The journey is as important to the travel experience as the places I visit.
Each country has its own system for moving people long distances and I have become intimately familiar with these varied systems. After a 10-day period in Argentina and Brazil that included 3 overnight bus trips, blog reader (and prolific blogger herself), Kat asked how busses in South America compare with busses in other countries. Thanks for asking Kat! Here are some observations about long-distance bus systems in South America:
Central bus stations are the norm. Bus stations matter because it means I have not waited uncertainly for a bus in a dark parking lot (India); at night at a random and unmarked road side stop (also India); or at a bus company office (Myanmar) to board a bus. Central bus stations also mean amenities like food and bathrooms are available prior to embarking and when I disembark. Central bus stations eliminate pick-ups by moto-taxi drivers who would deliver me to a bus garage (Cambodia); shared trucks that take passengers from a bus garage outside the city to the passenger’s final destination (Cambodia); and busses that stop at random to pick up passengers (India).
Online ticket booking is easily available. Being able to buy tickets online matters because it is more efficient than locating and visiting an in-person ticket agency. Online ticket booking also enables price standardization and comparison shopping. The 3rd party ticket booking websites in South America accept international credit cards, something that was not always possible in India. In Myanmar and Vietnam, online booking was not available but hostels had the ability to book bus tickets. For the convenience of booking with the hostel, I lost the ability to select the bus provider. Often, buses booked through hostels were more expensive and reserved for tourists.
Buses follow a schedule. On time transit matters in theory but in practice it is less critical. I rarely am in a hurry and the consequences of “being late” are non-existant. That said, in Myanmar bus schedules indicated arrival at 6:00am but usually reached their destination at 3:00am, leading to more exhaustion than was ideal. In other countries, I have traveled on busses that are 2-4 hours behind schedule because of road conditions. These delays can make the difference between arriving during the day or after the sun sets.
Regarding bus quality, South American buses offer more comfort than any other buses on which I traveled. The buses here are relatively new, clean, well maintained, and similar to coach buses in the U.S., if not better. Images instead of words are the best way to show the difference in quality between South American busses and busses in Asia and India. Most of the photos in the below 3 groups of pictures appeared in earlier blog posts.
Sleeper buses in Vietnam. The bus is of standard height, the people are packed 2 high.
Examples of the fabric on Cambodian busses.
Sleeper buses in India. People are also stacked 2 high on buses of normal height. These buses have flat beds.
The bus face (and backgrounds).
In the post below, the second series of photos captures my best bus experience. I selected VIP class to have a fully reclinable seat and to enjoy some luxury. My facial expression in the picture below compared with the 2 pictures directly above says a lot about the on-the-bus experiences in Asia and India vs. South America. Even with these differences, I still believe the journey is as important as the destination and I am happy to have had every one of these experiences.
Emily and Ben! I met this traveling couple from the UK on our flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi. In the epic Vietnam Backpacker’s chain of hostels we shared a dorm room. After a night in Hanoi, they traveled to Halong Bay and I went to Sapa. We reunited at the hostel a few days later. Through Facebook, Emily realized we were all in Buenos Aires. It was complete good luck that we booked the same bus on the same day to travel from Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls. It is an 18 hour journey.
This post-dinner sparkling wine and sweet treat were the epitome of bus elegance. Possibly more exciting, this bus seat reclined to 170 degrees and included a foot rest that fully elevated my feet. The bus also had individual TV screens with a large selection of movies, wifi, and a USB port. The price: $134 USD.
We arrived around mid-day to the Argentine city of Puerto Iguazu. This town exists because of tourism to Iguazu Falls. The falls are positioned on the border of three countries: Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Walking about 1 mile from our hostel, we reached the Argentine monument to this triple border intersection. From here we could see Paraguay and Brazil as well as the obelisks each country constructed and painted with their national colors.
Ben, Emily and I went to the Argentine Iguazu Falls National Park first. All visitors must take an environmentally friendly train ride to travel from the park entrance to the walkways around the falls. The Argentine side includes 3 trails called lower, upper, and Devil’s Throat, through the falls.
The opportunity to see so many rainbows was the best part about reaching the park on time for the 8:00am opening. The sun was at the perfect angle to create rainbows from the mist of the falls.
Iguazu Falls is the largest waterfall system in the world. Depending on water levels, there are between 150 and 300 smaller falls in this system. The size of each fall ranges from 60 to 82 meters high (Wikipedia).
Because we arrived early in the morning, we were alone on this lower trail viewpoint. 2 days later, when we visited the Brazilian side of the park, we looked across the water and saw this platform filled with people.
The majority of the Iguazu River is in Brazil however most of the falls are in Argentina. The Devil’s Throat is the name of the largest fall. About half of the river’s water flows into this long, narrow chasm.
Mate is a common Argentine drink. It is a collection of herbs that is not tea but similar to tea. Argentines drink their mate for hours. Some people take the drink bitter and others add sugar. Throughout the parks we saw individuals with big thermoses of hot water for their mate. This man had a picnic basket style carrier holding his mate cups, herbs, and thermos.
The falls are in a national park with protected lands. In the park, we saw birds and flowers.
Not in a hurry, the 3 of crossed from Argentina to Brazil via the slower, cheaper, local bus option. One bus took us to the Argentine border where we got off the bus and were stamped out of Argentina. Then, we re-boarded the bus and were dropped off, with our bags, at the Brazilian border. In a few minutes we were stamped into Brazil. After receiving permission to enter Brazil, we waited 2 hours for a bus to pick us up at the border and take us into the town of Foz de Iguazu.
The day after entering Brazil, Emily, Ben and I went to the Foz de Iguazu National Park in Brazil. We were also visiting on the holiday of Good Friday, a day when most workers in South America have a national holiday. The crowds of people were massive.
The Brazilian side offers panoramic views of the falls and an up-close experience with the Devil’s Throat.
We spent about 2 hours visiting the falls. Afterward, we waited in this line for about 2 hours to board a bus back to the main park entrance. The park has good infrastructure and processes, the number of visitors on this holiday overwhelmed the system.
We ended our awesome 3 days together with cards, beer, and Doritos. Emily and Ben taught me to play Monopoly Deal. I liked the game. It was great to have a quiet night with friends, an activity I miss from home.
Another traveler told me his guidebook highly recommended a visit to the Itaipu Dam. Based on his tip, I read a little about the dam in my guidebook and signed up for the special tour.
The special tour includes a visit inside the dam. Visitors could not bring bags, were required to wear closed toed shoes and pants, needed to present passports for identification purposes, and had to undergo a full pat down. We wore hardhats inside the dam.
The Itaipu Dam is a hydroelectric power plant. It is the largest hydroelectricity producer in the world, producing more energy than the Three Gorges Dam in China. The dam construction and maintenance is managed by a joint Brazilian and Paraguayan non-governmental body. Everything about this dam is massive. The scale was stunning. There are 20 of these tubes called penstocks, one for each generator in the dam.
Views of the power plant’s control room. The engineers in the control room work in shifts and are always a mix of Brazilian and Paraguayan nationalities. Directly above the control room, a woman on our tour straddles the border line between the two countries.
Images from inside the dam. The height of the dam is equivalent to a 65 story building and the dam is more than 4 miles long.
A panoramic view of the Itaipu Dam.
At the hostel in Brazil, I made friends with Lee, from South Korea, and Gustavo, from Argentina. I also made friends with Brazilian Jessica and Argentine Maria Laura.