Many people have asked us if we ever felt threatened or unsafe during our year in South America. The truth is we rarely ever felt unsafe, but our most sketchy moments came while on bus rides. Some of the roads and buses were rough, and crashes, hijackings, and other incidents do occur.
Though we’d heard plenty of bus horror stories and had our fair share of frustrating moments, most of the time we felt perfectly safe. In fact, many of the South America bus companies have great service and really nice seats that we preferred over planes! But, the most memorable rides were perhaps the worst, so if you want to relive them with us, continue reading.
1. Wild Bus Chase
Our first crazy bus ride actually happened on our first time on a bus in South America. We had heard some horror stories about buses in Peru that included hijackings and buses tumbling from cliffs, so we were slightly nervous for the 28 hour ride from Lima into Ecuador. Within no more than five minutes of our departure from the terminal, our bus stopped at an intersection and remained there through several light cycles.
Our seats were at the very front of the top section of the double-decker bus. Matt decided to stand up and get a closer look out the front window. Upon standing up, we could see a car parked directly in front of the bus, and it appeared that we had hit them. There was no damage to the other vehicle that we could see, but the driver of the SUV was furious.
Our two drivers eventually got back in the bus and started to drive. Apparently they hadn’t settled the dispute, and soon enough, the driver of the SUV was racing alongside our bus through busy streets. He cut us off and slammed on the breaks. The bus stopped in the middle of the road. At this point, other passengers on our bus were all squeezing next to us in the front for a better view. We wove around him and attempted to drive away, but other cars saw what was happening and tried to help the SUV stop us. We were weaving through cars and driving up on the sidewalk as people were running to get out of the way.
The SUV successfully stopped our bus again and our drivers both jumped out. One opened the door, dragged the man out by the legs, and started beating him. Meanwhile, the man driving the SUV was filming. They stopped punching him, and one of our drivers got back in the bus while the other stood in front of the SUV to prevent him from chasing us. It was not a success and the guy basically ran our driver over.
We were stopped again, and the police were there to intervene. The police didn’t care at all about the video the man captured of our drivers beating him. The manager of our bus company showed up to the scene and handled the problem while we went on our way. Needless to say, that incident made us more nervous for the trip ahead.
2. Meeting Peruvian Celebrities
This South America bus trip was more funny than scary. We were on an overnight bus from Chachapoyas to Lima. The only stressful aspect of this ride was the large amounts of rain causing massive landslides that blocked the windy road through the Amazon. Along the way, we stopped to pick people up in the towns we passed. They all seemed to know each other.
At some point, the bus attendant ran out of movies to play on the overhead TVs. One of the men sitting next to us on the bus handed the attendant a DVD to put in. It showed a live performance, and as we watched, we realized the resemblance between the performers and the group of people sitting next to us on the bus.
Turns out, they were a popular music group on the way to Lima to play a show. It was a cool coincidence to end up on the same bus as the band, but we have to admit that the loud speakers playing the few songs on repeat on repeat got old during the several hours before they got off in Lima. We were reminded of this bus trip for the remainder of our months in Peru when we heard their music playing in a few markets.
3. A Bad Tire on a Rickety Bus in Bolivia
Traveling by bus in Bolivia was always quite the adventure. Both the buses and the roads there were not anywhere near the standards of those in Peru or Argentina. We set out for Cochabamba from La Paz behind schedule. Early in the ride, we noticed the bus rocking heavily from side to side.
About an hour into the trip, a large semi pulled up next to us on the highway. The passenger in the truck motioned at us, pointing at the front tire and indicating a wobbling motion. But our bus drivers didn’t heed the warning. We were pretty tense, trying not to think of what would happen if the tire came off that rickety bus.
At the worst timing possible, our bus drivers finally decided that the tire was bad enough to need replacing. We were stopped in the middle of nowhere on a muddy road. The drivers had to get out and lay in the mud to change the tire. It took an hour to repair and we arrived to Cochabamba late, but at least we got there safely!
4. The Long Road to La Paz
We woke up early on a rainy morning in Samaipata, getting ready to make the long journey back to La Paz. It had been raining heavily, and we were in a part of Bolivia that is dense with jungle. We were ready to leave the hostel, but the owner told us that it probably wasn’t safe to travel that day. Our bus from Cochabamba to La Paz and our hotel in La Paz were already booked. We weren’t too keen on staying in Samaipata while paying for hotels we couldn’t cancel.
We decided to take it a step at a time and stop in any town if we felt unsafe on the bus. The hostel owner dropped us off outside of town at a toll station. We were talking to a local lady selling coffee and empanadas, telling her that we were heading back to La Paz. She warned us against taking the overnight bus for safety reasons. A passerby picked us up and dropped us at the bus station in the next town. The warning given by the woman and the amount of rocks and small landslides we saw on the way made us question our choice.
The roads were incredibly narrow and muddy, and the fog made it hard to see. Despite that, the bus whipped around corners without any care for the other cars on the road. We passed a very recent crash that resulted one of the cars toppling off the steep drop at the side of the road.
Finally, the skies cleared and we thought the rest of the trip would be smooth sailing. However, there was a patch of roadwork that had a road closed. We sat on this stretch of dirt road on the side of a mountain for three hours before continuing.
Eventually, we made it to Cochabamba where we caught our connecting overnight bus to La Paz. It was below freezing outside and the bus had no heat, so we didn’t get much sleep. We were both exhausted and incredibly relieved when we made it back to La Paz safe the next afternoon.
5. Stuck at the Argentinian Border
It was finally the day we would enter Argentina for the first time. Our bus set out from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, reaching the Argentinian border within an hour. All of us got off the bus, grabbed our bags, and headed to the immigration office. The process was pretty straightforward, and we were back on the bus within 30 minutes.
However, we ended up sitting there for an hour before somebody went to ask what the heck was going on. We weren’t given a clear answer, so we all sat there for another three hours. Finally, one of the Argentinian passengers told us that we should all get off the bus and plead the office to let the bus through. We never figured out exactly why we were stopped, but we heard things that included somebody forgetting their passport or that one of the passengers was on Argentina’s No Travel List.
Everybody was asking the drivers to continue and have the passenger causing the problem catch a taxi back to San Pedro. However, the immigration officials were saying that we were a collective party, so if one person couldn’t get through, nobody could. A lot of us were pretty ticked off because we were not a collective party.
We all had different reservations and places to be. If we had to turn back the next bus from San Pedro wouldn’t leave for a few days. We would miss our whole time in Iguazú. After around five and a half hours at the border, they finally let us through. The delay was a pain because we ended up walking the streets of Salta after midnight trying to find an ATM to have Argentinian Pesos to pay for our hostel.
6. The Loose Bus Window in Chile
Our bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales picked up speed as it left the curvy roads behind. We suddenly noticed our window vibrating. As the bus sped up, the five-foot by three-foot piece of glass began to shake out of its position, banging against the frame. The cold wind sucked the curtain out of the window. The glass was bending in ways that it shouldn’t as the wind tried to pull it out of place. We were scared that the glass would shatter or that the window would come out, hitting us as it dislodged.
A man next to us jumped up and pounded on the door of the driver’s cabin. The attendant came back to look and advised the driver to slow down to lessen the pressure on the window. We weren’t taking chances though. We moved to the back of the bus, far away from the loose window for the rest of the ride.
7. Stranded in Argentina
This bus story was perhaps our best. And we guess by ‘best,’ we mean the most exhausting, frustrating, and ridiculous. We caught a bus out of El Chaltén heading 24 hours north to Bariloche. When we arrived at the bus station, an employee told us that the common route north was closed due to snow, so we would take an alternate route that would add two extra hours. No big deal.
Throughout the night, the bus was moving so slow, and we kept stopping on the side of the road and at gas stations. We knew something was wrong. But as we learned with most bus drivers in South America, they will drive until the bus can’t anymore. We dozed on and off through the night. At around 6:30 a.m., we woke up to the smell of smoke. The bus was off completely and it was below freezing outside. We sat there for a while in the dark, and nobody told us what was going on.
When the sun came up, one of the passengers went to talk to the drivers and they told him the bus was broken down. Yeah, duh! There was no cell service, and of course our bus had no radio, so we flagged down any passing cars to tell them to call the bus company when they got to the nearest town. The nearest town was over an hour away, and passing cars were rare.
Hours passed and we were all hungry and thirsty since there was no more water or food. The toilet on the bus was overflowing since there was no way to flush it, so the bus smelled horrible. We got off the bus to get out of the stuffy cabin and stretch our legs. As we walked around to the back of the bus, we noticed that the entire rear was charred, melted, and blackened. There was some sort of fire that morning, and we hoped our bags that were stored in the rear undercarriage were intact.
A total of nine hours passed before a city bus from the tiny neighboring town picked us up, leaving all of our bags, the drivers, and the bus behind. The drivers had told us to wait at the company’s bus office. But, the office was closed for the season. All of us stood there in below freezing weather until it started getting dark. We left a note, telling the drivers that all the passengers were going to a nearby gas station. Another couple hours there, and we weren’t sure that the bus was ever going to come with our belongings.
Eventually, a woman came with the city bus to take all of us to her hotel. She fed us dinner and informed us that the bus drivers made it there with our bags and were sleeping. We had no information on whether we would be staying there that night or if we would continue. At around 11 p.m., the woman made an announcement to get on the new bus that had arrived. The next evening, we arrived incredibly happy to Bariloche after a grueling 45 hours stranded in the middle of nowhere.