Friday, February 15, 2013

It Ain't Greyhound

My first introduction to long distance bus travel came in 1975 when I took advantage of Greyhound's Ameripass promotion and spent about six weeks traveling over 10000 miles around the United States. It was an interesting experience and exposed me to parts of American society I was not familiar with.

Fast forward to 2009 when RuthAnn and I were traveling in Peru with my sister, Jeanne, and her husband Gray. We took a Cruz del Sur double-decker Volvo bus from Lima to Nazca. It was a very impressive vehicle: tandem front wheels, tandem duals in the rear, and fifteen(!) lights scattered across the front of the coach. We sat up top where we enjoyed several movies, a couple of light meals and access to the on-board attendant who was selling drinks and snacks.

Our next experience was last year when we crossed the Andes twice on a roundtrip from Santiago, Chile, to Mendoza, Argentina. We were starting to learn how important bus travel is in South America.

During SAm 13 we have used the bus system to make our way from northern Chile to Buenos Aires. There are scores (hundreds?) of long haul bus companies on this continent and you can literally go every where on them. When the long distance buses stop, there are thousands of smaller buses and minivans serving the more remote towns and villages.

Here is a summary of the three bus trips we have done on this trip:

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Salta, Argentina/11.5 hours/342 miles/27000 Chilean Pesos (US$57)

Salta to Cordoba, Argentina/13.5 hours/535 miles/458 Argentine Pesos (US$97 vs blue market US$62)

Cordoba to Buenos Aires, Argentina/9 hours/433 miles/400 Argentina Pesos (US$85 vs blue market US$54)

The first two legs were on Andesmar (Andes-the mountains/mar-the sea) buses and the last on El Practico; all were double-deckers.

Ther are several types of seating available and the cost goes up as the seats get more comfortable. The most common for long haul are the semi-cama (reclines about 40°) and the cama (reclines about 50°); cama means bed in Spanish so you get the idea. The buses all have center aisles, top and and bottom, with two seats either side of the aisle if you are in semi-cama class and a 2/1 seating arrangement in cama class due to the wider and more comfortable seats. The seating stretches the whole length of the top level, but there are only four rows of seats on the bottom level due to the drivers compartment, the stairs, the toilet, the luggage compartment and the rear engine. On the first two trips we sat upstairs in semi-cama and because it was an overnight trip to Buenos Aires opted for cama on the lower level. The front row on top is the best place to be with more leg room and a picture window view of the road and scenery. All of the seats have a small leg rest that folds down from the bottom of the seat in front of you and provides a comfortable place for your legs.

Sitting in the front row on top going to Cordoba

There is a man at each end of the trip who packs and unpacks the bags; it is our understanding that they are paid nothing or very little so depend on tips to survive. They are not happy when someone stiffs them! They are very conscientious about checking your baggage claim ticket against the one on your bag before letting you take it from the side of the bus.

We were served light meals and snacks at various times on the trips along with a small cup of soda or water. The meals usually consisted of the ubiquitous jamon y queso (ham and cheese) sandwich unless they mixed it up a bit with queso y jamon (!!), a sweet, and hot water for tea or coffee. On the trip in cama class we got an airline type meal with a hot entree followed by a complimentary whisky or liqueur!

Sleek El Practico bus

The bus stations are huge and a real bee hive of activity. In Salta I counted fourteen different bus company ticket counters and in Cordoba there were 92 arrival/departure platforms! The Retiro station in Buenos Aires was much larger and busier with a constant flow of double-deckers passing by as we ate breakfast before heading to our apartment.

We have one short bus ride ahead of us on this trip: Valparaiso, Chile, to Santiago on March 16, when we fly to Miami.


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