Having travelled extensively on buses throughout South America, I’ve seen it all. Buses with livestock in the bottom compartments, sheep tied to the top, live chickens sitting in people’s laps and the fear of being pickpocketed if I fell asleep. All this couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to public bus transport in Patagonia, which feels like a five-star experience by comparison.
Having lived in Chile for over ten years now, I’ve travelled on more public buses than I can count. I still remember being totally wowed on my first trip. The bus was way bigger than I expected, there was a toilet on board and the seats were clean. Since then, buses have been my chosen mode of transport around Patagonia, particularly as they are more environmentally friendly than other options.
If you’re considering using public buses in Patagonia, but you are worried about the experience, read on. I’ve put together this guide on what it’s really like to travel on a bus in Patagonia.
What are the buses like?
As much of Patagonia is very remote, I envisioned small and rugged buses being in operation across the region. This misconception was quickly dispelled when I began to travel. Most buses in Patagonia are very big and spacious – think Greyhound buses in the US or National Express coaches in the UK.
The seats are always spacious and clean, and there is plenty of legroom if you’re of average size. All the seats come with a seatbelt and each window has a pull-down blind if you wish to block out the sun. From my experience, many of the buses come with armrests and flip-down trays on the back of each seat.
All long-haul Patagonian buses come with onboard toilets, which are cleaned before and after each trip. Like any bus, it can sometimes get a little smelly if you’re sitting right next to the toilet, but in general, the toilets are clean and well-maintained. Only once have I taken a bus ride in Patagonia in which the toilet wasn’t working properly, and, to be fair, I’ve had this issue when I have been back home in the US a few times.
How does the ticket system work?
Like the US or the UK, buses in Patagonia run on fixed schedules so you can plan ahead. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve had to sit at bus stations all day in other parts of South America just hoping that a single bus would appear.
Tickets can be purchased through your accommodation, online, or at the bus station. Unlike many other bus systems in South America, you’ll always be assigned a specific seat on Patagonian buses. This helps to avoid that awful ‘free for all’ you sometimes get when a bus arrives as people rush for the best seats.
Once onboard and settled down, the driver will walk through the bus and check each person’s ticket and make sure everyone is sitting in the correct seat. You will also be given a separate ticket stub for your luggage underneath the bus. Don’t lose this as you’ll need it to collect your luggage upon arrival. Whilst this may seem a little odd, it takes away that nagging fear at each stop that some unscrupulous passenger may just zip off with your luggage.
Although petty crime happens in every part of the world, Patagonia is an exceptionally safe place to travel and people here are very trusting. Locals here leave their front doors wide open and no one would think twice about leaving a purse on a public table.
Should you book your bus ticket ahead of time?
Booking your bus ahead of time is generally a good idea in Patagonia, especially on the longer routes that don’t have as many services scheduled. It’s not uncommon for a long route to only have one or two services running per week. This means that the buses get booked up well in advance, so make sure you plan ahead if you want to get a seat.
On the shorter routes – such as Puerto Natales to El Calafate, which takes roughly 5 hours – there will be plenty of services running and you’ll most likely be able to get away with booking your tickets a day or two in advance.
So, is it worth taking a bus?
For people who have not travelled within Patagonia, it’s often difficult to describe the sheer scale of the region. Patagonia is four times the size of Great Britain and you can spend days crossing this beautiful landscape. A journey from Ushuaia on Patagonia’s southernmost tip to Bariloche on its northernmost tip is over 2,000km.
So, why would you take a bus ahead of hiring a car or booking private or shared transport? Firstly, buses are by far the cheapest option available. Hiring a car in Patagonia is notoriously expensive, as are private taxis if you’re travelling long distances. When you add fuel costs on top of this then it’s hardly worth it. Whilst paying extra is often a sensible idea if you want to avoid uncomfortable public transport, this is not the case in Patagonia as the buses here are exceptionally comfortable and well looked after. There’s also something very relaxing about letting someone else do the navigating while you sit back and soak it all in.
As I mentioned at the start, buses are also the most environmentally friendly option as the more people you have in one vehicle, the less petrol and gas emissions are being used per person. This is an important aspect for many travellers in Patagonia and one that I certainly believe is worth considering.
Although there aren’t loads of domestic airports within Patagonia, there are enough options to facilitate flying should you wish to. However, flights are expensive here, not to mention the carbon footprint you would be leaving on the environment if you took multiple flights. I always think you’re better off saving your money and having a comfortable and scenic bus journey to your next destination.