course.  I booked the return tickets at what is today the ETPOSA terminal and office in Huánuco.

Printed passenger manifests were prepared for both of these trips.  Baggage was checked as in Chile.  We were only going for a couple of days, and we weren’t carrying much.  So we carried our small bags on board and did not check them.  Checked baggage was taken inside the terminal and loaded onto the bus by employees.  Everything went through security checks to get on the bus. 

The night bus left around 10 or 11 pm.  The entire loading process took place within an enclosed terminal area.  When we were ready to depart, the terminal gates swung open and the bus immediately pulled out.  Off we went.  Some time around 3 am, the bus stops on the highway.  This was at La Oroya, which is where the road up to the central highlands from Lima joins the highway running north-south through the Andes.

The stop was at a narcotics police checkpoint.  Many other busses and vehicles were waved through the checkpoint while we waited for more than an hour.  The cause of the stop:  One person who had checked in at the terminal, and checked luggage into the baggage hold, did not board the bus himself when it left.  The police had been advised of that fact by the bus company.  They wanted those bags, and they got them.  They were curious about why gringo-looking people were coming from a remote place like Huánuco, but once they understood that we had not checked any bags into the hold, then they were no longer interested.  Also, there was one passenger who did not match the age and physical description on the manifest.  That was a young man from Tarma, and the police removed him from the bus for detention and questioning.  The bus attendant told us that there had been a real possibility that the entire bus would be detained, but the police decided not to after they got the man from Tarma and the bags in question.

Off we went again, turning onto the Carretera Central (Central Highway) toward Lima.  An hour or two later, we again came to a stop.  There was a long line of backed up traffic.  We were in the town of Matucana.  That is not very far from Lima, although Penny and I did not know that at the time.

A landslide had blocked the two-lane Carretera Central.  We learned later that clearing equipment had been unable to reach Matucana from Lima because up-bound traffic had filled up both lanes and the snarl would be difficult to untangle.  Because it happened early in the morning, the Policía Nacional Peruana (PNP) were slow in responding.  So it was a mess.  At around 10 am, a clamshell-type bulldozer passed us, coming from the Andes side.  Most likely from La Oroya. 

Many of our passengers got off and walked.  Passengers from other ETPOSA busses walked down, stayed on our bus for a while, and then went on by foot.  We decided to stay, as did a dozen or so of the original passengers.  We had a couple of large water bottles with us, and a stash of granola bars.  We shared those with our stranded fellows, and had a good time talking with them.  We stayed there all the next day, the next night, and most of the following day.  Finally, the bus went into Matucana, down along the river on the old road.  The river crossing was actually a fording, because the road had been washed out years before and never repaired.  They didn’t go that way, because the Carretera Central was available.  As we moved along, I could see the rockslide being cleared by the one bulldozer that I had seen the previous morning. An eight-hour bus ride ended up taking forty hours.  We arrived safely in Lima late Thursday afternoon on a trip that had been scheduled to arrive Tuesday at dawn.

Of course, ours was a very unusual experience, but it shows that you can have an adventure traveling by bus in South America.

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