Seven Spectacular Bus Routes Through South America

Traveling cross-country by bus can be long and tedious in any country, and South America certainly presents its own challenges, but this form of travel can also be an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience. South America offers some of the most startling scenery on earth and, if you travel by land rather than by air, much of it can be seen en route to your next exciting destination. Snow-capped mountains, seemingly endless deserts, shimmering salt flats, bizarre rose-hued rock formations shaped by the elements, lush jungles, cosmopolitan cities, ancient ruins and deep canyons can all be viewed through the bus window.

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Travel by day, step off the bus in interesting places, ask the ticket agent or driver which side of the bus will have the best views, and settle in for the exotic show. Some routes are more hair-raising than others, but except for a handful of countries, the roads are generally good, the routes are safe and the scenery is worth the longer hours of travel. Even if you experience some glitches along the way (which you inevitably will), it is all part of the South American adventure. Here are seven bus routes to consider for your trip.

Ciudad Bolivar to Santa Elena de Uairén, Venezuela

(293 miles/472 kms)

Start this incredible 11-hour journey through the stunning landscapes of The Lost World by either traveling by plane or bus from Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas, to Ciudad Bolivar, then connecting to Santa Elena, the main town of La Gran Sabana, a plateau that rises 3,280 ft/1,000 meters above sea level and is home to some of the most dramatic and beautiful scenery in the world. The route passes along the famed Orinoco River, the main “highway” for thousands of years for the native and later European populations, through green savannas, waterfalls, rolling hills, past towering tepuis, the incredible tabletop mountains of the area with their unique mountaintop ecosystems, until finally arriving in the historic town of Santa Elena de Uairén.

The town is located near the Brazilian border, at the southern tip of Parque Nacional Canaima, the location of Salto Angel (Angel Falls), the highest waterfalls in the world, and is also the jumping off point for excursions to Mount Roraima, the highest tepui of the area. The standard excursion is a six day trek up the side of one of the world’s largest tepuis, but shorter hikes at the base of the mountain are also available. Santa Elena itself is an interesting mix of cultures, as it is home to several indigenous groups who are diligent about passing on their language and cultures to new generations, and teaching their children native traditions, crafts and the languages of Spanish and Pemon. The town is also heavily influenced by Brazilian culture due to its proximity to the border, a short taxi or bus ride away.

>> Book flights to Caracas or find a Venezuela adventure tour

Salta to Iruya, Argentina

(191 miles/307 km)

There is beauty to be found even in starker landscapes, such as the northwest region of Argentina, famous for its history, Gaucho (Argentine cowboy) way of life,  unique cuisine, spectacularly-colored geological formations, and vast cactus-filled deserts, canyons and dizzying heights. The bus route, often referred to as the Andean Circuit, can be completed in 12 hours or so, but is well worth breaking up the trip with stops in Salta, Tilcara and Quebrada de Humahuaca or Purmamarca.

Start by spending a few days in the cosmopolitan city of Salta, known to Argentines as Salta La Linda (Salta, the beautiful), visiting the museums, cathedral,  leafy plazas, and excellent restaurants, and riding the cable car above the town for spectacular views of the landscape. Continue by bus to Tilcara to visit the pre-Incan ruins of Pucará de Tilcara, a former important center of culture and commerce belonging to the warrior Omaguaca tribe, dating back at least 10,000 years. Don’t miss the small, tranquil town of Quebrada de Humahuaca, whose backdrop is the multi-hued Cierro de Siete Colores (The Hill of Seven Colors) and is home to a daily native craft fair. The easily climbed hill across the road from the town’s center offers panoramic views of the colorful rose-lavender-orange-blue-green strata of the mountainside.

The next part of the bus route is not for the faint of heart, since it takes a decidedly hairy turn from Humahuaca to Iruya, as the road grows narrower and steeper as it climbs into the mountains, with little separating the unpaved road from the sheer drop below. Sitting 2,780 meters above the valley of the Iruyu River, the remote Shangri-la-like town of Iruya, originally a mountain transit town used a a stopping-over point on the trade route from the Puna Highlands to the Rio San Francisco,  offers steep cobblestoned streets traversed by pack mules, excellent hikes and a glimpse into the slower-paced life of a remote mountain village.

>> Book a hostel in Salta, read about how to travel like a local in Buenos Aires or find more reasons to visit Argentina

Salvador de Bahia to Recife, Brazil

(569 miles/917 km)

One of the loveliest coastal bus routes in South America, this trip starts in the African-influenced UNESCO World Heritage Site of Salvador de Bahia and winds up the northeastern coast of Brazil to the bustling city of Recife. In general in Brazil, it is better to take a flight than a bus due to the sheer size of the country and the long distances between cities via the remote jungle terrain, often completely devoid of roads, but along the coast, the towns are more closely situated and the roads more manageable. Starting in Salvador de Bahia, take a few days to explore this fascinating city before setting out on the trip to Recife.

Salvador offers an authentic view into the strong cultural influence of Africa and the slave trade on Brazilian culture, from the excellent food to the retained customs and religion to the traditional music and dancing. Stop in any of the lovely coastal towns along the way for a chance to stretch your legs and to experience one of the most important aspects of Brazilian life: the beach. Maceió, the capital of the state of Alagoas, was originally the site of sugar mills, plantations and agricultural exports, but is now a tourist mecca known for its tropical climate, gorgeous white sand beaches, sailing, diving and lively nightlife and makes for an excellent beach stop.

The final destination, Recife, the largest city of the area with more than 4 million residents, is a center of industry, but is also developing its tourist side. The city is known as the Venice of the Northeast and is criss-crossed with waterways, islands and bridges and is situated in a zone of dense tropical rainforests. Another big draw to the area is the Porto de Galinhas, repeatedly voted the best beach in Brazil. Be sure to try the traditional African/Brazilian food along the way: Moqueca (seafood stew), Acarajé (shrimp fritters), Caruru (okra, onion, shrimp and toasted nuts) and of course, Caipirinhas, the national cocktail of Brazil made with cachaça, sugar and lime.

>> Find airfare to Recife or learn about more places to go in Brazil besides Rio

Lima to Cuzco, Peru

(703 miles/1131 kms)

Although a longer route than most of the recommended trips due to the varying terrain and the limited number of navigable roads, this is actually the most direct route by bus from Lima to Cuzco and also the most scenic. This route is more exciting than the longer route via Arequipa, often including vertiginous heights, narrow unpaved roads and sharp hair-raising turns, but the reward for ice water in the veins is a front row seat to the spectacular vistas of the land of the Incas.

Start by exploring the capital city of Lima, an urban and historical center of nine million inhabitants, before taking the bus to Nazca, the site of the famous Nazca Lines. Aside from creating the mysterious depictions of animals and humanoid figures in the desert that can only be seen fully from the air, the people of the Nazca civilization that flourished from 300 BC to AD 800 also created a complex system of still-functioning aqueducts.

From there, continue on to the Andean city of Abancay, known as the “Eternal Spring Valley” due to its continuous warm and mild weather. One of the most interesting and important cities in Peru, it is famous for its music festivals and for its surrounding wildlife sanctuaries, including the Abancay National Sanctuary. Additional activities include hiking, bird and animal watching, canyoneering and kayaking; the city is also home to the Konoc Hot Springs, the Saywite Archeological Site and the Incan city of Choquequirao, considered to be as important as Machu Picchu. Reboard the bus to arrive at Cuzco,  the jumping-off point to Machu Picchu.

Situated at a height of 11,200 ft/3,400 mts, Cuzco was the center of the Inca Empire and is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the city receives over 1.5 million visitors each year, it has managed to retain its sense of charm and history, albeit geared to the tourist trade. Be sure to visit the Plaza de Armas, especially at night when it is lit up and full of life. The Coricancha temple, one of the most important in Peru, and Sacsayhuamán, an impressive walled complex which houses structurally sound buildings of polished stones cut to exact precision and constructed without the use of mortar, are the area’s other main attractions. One word of warning for this bus route: the altitudes can be overwhelming for those used to living at sea level, so altitude sickness is a real threat. Avoid or mitigate symptoms by staying hydrated, taking altitude sickness pills and not over-exerting yourself until your body adjusts to the lower oxygen levels, which normally takes 2-3 days.

>> Book flights to Lima, search Lima hostels, or learn about unexpected treasures of South America

Valparaiso to Puerto Varas, Chile

(618 miles/996 kms)

It’s hard to say which of South America’s countries is the most beautiful, but Chile is a top contender. One of the most economically successful of nations, Chile is also one of the safest, and has one of the best infrastructures, making it a relatively easy place for tourists to travel. The only real hindrance to road travel in Chile – the dramatic landscape (heavily mountainous to the east, vast deserts in the north and an extensive network of fjords in the south) –  is less of a problem in this part of the country.

Start with a few days in Valparaiso, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, exploring the colorful cityscapes and the system of funiculars, one of the most unusual in the world. Next, stop at Santiago, a cosmopolitan, modern city of 7.2 million inhabitants with a lively restaurant and cultural scene, extensive parks and an excellent transportation system. Get back on the bus to head south to Temuco in Patagonian Chile, a hub for tourist excursions due to its proximity to numerous lakes, the Andes Mountains, parks such as the huge 150,000-acre Conguillio National Park and to the Llaima Volcano, one of the largest and most active in Chile.

Arrive in Puerto Montt, the center of the farmed seafood industry in Chile, and take a local bus or minibus (collectivo) to Puerto Varas, a lovely, peaceful, lakeside community deep in the heart of the Lake District of Patagonia and one of the most picturesque towns in South America. Puerto Varas’s backdrop is the Osorno Volcano, an almost perfectly conical, snow-capped active volcano. The town, also known as The City of Roses, is an excellent base for exploring the area’s parks and lakes, including Llanquihue Lake, one of the largest natural lakes in South America, and the extensive, well-staffed and well-maintained Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales.

>> Find airfare to Chile, book a Chile adventure tour or learn about wine tasting in South America

Bogotá to Cartegena, Colombia

(605 miles/973 kms)

Although many tourists still have trepidation about traveling through Colombia, the country is much safer than it has ever been and is much more geared toward tourism. Locals and travelers use the cross-country bus system with few problems and it is well worth it to stop at the interesting towns along the way. Start in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city, and one of the highest at 8,612 ft/2,625 meters above sea level. Take the cable car or funicular to the top of Cerro de Monserrate for fantastic views of the city and surrounding area.

From Bogotá, travel to Medellin. Traditionally a center of literature and art in Colombia, the city is redefining itself as a modern, progressive city with much-improved security. Medellin is still famous for its outdoor art and sculpture, so just wandering around will provide a cultural experience. Birdwatchers will want to visit the nearby Río Claro Valley with its naturally formed marble formations and clear river.

Next, head to Bucaramanga, also known as The City of Parks, one of the most beautiful cities in South America, with over 160 parks to explore. Visit the gorgeous Catedral de la Sagrado Corazon, the 18.5 acre Jardín Botánico Eloy Valenzuela with its Japanese Tea Garden, and partake in the area’s most popular activity, paragliding. Finally, arrive at the colonial beach resort city of Cartagena, where the history and culture dates back at least to 4,000 BC. This jewel of a city has been the backdrop for many Hollywood and South American films and TV shows including Love in the Time of Cholera, The Mission, and Miami Vice (Romancing the Stone was actually filmed in Mexico). Be sure to visit the old walled town, Centro Amurallado, for a glimpse into the colonial history of the city; the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the huge fortress overlooking the city; and the Playa Blanca (White Beach), one of the best in Colombia.

>> Find flights to Bogota and read why you should go to Colombia

Pucon, Chile to San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina

(265 miles/426 kms)

One of the loveliest routes crossing the border between Patagonian Argentina and Chile is from Pucon, Chile to San Carlos de Bariloche via San Martin de Los Andes and the Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes) Region. Pucon sits on the edge of the 30,888-acre Parque Nacional Huerquehue and is a great base from which to sample the area’s numerous outdoor sports options: hiking, volcano climbing, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, zip-lining, skiing and horse-trekking. From Pucon, take the bus through the mountains and across the border to Argentina, through the Seven Lakes region, past smoking volcanoes, azure lakes, lush green forests and rugged snow-capped mountains.

Take a break in San Martin de Los Andes, an upscale and popular Swiss-themed ski resort town situated at the foot of the Andes on the shores of Lácar Lake. If time permits, reserve a spot on one of the daily tour boats that cruise the Seven Lakes or rent bikes and explore the area on your own. Be sure to sample the Swiss hot chocolate and European pastries that the area is famous for, then continue on to San Carlos de Bariloche, known simply as Bariloche to locals, for unparalleled trekking. Scale the 12,388 foot Volcán Lanín located in the heart of the Parque Nacional Lanín, or, if you prefer history, tour the Cavernas del Viejo Volcán (Caverns of the Old Volcano) to combine amazing views with a glimpse into the ancient Mapuche tribe culture.

>> Book a hostel in Bariloche

Read more about South America:

Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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Leave a Comment

  • Eric Perich said at 2014-01-29T03:25:59+0000: Which bus do you suggest taking from Recife to Salvador? I have not been able to find any that stop in Porto de Galinhas.
  • Ashley Deck said at 2013-06-20T22:10:35+0000: Thank you so much for the article! Do you recommend booking the bus trips before going or when you get there and which bus companies do you recommend taking? I would like to know an estimate of prices before I go.
  • Paul Firth said at 2012-04-04T16:29:46+0000: Some gorgeous pictures and great descriptions. Nice to see some great coastal routes, as those are the routes I intend to explore from my bike (no buses for me).
  • George Attard said at 2011-06-30T01:11:59+0000: I just booked, Santiago,/chilie, BA Argentina, and Rio , Brazil. some flying and mostly by bus. The whole month of Oct. I can't wait!
  • The Runner's Trip: Run Long, Travel Far, Discover More said at 2011-06-17T21:42:36+0000: We went from Bariloche to Mendoza and Mendoza to Santiago on Andesmar, and loved it. My daughter, who was 11 years old at the time, wrote a pretty funny blog post about it. Here it is if you're interested in what it's like to be a kid traveling for 17 hours on a bus in South America: http://www.collyworld.com/2009/11/bus-in-argentina/.
  • Renee Sakers said at 2011-06-18T23:22:15+0000: Fabulous article, Sim! And the photos are stunning, did Luis shoot them?
  • Chasing Leads said at 2011-06-17T14:37:16+0000: Hands down one of the best articles I have read. I can't imagine traveling by bus for a extended period of time unless it's one of those nice buses with plasma tv's, big comfortable chairs and of course the right group of people. Amazing pictures as-well.Dorian http://getawaygateway.com/
  • Doreen Pendgracs said at 2011-07-21T13:04:37+0000: What a fabulous post, and the photography... stunning! Thanks so much. South America is very high on my list and you have inspired me to bump up my trip!
  • said at 2011-06-28T20:21:08+0000: Nice piece, just one thing. The town with the backdrop if the hill of the seven colours is Purmamarca, which is in the Quebrada de Humuhuaca.
  • Charu Suri said at 2011-06-19T04:45:35+0000: I wouldn't think of taking the bus in Latin America but these bus routes have made me rethink my inclinations. How good are the roads?
  • Vaibhav Wankhede said at 2011-06-18T17:23:02+0000: as someone who's been to south america recently... this is indeed a great article. next time I'll follow the colombia bus route.
  • BuyColombiaRealty.com said at 2011-06-29T15:31:18+0000: Bogota-Cartagena: You can take also the way from Bogota directly to Bucaramanga without going to Medellin. You take the way to Tunja, Arcabuco, Barbosa, Socorro, San Gil -visit to the Grand Chicamocha canyon- and then end up in Bucaramanga.
  • Tullio De Virgilio said at 2012-04-04T19:59:06+0000: extraordinary!
  • Marco Di Genova said at 2012-04-08T06:22:29+0000: Thanks for the article! I would be in South America by the end of the year (Peru and Bolivia, including the death Road to Amazonia...)