When I was planning my trip to South America, I had grand ambitions of travelling overland from Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost tip of the continent, all the way up to Canada. After bimbling rather aimlessly around Asia, I wanted to undertake a grand expedition with a clear goal. However, heading straight to Ushuaia – right at the bottom of Argentina – from the UK is a lengthy and expensive journey. So my “expedition” actually started in Uruguay and I worked my way down the east of South America, journeying back north on the other side. (Spoiler: I never made it as far as Canada.)
My goal was to travel 100% overland. I wanted to really see as much as possible and you can’t do that through an aeroplane window. However, time (and the sheer size of Argentina) was not on my side. Winter was coming and with it, the threat of aggressively bad weather – certainly not ideal for wildlife spotting and hiking in Patagonia’s national parks. So I had to cheat slightly and fly from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn, where I spent a few days exploring Welsh Patagonia and the Valdes Peninsula. I then took a bus from Trelew all the way south to Ushuaia, a journey that took around 30 hours in total. It was my first long distance bus journey in South America – the first of what would become many, many long distance bus journeys. Nothing like diving in the deep end…
Travelling by bus in South America is pretty straightforward and most of the buses are SO much better than the coach services here in the UK (National Express has a lot to learn). You can book online – either with an agency like Busbud or directly on the coach company’s website – as well as at one of the many kiosks in the local bus station. If you don’t speak Spanish (and I didn’t speak it very well this early in my trip), you might struggle buying your tickets in person as very few people speak English. The Google Translate app is an absolute must when travelling. You can download language files so you can use the app when offline. So if your Spanish is crap, you can at least write down what you want to say and show the booking agent, as I did on at least two separate occasions.
When I first started bussing it around South America, I booked my tickets online because Google would automatically translate the websites and I thought it was just more convenient to do stuff online. However, pretty much every bus company I used throughout my trip wanted a paper ticket, which meant an inevitable slog trying to find somewhere to print it out. Printing my ticket for the trip to Ushuaia turned into a bit of a saga as the printer at my hotel had run out of toner, so the receptionist took me to her friend’s cafe a few doors down and asked if he could help me. In an example of what is known as “sod’s law”, his printer was also playing up. So, after a few false starts, this random man I’d just met got a friend of his to print out my ticket. The moral of this story is this: booking bus travel online is fraught with potential problems but the likelihood of kindly strangers helping you out in South America is very high.
The bus journey from Trelew to Ushuaia is done in two stages – an 18 hour bus journey from Trelew to Rio Gallegos, then a 10 hour bus journey from Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia. Each stage is booked separately as it involves two different bus companies. You get to choose your seat, which is a plus, and most of the long distance buses have single seats, perfect for solo travellers. These buses operate a two-tier system, with premium seats (including the singles) on the smaller, lower deck for a higher price and regular seats on the top deck. All seats recline almost entirely horizontally and come with plenty of legroom. I actually forgot to choose my seat when booking the bus to Rio Gallegos and was automatically seated next to the toilets. My experience on National Express here in the UK taught me that sitting by the toilets is a Very Bad Thing so I ended up changing my seat to one of the premium singles. It cost me a fair bit extra but if you’re going to be on a bus for nearly two days, you’re going to want to put your personal comfort above everything else. Trust me on this one.
Another thing to be aware of is punctuality. Although most of the buses I took in South America were on time, this isn’t always the case. The bus to Rio Gallego was an hour late arriving at Trelew bus station. As this was my first big bus journey – and as I absolutely had to catch this bus in order to make my connection otherwise my trip would be delayed by a whole day – I was very, very nervous about missing it. So when a bus going to Rio Gallegos pulled into the correct bay at the correct time, I was convinced this was my bus – even though the driver told me (repeatedly) it was not. I had so little confidence in my Spanish and was so paranoid about missing the bus, I actually chased the bus across the concourse as it was driving off just in case I’d misunderstood. Needless to say, the bus driver thought I was crazy and the staff were not happy with me for legging it across the station.
Once I was on board the correct bus, the journey was a breeze. My seat was comfortable, I had plenty of snacks and books, and there were no further delays. Travelling overland is a great way to appreciate just how vast the world is. I come from a small island but I had no idea just how small it is until I sat on that bus, rolling across the endless Patagonian plains that turned from brown to rose gold as the sun went down. I’d never seen emptiness like it. When night fell, the emptiness grew even deeper as I slept fitfully, waking briefly whenever the bus pulled into a town and the unexpected glare of street lights rousted me from my slumber.
We arrived at Rio Gallegos in the early hours of the morning where I had a couple of hours to kill in the hangar-like bus station before my connection. The bus to Ushuaia was a run of the mill coach and not a patch on the super fancy bus that had taken me this far. Maybe it was because this journey was a “mere” 10 hours long? At least the bus was half empty so I could stretch out. What’s more, the journey from this point becomes much more interesting. It involves two border crossings (into Chile and then back into Argentina) and a ferry across the Magellan Strait. As a Brit with a visa waiver, these border crossings are pretty straightforward and they also meant I got to enjoy a much-needed cup of coffee. Crossing the Magellan Strait involved transferring from the bus to a ferry, where those of us who were hardy enough to stand on the deck were treated to the sight of dolphins dancing alongside the boat. I hugged myself, not just because of the bracing wind but also because I couldn’t quite believe I was crossing the Magellan Strait – a place I had imagined for so many years. Making it so far south felt like such an achievement and doing it by bus made it seem like a proper expedition. If I had flown straight to Ushuaia, I’d have missed this moment.
After landing on the island of Tierra del Fuego (for yes, it is an island) and crossing back into Argentina, the landscape suddenly changed. The endless plains finally turned into the snow capped mountains I’d been dreaming of ever since I first conceived of travelling to Patagonia. The last stretch of the journey was like driving through the Scottish highlands in autumn and it was breathtaking in shades of rust and gold. By the time we pulled into Ushuaia bus station it was night and I was at the freezing, windswept end of the world – nearly 30 hours after leaving Welsh Patagonia. From there it was just a 10 minute taxi ride to my apartment, central heating, a double bed and the best night’s sleep I’d ever had.
Need to know:
- If you book online, always print your ticket. Some of the agencies, like Busbud, will say you can show your ticket on your phone. You can’t. Don’t even risk it as you might not be allowed to board without a paper ticket and could miss your bus.
- Agencies like Busbud charge a booking fee. You can sometimes avoid this by checking if you can buy tickets on the bus company’s website.
- These journeys are usually cheaper than a flight but they’re still quite pricey so don’t be under any illusions. This particular journey cost over £100.
- Make sure you’re happy with the seat you’ve reserved before you pay for your ticket, as changing it will cost you extra.
- If you’re travelling overnight, look out for buses that are ‘cama’ or ‘semi cama’ (ideally cama). These buses will have seats that recline enough for you to sleep comfortably.
- Some buses provide food and a blanket but not all of them (the overnight bus from Trelew to Rio Gallegos didn’t provide anything). Make sure you bring plenty of snacks and drinks to last the journey, and something warm to sleep in.
- Similarly, not all buses have plug sockets so bring a power pack.
- This is a no-brainer for travellers but make sure you also have your own toilet paper.
- Chances are they will play films for the duration of the journey. They will always be in Spanish (usually dubbed) but it’s a good way to practice the language.
- The porter will put your luggage in the boot and give you a numbered ticket in return. Hang onto it as they sometimes ask to see it when you collect your luggage at the other end.
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