Travelling by bus is the common way to travel in South America. I travelled only by bus and once by plane. Here are some general tips and hints. Yet, there is sometimes a huge difference between the buses in different countries depening on their development stage and/or tourism level. Thus, I added an additional post about the different countries, we know about: Travelling by Bus in South America – Different Countries
Know what you need on the ride and get it beforehand
Usually a bus ride takes about 5-15 hours, so it is good to know what you need beforehand. I always bring some food and water. Most trips include a breakfast, food and drinks, but this could be a cookie with a small cup of tea, which might not be enough. Check out the package list for convenience and safety, about what you should definitely bring.
The travelling outfit
Usually, when I board a bus I put my most practical and worst clothes on. First, practical means good and many pockets (deep, ideally with zippers or another way to close them) on my trousers and comfortable. I have a special trouser in greenish, with many pockets and I can detach the legs of with zippers to make it medium or very short. Second, worst clothes, well usually you are rich compared to the locals, thus I prefer to look more like a poor traveller than a rich one.
Should you keep your valuables with you or in the cargo bay – short checklist
First of all, in South America it is quite common that you need your passport / ID card even within the borders of one and the same country. Thus, when travelling with a bus I recommend to keep your passport always with you.
-Do you travel alone? Yes, 1 point for the cargo bay.
-Do you travel with another person or a group that you trust and keeps an eye on your stuff too? Yes, 2 points for keeping it with you in the bus.
-Is it a long ride? Yes, 1 point for the cargoy bay.
-Are you tired or do you fall fast asleep? Yes, 2 points for the cargo bay.
-Do you have the possibility to really secure your stuff in the bus, e.g., small backpack with lock and a chain to mount it to your place? Yes, 3 points for keeping it with you in the bus.
-Do you travel with a secure bus company with strong regulations special staff, vouchers, etc.? (Like the first class of the Cruz del Sur fleet in Peru? Yes, 5 points for the cargo bay.
-You like peace of mind, while sitting in the bus and tired of watching your stuff? Yes, 3 points for the cargo bay.
In my case, I nearly always put a vast amount of my valuables in the backpack that was stored in the cargo bay.
Know what you should take with you in the bus
Well, check what you need, then what you want and then what you could need.
My list is as follows:
-Something to drink
-Something to eat
-Something to entertain me (book(s), mp3player)
To get some ideas about what you should have with you, check out: The package list for convenience and safety and 7 Things every Backpacker should have in his Backpack.
Check and/or determine where they put your backpack
This is necessary if you are travelling with a bus that carries liquids or stuff that can run out. If they put your backpack below a bag of eggs and these eggs break, well bad luck. I heard from some travellers that insisted that their backpacks are put on the top of the bus to avoid such situations. Personally I think this is only necessary in a very few occassions. If you want to be on the safe side you can always put your rain gear around your backpack everytime it is stored in the bus.
Watch your stuff
Watch your stuff before it it stored in the bus.
Watch your stuff while you are in the bus.
Depending on the security level also watch it after it was stored in the bus AND everytime the bus stops. (I only did this in Bolivia). In Peru, Chile and Argentina I always got vouchers for my stuff and they bus stops and service was quite organized, thus after I gave them my backpack I was pretty sure that it is safe and it was always. In Argentina I once forgot my hat, while changing a bus and then they asked who forgot it. Wow, I was pretty amazed about that.
Yet, in Bolivia the service and security is quite different – also depening on the bus company – there I always watched my stuff, right before the moment we took off and at every stop we took a look at the cargo bay. Sometimes even leaving the bus.
Further information for your pocket
I would highly recommend you to get some books about traveling in South America for your trip that you can read while on the bus. I prefer the Lonely Planet, cause it’s structured to get the most important information fast. It is ideal to skim or read in the bus or whatever vehicle you are traveling.