6 Tips for Coping with Colombian Buses

Front row seat on the bus from Barranquilla to Cartagena
Front row seat on the bus from Barranquilla to Cartagena (photo: David Lee)

One thing which can’t be avoided when traveling round Colombia is the Colombian bus. Before coming here I had done the majority of my bus travel in Argentina where the buses are truly the cream of the crop and the humble backpacker is spoiled for quality and choice.

Colombia (like most of South America to be fair) does not have this quality, so as I was sitting on a bus from Cali to Bogota at 3am this morning, unable to sleep, I came up with the following ideas which could hopefully make things go a little more smoothly.

1. Choose the right company

The moment you walk into most Colombian bus terminals with your backpack on, you are mobbed by a veritable horde of men shouting potential destinations at you.

There is a great temptation to go with the first voice you hear shouting out the place you’re are traveling to and buy from him (or the booth he takes you to). Don’t do this.

The best company in Colombia is called Bolivariano and where possible, I recommend buying tickets from them (and only them) directly. This is based on many conversations with Colombians who all travel Bolivariano, for 3 main reasons.

Firstly they have a modern bus fleet, secondly they only stop to pick up and drop off in terminals, not on the side of the road, and lastly each bus has 2 drivers who swap every 4 hours.

The downside of Bolivariano is that they are not cheap; I’m not sure if they are the most expensive but they can cost a lot. In addition, they don’t operate on the Caribbean Coast, so any trip to Santa Marta or Cartagena cannot be done with them.

Alternatives for that area are Brasilia or Bucaramanga-based Copetran.

2. Wrap up warm

Colombian buses are COLD. Whatever the outside temperature, the air-con inside the bus will be set at approximately -15C. Always, take a long sleeve top, (or for a night trip) blanket or sleeping bag if you have them. You won’t look stupid, all the locals do it.

3. Food and drink

You won’t get fed on a bus in Colombia. On a daytime journey you’ll stop once at an expensive and usually poor quality restaurant where you can eat something warm or buy junk from a kiosk. Neither are particularly satisfying, so bring food & drink, stuff you like!

4. Choose your spot

Here’s a tip for night buses – don’t sit too near the front if you can help it. I learned this the hard way last night.

Once the film has finished (which will probably have either Vin Diesel or Jason Statham in it), all may be quiet in the body of the bus, but the drivers will be up front grooving to the latest in Colombian beats. And you’ll be able to hear it too!

On the other hand, I’ve heard of people avoiding the back because of the proximity to the toilets.  Personally, this has never been a problem for me, but whatever works for you.

5. Be safe

Security is obviously an important subject, especially in Colombia, and it never hurts to be too cautious.

I would recommend never putting anything of value in your backpack that goes in the hold, never put your hand luggage in the overhead rack (especially at night), and take your hand luggage with you at food stops. Apart from that, the usual common sense tips apply, as always when traveling.

6. Enjoy the ride

Despite being too tall to comfortably sit in a seat for 9 hours, the bad food stops, the insane drivers, ridiculous overtaking maneuvers, the non-stop vallenato music and the freezing temperatures, after 20 or so journeys in Colombia I still don’t dread it.

I simply love sitting by the window watching the world go by. To me, this is traveling. At every moment you a getting a glimpse of Colombian life and it’s fascinating. Where else would you get to see 2 men and 2 (dead) pigs on a motorbike?

When talking about the overall bus experience, people often say to me, “Oh, you should look at flights, they’re not much more expensive than the bus!”

I always tell them that I’d never thought of that and that I’ll look into it next time, but in fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I just love watching the world go by too much to do anything different.

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  1. Jonathan,

    Hey, I think you mean they don’t operate on the Caribbean coast–you might want to edit that. : ) Also, I don’t know how you do such long bus rides. I can do train rides any day, but I can’t do more than 4 hours on a bus here without getting sick! I’m impressed.

  2. Haha, yeah – well spotted. Caribbean it is! I’ve never had problems with travel sickness on a bus. Crushed knees, hypothermia, whacked repeatedly on the head as people walk by, sheer terror, yes. Travel sickness, no!

    18 hours is my Colombia record (Cali – Bucaramanga). Still a way off my 36 hour Argentinian record, but that’s a whole different story ;o)

  3. Yeah, it’s quite a luxury – not the norm in Colombia. 36 hours with one driver is insane, glad to know you’re still hear to tell the tales! And my sister gave me that exact same charger for Christmas – possibly the most useful present I’ve ever been given!

  4. I could take your colombia bus post and transport it into Argentina, Chile or Peru as well. I think across the board the bus situation in South America is more or less the same. None the less, very good advice, especially the points about staying warm and avoiding the radio for the drivers while you are trying to sleep. For me, sometimes a 20 hour bus ride is more enjoyable than a 2 hour plane ride, why is this??? Maybe Ive been living in Argentina too long…

  5. “At every moment you a getting a glimpse of Colombian life and it’s fascinating. Where else would you get to see 2 men and 2 (dead) pigs on a motorbike?”


    Okay, so I’ve never seen that exact thing, but I’ve seen enough that I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if I do see it tomorrow.

  6. DO they service to Ecuador?… I am trying to find a more inexpensive method of getting out of the country rather than buying a flight…need to show proof to our American airports…

  7. Hello there! I might be taking a overnight buses within Colombia for my trip next month! I’m a female and I usually travel alone but this is the first time I’m backpacking South America. Is it safe to take the overnight bus (Bolivariano)? Thank you very much! 🙂

  8. Do you have a favorite bus journey (or two) – something scenic or interesting? I’m debating where to bus and where to fly at the moment.

    • The first two hours of the bus journey from Medellin to Manizales (toward coffee region) are beautiful. You’re riding along a mountain ridge with big valleys on both sides. The second half of the five hour ride isn’t quite as scenic.

  9. I am not really agree about food & drink! I don’t know about night buses, ’cause I never took it, but on the day bus I always always found street vendors (or in this case “bus vendors”!) trying to sell you whatever: areas, almohabanas, cake, chicharrones (yes, chicharrones at 9 am!!)

  10. Neat story, we traveled around India for 3 months, and the bus trips there were nothing short of memorable to say the least, but like you we did get to see how the locals live, and had many pleasant experiences with them, it’s something you just don’t get on a plane, we are off to Vietnam this winter, really looking forward to that………….ALL the best in your travels…
    “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”