How to travel by bus in Colombia

Even with airfare so low, taking the bus is still the most economical option for inter-city travel in most cases. It does have the downside of a long time spent en camino, though several Colombians tell me this is the upside to traveling by bus- more time to see the beautiful countryside. I’d still rather fly, but my Colombian friends have a point. Colombia is beautiful, and you see a lot of gorgeous views from the big bus windows.

View from the bus in Santander
View from the bus in Santander

Another big upside to traveling by bus is that you have the overnight option. For me this has two big selling points: You can sleep on the bus and wake up in your destination, and you save money on one less night spent in a hostel or hotel. No, it’s not the most restful night of sleep you’ll ever get, but the seats recline and it’s not hard to get a few hours in. Note: Please do some research before traveling by bus at night. Some areas of the country, especially the Pacific coast are not always safe. I’ve personally travelled at night between Santa Marta and Bucaramanga, and between Cartagena and Medellín and had no problems.

How to get tickets

The best way to buy tickets is to first go to the nearest bus terminal. Even with minimal Spanish, this isn’t that difficult. In many cities there is only one main terminal, usually called Terminal de Transportes. Ask locals or someone from your hostel/hotel for directions on getting there. Colombians are generally very helpful people so you won’t have trouble finding someone to give you directions.  Make sure to ask if the busses from that terminal go to the city you’re heading for. I got mixed up in Medellín on this one- there are two big terminals and I went to the incorrect one.

Once at the terminal, bus drivers and ticket salesmen will start shouting destinations at you, especially if you’re wearing a big backpack or carrying a suitcase. Ask them the price they’re offering, then go and check at the counters. Sometimes the prices from the counter is better, other times the guys walking around can offer you a better deal. I use and trust Copitrans and Berlinas.

Some routes run busses every half hour, others only once or twice a day. If you’d like to look up a schedule beforehand, I often use ClickBus. They offer the option to buy tickets ahead of time on the site, but I’ve never done that.

Some tips:

  1. Colombian busses are really cold. Bring a sweater and if possible, a blanket. Take my advice on this one. I’ve never had a thermometer handy, but my guess is around 50 degree fahrenheit. It’s chilly.
  2. If you’re prone to carsickness, be prepared. Roads can be pretty bumpy on the Atlantic coast. But even worse than that, extremely windy in the mountains. The bus I took between Medellín and Armenia was the most miserably carsick I can remember being in my life. The road goes up and down hills in an almost constant S-shaped pattern. I took some advil, drank a coca-cola and tried to focus on the looking through the driver’s window ahead.
  3. The busses make lots of stops for bathroom breaks and to buy food. In my experience around every 2-3 hours. This is a great opportunity to try the local snacks! Every department of Colombia has its own specialty sweets, breads, pastries, fruits, and fried things. Sometimes men even come onto the bus to sell to the passengers. On the bus between Cartagena and Barranquilla I always get the delicious arepa de huevo. On another journey between Cartagena and Sampues I tried a cornbread-like cake and some round cheese-puff crackers. Between San Gil and Bogota my friends and I split some baked goods that looked like powder doughnuts but weren’t that good. Try something new- maybe you’ll find a new favorite.

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