Pablo and I had arranged to be in Santiago in early February to leave on a roadtrip with a friend of his. We had, of course, known this for some time and often talked without making plans of how and when we would leave…yet the sheer joy of finally being in Colombia led us to follow our noses and taste buds further and further up north, blatantly in the opposite direction to Chile.
At some point – probably right in the middle of eating a huge arepa con queso – we realised that we had a little over a week left before we were supposed to be in Santiago. And that we had to find a way to get from Santa Marta (north Colombia) to Santiago – more than 4900km – as soon and as cheaply as freaking possible.
Obviously, flying would have been the quickest option. Yet despite gaining a bajillion points for speed, the flight options we found soon lost those points for screaming a USD$800 per person price tag at us.
So we decided to take the bus.
Here began “Operación Retorno,” or “The Return,” a seven-day bus extravaganza spanning 15 journeys and four countries all in the name of halving our return costs. For many, the idea of sleeping six nights on buses would be enough to warrant spending such a huge dob of cash on a flight. But we decided that the sheer idea of how much food and good Chilean wine we could stuff our tired bodies with for the money saved was enough to have us shake hands and chorus:
“HELL YES, I want to know what it’s like NOT to lie down for a week!”
In the name of sharing and moral support for those out there getting around in the region, or who just fancy taking a looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooonng bus ride in the name of, well, sitting down a lot – here’s a guide to how we did it. All companies, routes and prices we found, current in January 2013.
The Return, or, How to Get from Santa Marta to Santiago by Bus
(Note: It isn’t necessary to do the trip in quite so many legs. But we found that convenient, direct connections between big cities were very often sobbingly expensive. To save our faces from tear-streaked mascara marks (well, mine anyway), we decided to split trajectories into smaller trips and pass through lesser-known cities where onward connections were cheaper. All in all, as we only rested one night, this breaking down of the trip ended up taking much the same amount of time as direct routes would have.)
PART ONE: COLOMBIA
LEG ONE – 18/1/13 – 19.30
Santa Marta to Barranquilla: 2 hours
- 10 000 Colombian pesos
- Transport Type: Buseta, air-conditioned, LA COSTEÑA – many companies operate for the same price
LEG TWO – 18/1/13 – 23.30
Barranquilla to Sincelejo: 4 hours
- 22 500 (bargained two for 45 000)
- Transport Type: Bus, air-conditioned, TORCOROMA
* Night buses in Colombia are air-conditioned to a frankly Arctic level – I believe the scientific definition is “only-a-touch-away-from-causing-you-to-break-your-teeth-off-from-so-much-chattering.” Before hopping on this bus we got talking to a girl returning to Sincelejo after an unsuccessful job interview in Barranquilla. Helpfully, she told us that the air-conditioning is to prevent cockroaches from crawling out of the bus’s crevices. Niiiiiice.
LEG THREE – 18/1/13 – 4.00
Sincelejo to Caucasia: 4 hours
- 20 000
- Transport Type: Bus, no air, COOTRACEGUA
* Mysteriously, upon arrival we found that bus didn’t go the extra 30 minutes to Caucasia after all. After much complaining and rude gesturing, we were returned 6000 pesos to use on a local bus and put it towards a faster and more comfortable 12 000 peso taxi instead.
LEG FOUR – 19/1/13 – 10.30
Caucasia to Medellin: 6 hours (real time, 7h)
- 44 000
- Transport Type: Buseta, COONORTE
* This was a wrist-slittingly slow journey behind trucks around twisting mountain roads where undignified homes clung to the asphalt, some held together by little more than corrugated iron and tarpauline. We passed clothes lain out to dry on rocks and barbed wire fences and farmers begging in middle of the road. Later, the world opened up into green dairy fields.
LEG FIVE – 19/1/13 – 22.30
Medellin to Ipiales: 20 hours
- 88 000
- Transport Type: Bus, air, wifi, BOLIVIARIANO
* Yay! Here we were rewarded with a comfy trip and a beautiful view through rolling green hills – complete with wifi, powerpoints and movies. It was like being being in Peru again, now so famous for its amazing bus service.
(TRIP SUB TOTAL: 184 500 Colombian pesos or USD$102 each)
LEG SIX – 20/1/13 – 18.00
Ipiales to Rumichaca (border): 30 minutes
- Transport Type: Taxi/Van: SUPERTAXI, leave continuously from bus terminal once the vans are full
PART TWO: ECUADOR
LEG SEVEN – 20/1/13 – 19.00
Rumichaca to Tulcan (Ecuador): 45 minutes
- Transport Type: Taxi/Van: Blue and White, continuous, leaving once van full
LEG EIGHT – 20/1/13 – 21.00
Tulcan to Guayaquil: 14 hours
- Transport Type: Bus, no air, FLOTA IMBABURA, stopping occasionally to pick up passengers
* Before boarding, we met a Mexican-esque Colombian with a pet albino poodle. All too amused in our tired state by the extra-special care she was receiving (she was presented to us in a handbag afterall) Pablo jumped right on board with the idea that the pooch was a tiny little god, generously advising our new friend as to her care – “cuídala, los dioses toman muchas formas.”
* The passengers aboard the bus joined in a mini revolt when the charmless attendant put on Mexican 1950s style cowboy musical as entertainment. Pirated DVDs were offered for show and a very, very cheesy action film showing ALL the oldies chosen instead. Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Norris and Willis were all mixed up for our viewing pleasure into a cinema cocktail of so bad it’s (almost) good.
LEG NINE – 21/1/13 – 13.00
Guayaquil to Máncora (Peru): 8 hours (real time, 9 hours)
- Transport Type: Bus, no air, CIFA
(TRIP SUB TOTAL: USD$27.50 each)
PART THREE: PERU
LEG TEN – 22/1/13 – 18.00
Máncora to Piura: 4 hours
- Transport Type: Bus, no air, EPPO, always leaving
* Buses from Máncora cost S/.70 – S/.150 a Lima. After asking around, we found that from Piura they cost around S/.90. As we’d missed all the cheaper Máncora buses for that day, we decided to try our luck in Pirura.
LEG ELEVEN – 22/1/13 – 23.00
Piura to Lima: 16 hours
- Transport Type: Bus, air, bus-cama, ERICK EL ROJO
* Sweet lord we had amazing luck with this one. As our Eppo bus got us to Piura much too late to catch services with the wonderful TEPSA, ORTULSA or CRUZ DEL SUR companies, we were a bit stuck for what to do. Luckily, our taxi driver was tops took us to the centre where he knew of “a bus company” which opened until late. And so we scored bus-cama seats with the final service for that night.
* There would be motives for paying more and leaving straight from Máncora: our service had no wifi, food, blankets or entertainment. But it got us moving on, that’s for damn sure.
* This Erick el Rojo service dropped us off at the Terminal del Norte. For southern-bound buses, take the Metropolitano (S/.2) to Javier Prado to visit bus companies there. If you don’t want to fork out S/.5 for the pass (entirely not worth it if you’re alone and only going one way), hand someone your fare and ask them to let you pass on their card.
LEG TWELVE – 23/1/13 – 18.00
Lima to Arequipa: 17 hours
- Transport Type: Bus, air, wifi, entertainment, food the works, TEPSA
* Buses from Lima tended to leave around 12 – 14.00, so be there early! Tepsa was the only company we could find on Javier Prado leaving after 14.00.
LEG THIRTEEN – 24/1/13 – 22.00
Arequipa to Tacna: 6 hours
- Transport Type: Bus, no air, LA JOYA
* As the late night service arrives in Tacna at 4am, they let you sleep in the bus until 6am. And ohhhh, how we needed that little bit more shuteye…
(TRIP SUB TOTAL: S/.195 Peruvian soles or USD$76 each)
LEG FOURTEEN – 25/1/13 – 5.00
Tacna to Arica (Chile): 45 minutes
- $3000 Chilean pesos or S/.12 (the conversion favoured paying in pesos)
- Transport Type: Shared taxi
* In Arica, Pablo sorted out the craving he’d had for Chilean avocados on toasted marraqueta bread and almost cried in the process. And again when given the bill and re-acquainted with the extortionate prices in Chile.
PART FOUR: CHILE
LEG FIFTEEN – 25/1/13 – 14.00
Arica – Santiago: 31 hours
- $52 000 Chilean pesos
- Transport Type: Bus, air, food, PULLMAN BUS, films (though passengers passed on)
* Chile’s buses have nothing on Peru’s. Our two meals were rice and dry chicken nuggets and then pasta and dry nuggests. Continuous movies throughout saved the day.
(TRIP SUB TOTAL: $55 000 Chilean pesos or USD$117 each)
TOTAL TRANSPORT COSTS: $322.50
Food and one night’s accomodation during the week (all other nights were spent on buses) added about another $100 per person. This means that for the high season of January (in which flights ranged between $650 and $800), we saved $228 each (including food) on the cost of a $650 flight and up to $378 if we had had to catch the more expensive options available.
There were times throughout when we thought we were absolutely crazy-pants to be traveling like this. But ultimately the views, food, movies, music, laughs and memories throughout made our return to Chile so much more hilarious than it would have been in the air.
(Not to mention the yummy Chilean wine we’ve treated ourselves to with all that cash saved.)