Stop the Bus: highs and lows of bus travel in strange lands

Chicken Bus

We were in Budapest for barely 48 hours, yet on four occasions we watched in despair as a bus pulled away in front of us and left us waiting in the cold. Every connection was missed by a whisker, each time we stood and stared as our bus disappeared into the December gloom.

It’s not always like this of course. Sometimes lady luck shines on us and we barely wait a minute for our connections. We’ve arrived in places where only one service a day was operating yet that bus was standing there as if waiting for us to wander up. We’ve also been completely lost in a town with multiple bus stations and lost all hope of catching the only bus of the day, only to see it coming towards us as we sat slumped and dejected on the roadside.

On other occasions we’ve been thankful for the generosity of the bus driver who has gone out of his way to help. We had walked across the border from Guatemala into El Salvador at Anguiatu and the border official had pointed us toward the main road. No sooner had we spied the colourful chicken bus at the bus stop around 100 metres ahead than it gave out a belch of black smoke and began to chug away uphill. With no idea when the next bus would arrive in this quiet frontier crossing, we looked in frustration and cursed our bad luck as we realised a long wait lay ahead. Just then the engine noise from the bus changed its pitch and we looked up to see it reversing. The back door swung open and the conductor gave us a wave, waiting patiently as we gratefully clambered aboard.

Of course it is those bad moments that stand out. The connection in Puerto Natales in Chile that would take us up to Torres del Paine National Park was definitely our most expensive missed connection. Delays at the border meant that we arrived in town 15 minutes after the only Torres del Paine bus of the day had left. We had already pre-paid our overnight accommodation in the park and were not prepared to let a $200 room go to waste. The only solution was a three hour taxi ride which, even with a bit of negotiation was the most expensive taxi ride I’ve ever taken.

Like them or loathe them, buses seem to play a critical part in the daily life of any traveller. Unlike at home when we have a rough idea of when buses and trains depart, in many parts of the world even the latest technology doesn’t provide much of an insight into the vagaries of the local transport system. The only sensible approach when it comes to bus travel is to turn up early and bring plenty of patience with you.

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Freelance travel writer

2 Responses to “Stop the Bus: highs and lows of bus travel in strange lands”

  1. Ah yes… highs and lows… In northern Uganda I spent several days waiting for a postal bus but they inevitably arrived full from Kampala – and the rule was No Standing so unless you could sit, you couldn’t ride. On Day 3 (having hurt my knee and looking worse for the wear) I resorted to pleasing – the driver went back into the post office and came out looking victorious: exceptionally a chair would be placed on the bus so that I could sit, and therefore ride. Where there’s a (good)will, there’s a way.

    In Venezuela on a deserted road I once saw the one and only bus hurtle past towards the bus stop. I ran to catch it and as I was almost there, it took off. The driver had clearly seen me – his smirk in the rearview mirror said it all. A strange way to show your superiority.

    But how would we ever travel without buses? We couldn’t!

    January 12, 2012 at 6:52 am
    • Great stories, thanks Leyla. The smirk from the bus driver who drives off – we’ve all seen it I guess although it seems more common here in the UK than elsewhere. Love the Ugandan improvisation!

      January 14, 2012 at 1:18 pm