Friday, June 12, 2009

Public Transportation: intercity buses in Argentina and Chile

One thing that fascinates me while traveling is public transportation. In fact, it really interests me while at home, too. Exhibit A in this case would be the small short story collection I wrote about bus rides in Jerusalem (very originally named "buses"). But I digress. From time to time I will write a bit about the subject: what you use to travel in different places, how it works, who you meet, etc. So first of in this series are the intercity buses in Argentina (and Chile, which are very similar), that are, in my own humble opinion, shaped by visiting about 3% of the world (that number is completely and entirely made up...) the best in the world.

There are usually at least two grades of buses: cama (bed in Spanish) and semi-cama (you can translate that yourself, now that I've given you the tools). In some instances you can also get super-cama (ditto), executive, luxury, and, in rare cases, regular. Now, the 'regular' buses I rode in Argentina where the same as the regular ones in the US and Israel. The semi-cama are better than any bus I've ridden in each of those countries, and in most cases that is the cheapest option. What makes them better, you ask?
#1. Inclination. Your seat usually inclines at least 20°, and the higher you go in the hierarchy, the higher the angle. There are executive buses that open up to a 180° bed. The seatbacks are also quite comfortable, and again, in higher levels you get plush leather seats.
#2. Food. In rides that were more than 5 hours, you almost always get food and drinks. This is usually a 'miga' sandwich, with the ubiquitous jamon y queso (ham and cheese), but still, it's food. And sometimes you get other things, although the jamon y queso is a constant. E.G. rice with jamon y queso, weird dough spirals with jamon y queso, and so on. And as for the drinks? The myths tell us that on executive buses you get either champagne or whiskey (at this point I should point out that unless the price difference was virtually meaningless, I always took the cheapest bus, so I only rode cama and semi-cama).
#3. Service. On long bus rides there are usually 2 drivers and an assistant. The assistant is kind of a steward, bringing your food and beverage, cleaning up, answering questions, etc. Small anecdote: in Patagonia, going north on route 40, there's a long stretch of nothing- brown, plain fields as far as the eye can see. Gravel road. The only thing to see is the occasional barbed wire fence. And suddenly, in the midst of the nothing, the driver stops, calls the assistant, and he runs out of the bus. A minute later, he comes back into the bus, holding an armadillo over his head. Everybody proceeds to take out their cameras and take pictures. A minute later, we're on the move again, and the armadillo is back in the fields.
#4. Movies. There's almost always a movie going, and even though a lot of times the movie is awful, it passes the time. And it's also a great conversation topic in the hostel, with backpackers relating their bus-movie trauma stories. Some cons to this: buses that don't have earphone plugs or volume control, so if you're not watching, the sound is pretty annoying; dubbed movies; a lot of times you either get on the bus when a movie is already going or get to your destination before it ends, so if you really wanna watch it, you're screwed.
#5. Most of the buses are double deckers, and for some obscure reason, I have a childish enthusiasm about sitting on the top floor of a double decker. This is an impression that I've shared with others, and they all agree. Where does that come from, I wonder?
#6. A 20-hour bus ride is a good way to meet other travelers (or pick up girls...), as long as luck puts them next to you.
Hmmm... this post came out very structured. Remind me to not do that again. Also, I should point out that although these buses are the best in the world in my eyes, they don't make for the best ride. I've had a lot more fun, and it's been much more interesting, on the shittiest buses imaginable.


  1. Why wouldn't you want to package material both droll and informative in a structured list--the two qualities fit nicely into that tight format and play off each other? Works for me.

    Ever ridden the interstate buses in the USA? No armadillo stops for sure.

  2. You're right, I guess I was just over-self-criticising.
    The interstate buses in the US? I've heard of 'em, horror stories mostly. As in, 'don't go on them alone, especially if you're a girl' stories. Plus they're expensive. Oh, I did take the Bolt Bus a couple of times, NY-Boston and NY-Philly. Quite a good experience, actually. Outlets and wi-fi on the bus? Who am I to refuse...?

  3. I've been on Maine-to-Boston buses with a singing busdriver. Best bus sequence in a movie ever: 'It Happened One Night.' Or whoa, wait--I take it back. Best bus sequence in a movie ever: the crash in 'The Fugitive.'