Tag Archives: bus

Bus travel in Bolivia that I’d really recommend

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Leaving Pucara

MAYBE I WAS JUST GLAD to be getting out of Pucara and away from the prospect of a marriage of convenience that would have seen me living small, Bolivian village life, running three rental houses and caring for an old husband who would surely be well on his way to incontinence. Maybe my favourable account of the bus journey from Pucara to Villa Serrano and then on to Sucre was therefore skewed.

But hang on. The landscape was beautiful and the variation in terrain as we descended from high altitudes to the warmer climate of Villa Serrano was well worth noting.

Steep, winding mountain roads wound down past cacti the size of trees along rubbly ground where a sparse covering of shrubs with exposed roots clung on to dry, stony earth.

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Rocky landscapes on the way from Pucara to Villa Serrano

Cacti bushes and trees along the way to Villa Serrano

The crowded bus continued on through dusty canyons and alongside wide, dry rivers. Dust swirled through the bus, coating everything. The teenager in the seat in front of me sat hugging an old school ghetto blaster whilst he puked out and down the side of the bus, the warm, sweet fumes filtering back in through my open window.

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Herding by the river

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Dry river at dusk

At parts, the road was really terrible, huge chunks missing. The bus momentarily crawled alongside browny-orange landslides and inched across and around gaping cavities whilst I held my breath. We always made it. Skilled drivers, aided by the sign up front that stated seguir a Cristo. As on most South American public transport, we were being looked after by the total trust in religious iconography. All good.

As dusk set in, mountains silhouetted against a clear sky. The guy next to me got off the bus, no houses in sight, the middle of a dark nothingness. I wondered how far he had to walk still. It was gone 20:00pm.

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Night arrives on the way from Pucara to Villa Serrano

A little boy jumped into his seat. I dozed a little, waking only when he started to blow raspberries at his friend and screech and clamber over me to look at the moon. ‘¡La luna es aqui!’ he babbled, and his friend joined him by the window, which was also my seat and my lap. Two unknown three year old kids with knees and elbows digging into me? At least I had somewhere to sit.

A little later, having reclaimed some space, I woke up to my hair being stroked. The little boy next to me was now singing gently and playing with my hair, no inhibitions.

Within another hour we arrived into Villa Serrano and I wandered through dark streets with my head torch trying to find somewhere to stay.

Electricity in the town was down. My little venture away from the modern, English speaking world with all its comforts and trappings was set to continue for at least another day, and I certainly wasn’t about to complain.

After a short night’s sleep and a chilly shower, I was back on a bus headed from Villa Serrano to Sucre through a landscape of hills covered in grasses and trees.

It was an early morning start. Wisps of mist hung in the valleys and mountain peaks stayed hidden in the clouds, shadows streaking across their green, grey bodies. The sun shone out gentle, light rays onto little mud brick buildings with grass roofs and red tiles, waking up the folk in the farmsteads that we passed.

It was flatter and greener in the valleys, dry rockiness visible every now and then alongside corn fields. Yellow sunburst flowers on long, leafy stalks sat next to short, fluffy tufts of plants, delicately blowing in the fresh morning breeze.

On board, women sporting plaits and wearing warm, woolly hats carried small children bundled up in blankets. I played peek-a-boo with a little girl in front of me whilst a young boy looked on shyly, smiling when I caught his eye. Again, the only gringo on board. The elders were politer but the children were curious. I tried to remember being that young, but all I could really recall were my mum’s stories about how I chatted away to everyone.

The rest of this journey took us past more cacti; some small and spindly, others still the size of trees. Amazing towers of red rock rose up on the roadside just over an hour into the trip before we finally arrived at flatter farm land and paved, concrete roads. The bus sped up, onwards to Sucre.

So what was so special about this journey?

Predominantly, this was about the amazing, varied scenery but also the experience of being in amongst the locals with not a tourist in sight. It was also a much more interesting way to get to Sucre, and a cheap way to cover some substantial ground.

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Pucara to Villa Serrano cost 30Bs. (£2.70/US$4.34) for a six hour journey and Villa Serrano to Sucre cost 25Bs. (£2.25/US$3.62) for a four and a half hour journey. Villa Serrano to Sucre was a much smoother journey with better roads and a comfier bus, although the scenery wasn’t quite as impressive. Apologies for lack of photos for the second day – my camera battery died! Disappointed. From Villa Serrano to Sucre I travelled with Trans Turismo Señor “La Mision”. Buy tickets in the office on the square, which opens at 06:30am. The bus leaves 07:00am.

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World Nomad’s Travel Writing Scholarship 2012

To link in with the previous post on travelling by bus from Brazil to Bolivia through Paraguay, here is a short piece that I submitted to the World Nomad’s Travel Writing Scholarship 2012 competition:

On buses and food, and food on buses

It’s not my finest moment but it’s done now. Submitted. End of.

The biggest challenge was keeping it within the 2,000 character limit (and that included spaces) whilst still capturing enough detail.

I don’t know if it makes any difference how many people read and comment on the piece or not… some competitions seem to work like that… but of course, as ever, I’d love feedback from you (and if it’s really bad or super constructive, maybe do it on here instead!).

Not to self: never do things in a hurry.

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Brazil to Bolivia by bus (and an apology to Paraguay)

You know when there is no other option but to laugh? The bus in front of me was about as far away from luxury as I could have hoped for and I was going to be on it for the next 22 hours. At least. Oh joy. Would I even make it to Bolivia?

The previous night I’d left Foz do Iguaçu at midnight on board the amazing comfort and space of a Sol del Paraguay bus destined for Asunción in Paraguay. Although I’m now pretty hardened to long distance bus travel, when unexpected luxury enters the mix, it’s a wonderful surprise.

Just across the border into Paraguay there was a visible return to South American poverty. Tens of makeshift tents lined the roadside leading up to the bus terminal of Ciudad del Este, little hives of activity, some adults and lots of kids spilling out onto the pavement. Blankets and bodies and unforgiving concrete. Such a contrast to the comfort that I was privileged to be experiencing.

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Sunrise in Bolivia, not far past the first border crossing

The bus drove on into the night, a smooth service that allowed me to sleep for a few hours. I almost wished the journey to be longer. But come 06:00am, I was back to a chaotic reality of cramped shops and money exchange stalls within Asunción bus station.

It would be unfair of me to comment on Asunción (or Paraguay as a whole) because my time there consisted of bus terminals, taxi rides, border crossings and a daytime sleep in a hostel with an unusually old clientele. I was battling infection, sore throat and a high temperature. The real threat of Dengue fever (discussed on the news the very night I was there) was enough to make me want to push on to a more trodden path where my poor Spanish and ill health would be less problematic.

So Paraguay, I am sorry for not stopping by and giving you a chance. Another time.

Having bought Bolivia bus tickets for that same night, I split a taxi with two English girls. The ride right across town cost 40,000₲. It sounded a small fortune but in reality Paraguay is South America´s second poorest economy and 40,000₲ is just US$9.32 or £5.92. We passed by some NSA buses. We’d booked through NSA. Their buses looked great. We were in for another nice journey.

So back to the start where I’m boarding the bus for Bolivia in Asunción bus station. Although I laughed when I saw the actual bus, I also felt that little trapdoor of gloom pull open and frustration start to bubble out of its depths. Despite a snatch of sleep in a hostel during the day, I still physically felt like absolute crap. Disgusting toilets (avoid use), limited stops with bush hideouts, 03:00am border crossings and military checks and a man who nicked my window seat were all things I had to look forward to. All I really wanted were crisp, cool sheets on a comfy, bug free bed in a Westernised country. And I wanted a cuddle from my mum. Or someone nice.

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One of many immigration stops en route from Paraguay to Bolivia

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Another military stop and´the bus´

The bus was pretty full. Although close to the front, I couldn’t see out: not only had the co-driver shut and locked the door to the front section but heavy curtains blocked any view. In my experience, this is pretty standard for buses in South America.

Across the aisle was sitting a thick set, broad bottomed woman with long, glossy hair. She took out a cup and flask from her bag and started to make up some mate. Sipping slowly on the straw, she eventually finished, put everything away and reclined her seat. She turned on her side, had a bit of a wriggle around and was finally comfortable, cushioned by the chair and a good dose of curves.

Raul, the guy who had taken my seat, received a call shortly after we set off. He smiled down the phone. ‘I’m on the bus’, he said, ‘it’s great. Air conditioned, food, reclining bed seats’.

And I thought, hell yeah, who cares about a seriously shabby appearance, about a looped Bruce Willis movie where the sound is screwed, about dry bread and chicken nugget dinners, about the many stops and bumpy, dire roads I was due to encounter over the next day. It really could be worse.

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Buses leave regularly from Ciudad del Este, Paraguay for the five to six hour journey to Asunción. If you want to leave from Foz do Iguaçu, as I did, then Sol has a service leaving at midnight that costs R$40 (£14.55). Buses for Santa Cruz, Bolivia leave Asunción at 20:00pm most nights (not Thursday and possibly not Sunday). A number of offices on the top floor of the terminal sell tickets but the most reputable seems to be the official NSA office where tickets cost 250,000₲ (£37.02) (cash/card) or US$60 (£37.73) (cash only). The journey takes 22 hours and includes many military stops and border checks including stamps in and out of Paraguay and Bolivia. It feels like an extended process where the first check point is in the middle of the night, the last some time around midday. There are basic meals on board but I would recommend bringing some water, at the very least.

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Bussing about New Zealand

The Stray bus stops off in the cool little town of Raglan, New Zealand

If hitchhiking isn’t your thing and you haven’t hired or bought a car for your travels through New Zealand, then bussing it is the next best option. The two most used companies are InterCity and Naked Bus, both which offer cheaper fares the earlier you book. There are also the tourist tour buses, such as the Stray Bus or Kiwi Experience or Magic Bus (see Nomadic Matt’s post for more info), often filled with backpackers looking to meet up with other. In Raglan I met a local who called the Stray Bus the Shag Bus because ‘all these eighteen year olds step off and straight away you see them eyeing each other up’. Make of that what you will.

Despite a really good sales pitch from the guy in NOMADS hostel in Auckland who insisted that I should Stray it because ‘it’s a good way to meet people if you’re travelling alone’ and ‘see places that the normal buses just don’t go to’, I wanted to keep it cheaper and more local. And I wanted to do some hitching.

In case it’s of any help to anyone, here are some of the fares and journeys that I took whilst on the North Island of New Zealand:

Auckland Airport – Auckland City Centre

The Airbus ($16 one way) leaves from outside both International and Domestic terminals every ten minutes (between 7:00pm and 7:00am less regularly). An option to  keep it cheaper that may be worth exploring is taking a bus from Auckland Airport to Manukau City ($4) and then a bus from Manukau City to Britomart (approx. $4) which is pretty much where the Airbus drops you off in any case. It’s a slower journey but will cost half as much.

Auckland – Hamilton

Intercity trip lasting approximately 2  hours and costing $19. Bus leaves from SkyCity in Auckland. Can buy tickets online or at Sky City.

Hamilton – Auckland Airport

This Intercity trip was in two stages: Hamilton-Manukau City, Auckland (1 ½ hours, $16) and Manukau City – Auckland Airport (40 minutes, $4). Bus from Anglesea Street bus stop out the side of the Hamilton Transport Centre.

Whangerei – Rotorua

My first NakedBus trip booked a couple of days in advance costing $44 for the 6 ½ hour journey. Broken into two stages: Whangerei – Auckland (2 ½ hours) and Auckland – Rotorua (4 hours) with a brief stop in Hamilton. Bus from “The Hub” Transport centre at the Town Basin on Dent Street.

Rotorua – New Plymouth

Booked one day in advance, this 5 hour NakedBus journey went back via Hamilton and cost $44. Ipicked up the bus from Fenton Street, near the corner of Arawa Street in Rotorua.

New Plymouth – Auckland

This NakedBus trip took six hours and cost $34 when booked one week in advance. Bus pick up is opposite the New Plymouth Travel Centre on Ariki Street.

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A few additional things: They’re quite strict about seat belt usage in New Zealand with the threat of hefty fines if you’re caught without by plain clothed policemen. With InterCity and especially NakedBus, buy tickets as far in advance as possible. With both it is possible to pick up fares from $1. Some NakedBus buses have free WiFi, although its not always very reliable.

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It’s a long, long way back to Quito

I was sitting on a Cruz del Sur bus in the downstairs VIP area feeling a little bit pukish after eating my dessert, a fluffy, overly sweet slice of chocolate roll. And I also felt pretty zombiefied. This was day three of a week’s worth of travel back up to Quito, Ecuador and onwards to New Zealand via Houston and Los Angeles.

I had left Arequipa, right in the south of Peru, Monday mid-afternoon, waved off by the lovely, smiling Cristina. Initially intending to set off for Lima much later at night, a surprise travel buddy turned up in the form of a friend who needed to get to Lima for onward travel to Argentina. This first fifteen hour leg was therefore more fun and social than anticipated: seats at the front (upstairs, economy) meant extra space to spread out so we put our feet up, we chatted, we laughed and we watched Peru pass by, great, chunky sand dune landscapes and glimpses of the Pacific Ocean as the sun set.

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Driving through the desert a few hours after leaving Lima

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Sand and sea: dusk by the Pacific Ocean

The following day, Tuesday, started early with an ejection from the bus at just gone 6:00AM. Lima felt pleasant and fresh, the sun not yet melted the morning mist. Sitting for a while to await a more appropriate arrival time at my great aunts house, I watched a constant stream of buses turn up at the terminal, sleepy passengers getting off and waiting for their luggage in a bit of a daze.

After a great night’s rest, I was ready for the biggie: twenty-eight hours from Lima, Peru to Guayaquil, Ecuador. For S/.30 extra, I’d treated myself to an upgrade, my first time downstairs in VIP. Additional comfort and attention and food and space were part of the deal (although I would argue that the front of the Cruz del Sur upstairs had as much if not more leg room than my downstairs VIP front seat). And a seat by myself, no sleepy stranger nodding off and slobbering on my shoulder. Space to sit and think and write. To be by myself, no, to be with myself. Needed.

It didn’t feel like long before the breakfast wake-up blasted out over the tannoy, preceded by soothing classical music and booming deep voices belonging to two noisy Peruvian guys who I’d been trying to block out with ear plugs. Clearly, I’d slept a bit, my eyes unable to stay open despite an attempted mental override (I had wanted to finish the film). It had almost felt drug induced, such a strong, all-consuming tiredness that has made a fair few appearances during my time in South America. No point trying to fight it.

Finally, by nearly 2:30PM we had cleared all border controls at Tumbes. Compared to the night-time crossing at Macara, the daytime Tumbes crossing was an extended, hot process involving hours of queuing in 35°C heat, once for the exit stamps for Peru and a short bus ride later again for the entry to Ecuador. A further four and a half hours along, back into the greenery and banana plantations of Ecuador and a setting sun, and we arrived into Guayaquil, a city which seemed to have a surprisingly low-level of light pollution.

And the last stretch to Quito? Well, I was back in Ecuador, back to upright seats and lack of air flow. Out came the fan, off came my shoes and I snuggled down for another night on a bus. The young guy next to me plugged into his MP3 and didn’t utter a word and we both nodded off, unavoidably resting into each other. The only disturbance? A sudden sleep sing from the guy next to me; a repeated phrase, clean, tuneful and haunting. Three times he repeated the phrase, and then nothing but shut-eye and an eventual arrival eight hours later into Quitumbe, Quito just before 6:00AM. Home.

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Bussing about Peru

Imagine a bus with loads of leg room, a comfy reclining seat, hot meals, regular drinks and smartly dressed hosts and hostesses… no, don’t imagine being on an airplane, imagine a double decker sleeper bus, perfect for long distance travel across Peru.

The procedures before you board a bus in Peru are not unlike those at airports. You check in your main luggage, and then show your ticket and passport (and in some cases provide a finger print) before going through a security scan. You also often need to pay a departure tax, although it’s usually only a couple of soles. In case its of any use to anybody out there, the main bus companies that I travelled with are as follows:

Itsa

I travelled with Itsa from Piura to Trujillo which cost S/.35 (£8.37) for a semi-cama (reclining seat) upstairs. Having come from Ecuador, S/.35 felt like a fortune, but the quality of the bus was amazing – plenty of leg room, comfortable, and well-ventilated with good service. It took six hours. Food included a snack and juice after we set off and a hot meal an hour before we arrived.

Movil Tours

An overnight trip from Trujillo to Huaraz cost S/.45 (£10.76) for semi-cama, upstairs. The bus felt considerably more cramped than Itsa. For an 8 hour ride, there could have been more food or drinks available – there was only a snack and drink at the start (although to be fair, it was some very tasty olive bread).

Cial

A good bus with plenty of leg room and comfy seats costing S/.40 (£9.57) for a semi-cama, upstairs for a journey from Huaraz to Lima, an 8 hour overnight trip. The bus was really empty which meant I could spread out. By all accounts, it should have been a relaxing, restful journey… had they not turned the air con off and the heating on. I slowly cooked into an uncomfortable, grumpy mess.

My second trip with Cial was from Nasca to Cuzco, a 15 hour overnight journey costing S/.80 (£19.13) for a semi-cama seat. A bit of an older bus with broken lights and looking a bit tired overall, but the fact that the window opened kept me a bit happy. And it was cheaper than Cruz del Sur who were charging S/.108 for the same route, albeit with full recliners. Food on the Cial bus was minimal and a bit rubbish: a sorry looking sandwich at 9:30am and some wafers, no drink. What’s that about?

Cruz del Sur

Cruz del Sur is often cited as the best bus company in Peru for safety, security, punctuality and comfort, but the journey from Lima to Paracas felt like one expensive trip costing S/.55 (£13.15) for a 3 ½ hour journey. Seats were surprisingly cramped but the food – a full almuerzo delivered shortly after departure (rice, chicken, a slice of spinach and egg quiche, rice pudding and a drink) was tasty and hot. Working Wi-Fi on board was a plus and despite being a short, daytime route, the chairs were still recliners in case you wanted to snooze. If leaving from Lima, check which terminal the bus goes from as there are a few Cruz del Sur terminals in the city (most, including international, leave from Javier Prado). Three buses leave for Paracas per day, although they go on to Nasca. I wanted to be in Pisco so had to travel to Paracas and then get a taxi to Pisco for S/.8 (£1.92).

The second trip I took on Cruz del Sur was from Arequipa to Lima and it cost me S/.43 (£10.28), a half price fare thanks to my onward international ticket to Ecuador. I sat up front in economy upstairs. It was a comfortable journey with tasty food, although the vegetarian option was a little overdone on the amount of tofu based sausage.

My final trip with Cruz del Sur was a biggie: 28 hours of international travel from Lima, Peru to Guayaquil, Ecuador. For an extra S/.30 I travelled VIP consisting of a small cabin downstairs with comfier seats, more leg room, seats that recline to 160° and attentive service. For the distance, it was worth the extra. No problems with air conditioning or comfort. It was great. Even better was that I had a seat by myself, no neighbour. Overall this journey wasn’t cheap at S/.243 (S/.216 for economy) (£58.12 or £51.66) but it stopped at the borders and waited whilst the necessary visa stamps were awarded. The international service between Peru and Ecuador only runs on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

PerúBus

I caught this basic bus with upright seats on the Pan American roadside from Pisco to Ica. It cost S/.4  (£0.96) for an hour and a half journey. To get there you need to take a collectivo from Pisco to the Pan American highway, which should cost in the region of S/.1.50 per person. Buses run really regularly to both Lima and Ica. It was a basic bus with movies but not much else. Fine for the distance travelled. I wanted to go on to Huacachina, but as the bus terminates in Ica it was necessary to get a taxi to Huacachina which cost S/.6 (£1.43).

Soyuz

Another standard, basic bus for shorter routes, I travelled with Soyuz from Ica to Nasca. The trip took 2 ½ hours and cost S/.11 (£2.63). Nearly got ripped off when buying my tickets – check your change! No security or comfy seats like the main, long distance buses.

Flores

I travelled with Flores for a night time journey from Cusco to Arequipa, that should have taken 9 hours but an hour delay at the start to let on people at different town stops increased it to a 10 hour trip. The ticket cost S/.40 (£9.57) and there was no real security – we just had to dump our bags into the bus luggage section. The police did however come on board to carry out the usual videoing. The bonus of this trip was that it was cooler than previous journeys but there was very little leg room and I’m sure that the guy in front of me will have had my knees in his back for the journey duration. The lady snoring, on the other hand, could have happened on any bus, but my goodness, it was annoying! Food was a cold meal of rice and chicken followed by some runny, dodgy jelly for dessert and some hot, very sweet tea. There were no options with the food and drinks; you got what you were given. It wasn’t terrible, just not great either. The Cusco to Arequipa route is covered by a couple of companies including Cruz del Sur, each running a couple of buses per night.

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Waking up in Peru: night border crossing from Ecuador to Peru

Dawn broke and the immediate comparisons with Ecuador were the colour palette and landscape: where southern Ecuador had been about lush hills and mountains covered in rich, green vegetation, the scenery on the approach to Piura was yellow and brown dominant, and flat into the far distance, a sandy, dusty scrubland occupied by some spindly bushes and trees. Rubbish evenly littered the place, introducing a splash of colour to the otherwise neutral setting. The sun rose quickly, highlighting a bright blue sky strewn with a splattering of cirrus clouds.

I rubbed my eyes. It had been another long night but the surprising comforts of the Loja International bus had enabled me to grab some dozy snatches of sleep on the trip from Loja, Ecuador to Piura, Peru.

At daybreak the roads were dominated by hoards of moto taxis (think tuktuks) – red, yellow, blue and white – whizzing along and darting in and out of traffic. By 7:00am they were matched in numbers by cars and collectivos (minibus taxis/buses). There were people everywhere, crossing roads and catching lifts and rushing about to get to work and school. The city was alive with voices and traffic and movement.

The bus had left Loja at 11:00pm, making what felt like a continuous downhill journey, the brakes grinding and the vehicle lurching for the first few hours. At 03:30am we reached the Ecuador-Peru border at Macará. Everyone had to disembark and queue for an exit stamp (it was also necessary to hand back over the immigration card from when one entered Ecuador, although those who had lost it or never received it simply had to fill out another one then and there).

Walking across the unlit bridge of what was effectively no-man’s land, Peruvian immigration were waiting to check you into Peru – another passport stamp for a 90 day tourist visa, another Andean immigration slip. I passed up on changing some dollars from a short, old guy offering ‘soles, soles…’, but it’s good to know there is that option (instead I took a taxi to a dodgy little street in Piura where I was given a crap exchange rate, but at least the money was legit and it was enough to get me out of the place). A few hours later I arrived into the early morning energy of Piura.

So here I was, in Peru with it’s dry heat and what already felt like busy, crazy chaos. I had a few Nuevo Sol and a bus ticket onwards to Trujillo. I felt ready for some new adventures and places and people. I was curious and a little apprehensive, having been told all sorts of stories about this country. Please be a safe place, Peru.

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Bussing about Ecuador

There doesn’t seem to be a central database for bus travel in Ecuador and I found it difficult when researching times and costs and journey duration, so here’s a rough guide of some of the journeys that I took, just in case it’s some help to somebody out there:

Quito to Otavalo, 2 hours, $2. Get a bus – there are many companies – from Terminal Terrestre in the north of Quito. Check whether the bus drops you in the town’s terminal or on the Pan American highway (the walk into town for the latter option isn’t too bad).

Quito to Atacames, 7 hours, $9 with Trans Esmeraldas. The bus does go from Quitumbe but only twice a day, it’s better to get a bus from their terminal in La Mariscal where there are frequent departures. (I went with Trans Esmeraldas from Quitumbe to Emeraldas and then onwards to Atacames – it’s another option but considerably longer and much more hassle). The air conditioning doesn’t always work and heading up to the north coast means that you should expect increasing heat and humidity.

Quito to Baños, 3 ½ hours, $3.50. Catch the bus in Quitumbe, Quito’s south terminal. Buses are frequent.

Baños to Puyo, 2 hours, $2. A few bus companies do this route and it is a regular service.

Puyo to Riobamba, 3 hours, $3. There are frequent buses from the main terminal.

Riobamba to Cuenca, 6 hour, $6. There are about five buses during the daytime from the main terminal. Be early! – I was on time but the bus had left ten minutes before its scheduled departure. I ended up in a taxi chasing it to its next stop.

Cuenca to Loja, 5 hours, $7. There are frequent buses from the main terminal.

Loja to Vilcabamba, 1 hour, $1.25 with Vilcabamba Turis, a smaller bus with really frequent services running until 9:30pm.

Loja, Ecuador to Piura, Peru. 8 hours, $8. There are two day time buses (07:00am, 13:00pm) and one night bus with Loja International. I took the overnight bus, a comfy and modern bus by Ecuadorian standards which set off at 11:00pm, arrived at the Ecuador/Peru border around 03:30am and into Piura just after 06:30am. The bus drops everyone off with the Ecuador border officials to get exit stamps. The bridge crossing is done on foot to reach Peru immigration. Once your passport is stamped and you have an Andean immigration slip, you can board the bus again (it will have driven across to meet you).

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A bumpy ride between Baños and Riobamba

The bus to Riobamba leaves Baños behind, climbing upwards along dusty, pitted roads with steep, deep drops into the rocky ravines below. Chunks of the road have fallen away leaving jagged, earthy edges.

The lack of tarmac on the first significant stretch out of Baños makes for a very deliberate and bumpy ride. This section has been closed in the past due to volcanic debris cluttering the path. For the first time on all of the bus journeys I’ve been on in Ecuador, the driver slows down to a crawl and pauses before turning corners or climbing hills. There is very little grip; plenty of opportunity for wheel spin and sliding off of the mountainside. We pass by wind battered trees and little clusters of villages. Dust gets everywhere; I can feel a layer caking my face. It’s a toss-up between boiling on the bus or getting covered in dirt. A couple of land workers wave the bus past, machetes dangling by their sides. Sunlight streaks through the blanket of cloud.

And then we hit the tarmac and the bus driver immediately hits the accelerator. We’re back in action.

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Bye bye Baños

My stay in Baños, Ecuador was scattered with the regular sound of marching bands and deafening fireworks; 6:00 am wake-ups from drums and trumpets, heart stopping bangs. The town was celebrating the month long October festival of Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa (Virgin of the Holy Waters) where local musicians gathered at any opportune moment, passing families stopped to watch and dance, and teenagers set off rockets in the middle of the street.

 For a solo female traveller, Baños felt incredibly safe. I wandered around after dark without feeling the need to hug my bag in close, without needing to constantly look over my shoulder. It has a small town feel, it is easy to navigate and it has a whole lot more life than some of the other smaller places I’ve visited. Yes, it’s a tourist town, but not just for us gringos. This place is seriously popular with Ecuadorians taking a long weekend or holiday away from normal life to come and enjoy the spas and the thermal baths (which, when I tried to visit, were so full to the brim that I decided against sardining it with a load of strangers).

Baños is lovely to stroll around, the central market particularly appealing with smells that hit your nose and start the salivating process in earnest. (Less appealing for some is the Ecuadorian delicacy of cuy – guinea pig – roasted up with teeth bared and eyes staring out). The town is full of lovely places to eat and relax, including many Italian restaurants. Ecuadorians, it seems, love their pizza. Although it can’t be considered particularly Ecuadorian, I returned to Casa Hood on a few occasions for its good food, daily film screening, book exchange and chilled atmosphere. Both Casa Hood and my friendly, social hostel, Hostal Transilvania, were comfortable places to relax whilst I got my strength and energy back.

Although not the most interesting or important of topics, bus stations will now get their mention on this blog! Baños bus station, although not significantly different to other bus stations in Ecuador, is a good example of the fun and chaos of these places.

Opposite the main building is a stretch of shacks selling all sorts of tasty and tooth-rotting snacks including the famous melcocha – a toffee like sweet (in town you can see it being stretched and slapped before being chopped and packaged and sold). When a bus turns up, a manic, high-pitched and piercing chorus of predominantly women starts up: ‘papitas’, ‘humitas’, ‘chifles’, ‘cola’ they shout out with a well-rehearsed and imitable melody. This starts to calm as money is handed down through bus windows and exchanged for the treats. The men take over: ‘Riobamba’, ‘Quito’, ‘Puyo’, they shout repeatedly, a lower tone but again with a learned tune. They approach and try to quickly usher any person standing around onto buses. Baños usually only has one bus at a time to any destination but in other bus stations it becomes competitive: three or four different men trying to get you onto their bus. And good luck to you getting on the right one. A few porkie pies have been told in order to get you on board… direct bus?… of course (not)!

So, I’m here at the bus station ready to leave for Puyo. I’ve got a little bag of cooked corn and potato in a smooth, sweet/savoury sauce from the street sellers. I’ve grown fond of Baños. I could probably live here for a little while. There’s a load to do, it’s a sweet little town with friendly people and enough life to keep things interesting.

But I’m moving on. Bye bye Baños. After two weeks here, I won’t mourn the illness, the parasites, and I certainly won’t miss the fireworks. But the hospitality and atmosphere, yes, I’ll miss that for sure.

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