The endless Atacama desert laid before me, broken by salt flats and rugged mountains, bleak even in the soft light of dawn. I had a headache, pulsing in time with the bus’s engine, and I laid my forehead against the cool glass and watched the altiplano roll by. I felt terrible—a combination of sleep deprivation, dehydration, and altitude. The bus’s bathroom was out of order (a somewhat common issue), and I’d decided that deliberate, low-grade dehydration was better than waiting for a bathroom stop that wouldn’t happen anytime soon. The altitude wasn’t helping either—we were somewhere over 15,000 feet, the highest I’d ever been. In an hour, we would cross from Chile to Argentina, a border made up of nothing more than a few buildings and fences huddled together in the surrounding moonscape, split by a rugged two lane highway.
I flew into Argentina in January 2013. Customs “required” proof of exit (to keep aimless travelers like me from getting stuck in the country) so I’d looked over Google Maps just before buying my flights. I decided flying out of Argentina would be too easy, so I found a place on the other side of the continent and bought a return ticket from Quito, Ecuador for August. I did not check the distance or do any research whatsoever. I figured it couldn’t be too far. It was a bold plan considering I didn’t speak Spanish.
After five months of living and working in Puerto Madryn and Argentinean Patagonia, I bought a map of South America to plan my route, and suddenly realized just how far Quito was. As the crow flies, it’s about 3000 miles. By car, it’s 4,200 miles. For context, that’s around the same distance as driving from New York City to Fairbanks, Alaska. I was close to giving up and buying a flight, but instead I decided to make it even longer and travel by bus.
This isn't a specific travel guide. I didn’t travel with any specific destinations in mind. I barely even planned my trip, so I am in no way confident that I went to the best places, though I certainly enjoyed them. Instead, this is a blueprint for a different type of trip, governed not by final destinations but by full commitment to a method of travel: Pick a start date, an end date, and a method—the rest can evolve as you go.
I went wherever I felt drawn. My only rule was that I needed to get to Quito by August 1st (a month and a half out), and my only guideline was that each new stop ought to be either north or west, though I ignored this sometimes; I once went 16 hours completely out of the way to visit a mountain range I’d seen in a photo.
Bus travel was a perfect method of transport due to its ritualized simplicity—arrive in a town, purchase the ticket for the next trip (or wait and see how much I liked the new place), walk into town, find something to do for a day or two, get back to the bus station, and get on another bus.
I traveled around 6,514 miles by repeating this pattern for a month and a half.
Foreign bus travel feels sustainable because it’s so passive. After the frantic energy of finding each new bus station, I’d settle into yet another seat and give up all responsibility (for directions, traffic, and access to the outside world). I’d sink into the reverie of the bus, a waking dream filled with journaling, music, reading, and absurd Spanish dubbed movies which did very little to teach me Spanish. When the anxiety of inactivity rose, thrumming in my stomach, I’d shuffle around the bus, stretching where room allowed, before curling back into my seat. Bus travel is an endless exercise in managing monotony. Once I had enough practice, I was never bored. It was like meditating. I’d spend hours staring out the window.
I even came to look forward to the next bus. I’d find myself in yet another churning city, and by the end of the day, I’d look forward to the simple peace of my next bus seat. I’d arrive at the station, my daybag filled with snacks and water, and navigate through throngs of people to a bus, gently rumbling in the chaos. I’d hand my bags to the driver. He’d give me a claim ticket, and I’d give him una propina (small tips are customary for the luggage handlers), before climbing into the bus and finding a window seat.
The South American bus system is extremely impressive for its affordability and range. Almost every small town is accessible from some bus (though it may not run every day, and you may get stuck for a few days before you realize this). Buses are generally clean and spacious, though the more you pay, the more likely this will be true. The Argentinean and Chilean buses are especially impressive, with food and drinks served to your seat, and featuring a variety of seat types, from standard coach bus seats to “cama suite” in which the seat reclines to fully flat. In Argentina and Chile, I typically rode semi-cama or cama-ejecutivo, with seats that reclined around 40 degrees (almost enough to sleep comfortably). Farther north, the buses have less amenities, but cost significantly less.
Fact: bus times are only approximate. Arrive at the station 15 minutes early, but be prepared to wait for up to three hours, with few explanations. Once on the bus, do not be surprised by slow border crossings, breakdowns severe enough to require transferring to a new bus, and political demonstrations that may involve burning tires and barricades on all the roads into and out of a city. This last scenario will slow you down as much as seven hours. But don’t worry: you’ll get somewhere eventually.
At some point after getting on the bus (my shortest trip was around half an hour, and my longest was 31 hours), I’d arrive in a new town, a process I also ritualized. Since I often took overnight buses (to save on paying for places to sleep), I’d watch the sun come up, blearily staring through foggy windows. In the new light, people would emerge from their homes and begin their days. The bus would shudder to a stop at some bus station or curb, and I’d struggle out of the bus sore from immobility. I’d wrestle my bags onto my shoulders, turning slowly until I found a sign or map that led to “El Centro”, and I’d walk into town. At some point, I’d find a hostel, and if it was cheap and/or clean, I’d pay, put my things in a locker (bring a combination lock), and head out into the town for breakfast. After breakfast, I’d rent a bike and travel through the city, visiting markets and parks, feeling the rhythm of the town. If the town was small enough, I’d bike out into the countryside (and occasionally pop a tire and have to walk back). If it was big, I’d take city buses to the nearest nature preserve or park and wander till dusk.
At night, I’d return to my hostel, cook a simple dinner, and talk (or not talk) to the other travelers, a euphony of blending languages and accents. They’d tell me where they’d come from, and we’d compare notes over cheap beer and wine, trading tips like “Bolivia doesn’t actually check whether you’ve got a yellow fever vaccination card, even if it’s technically required”. Other travelers were the best resources, far more effective than any guidebook. I rarely met anyone I couldn’t talk to in either English, Spanish, or my broken French, though often conversations were strange mixes of accents and idioms.
When I started my journey northwest, I was never certain if I’d make it to Quito. If I’d ever grown sick of buses, I would have found another way to get back to the States. But the truth is, as I settled into the lifestyle, I loved it more and more. And while I’m not saying this method of travel is better than any other, I discovered something else in the endless bus rides and the countless small streets I wandered through. I found out why I travel: for freedom and spontaneity, to get lost and to see what happens in all its novel mundanity, to sit by a lake and read a book for six hours, to spend a few days living with new friends.
And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with making plans, I worry that they’re a way to try not to miss anything. But here’s an unavoidable truth: you’ll always miss something. I’m certain I missed incredible places on my way northwest. But I also know I found places and experiences that are integral to who I am, even now, four years later.
I reached Quito on the morning of August 1st, after an eight hour bus ride from the coast. My flight home would leave that evening. I wandered through the city, feeling lost in the knowledge that I’d be in another world the next day. I visited a botanical garden and looked up at North American trees that I’d soon see in the wild. I wandered through a market and felt all the particular qualities that made Quito unique and similar to all the other towns I’d visited. When the sun set, I found my final bus, a city bus, and rode the thirty minutes to the airport. The system of security checkpoints and baggage checking seemed overly complex. And when I was finally aboard the plane, listening to the turbines churning the air, watching the land pass far below, I missed the thrumming bumpy simplicity of a bus.