A few days after getting back from Punta del Diablo, I turned around and headed south to spend Christmas week in Patagonia’s Lake District. I definitely was excited for both trips, but I didn’t really know what to expect, especially regarding transportation logistics. I had my fingers crossed tickets, buses, connections and ferries would work out.
I felt more uncertain than I usually do when traveling because when researching for both vacations, I had some difficulty finding helpful (English-language) planning information online. There was a forum posting here, a word of advice from a friend there, and brief guidebook entry somewhere, as well as a smattering of resources in Spanish. The last time I had planned foreign travels myself was while studying abroad in Barcelona. Anyone who has planned a European jaunt before knows it is quite the opposite for that continent: The amount of informative literature online and off nears overwhelming.
Bus route out of the Retiro station, by Karina for TKGO
Overall, the traveling involved in both trips went smoothly, but there was some bumbling and figuring out on the fly. (Side note: I had a phenomenal time in both places.) I decided to take my lessons learned and newfound knowledge about Argentine buses and ferries to supplement the, what I found to be, lean information online. Below are some insights regarding transportation and traveling in South America, specifically in Argentina and Uruguay. It is quite detailed and long, but only because I’m trying to help out planning-zealous travelers to come!
Basics: Bus travel is one of the most common modes of transportation in South America. People load on to double-deckers with generously reclining seats and a helpful attendant serving up meals and popping in movies for long treks across Argentina and to neighboring countries. Spending 20 hours on a bus is not considered loco; in fact my bus from Buenos Aires to Bariloche took 25. The lengthy hauls are surprisingly tolerable, considering most passengers spend at least half the time sleeping. Plus, your reward for throwing an entire day into traveling is sweeping views of the varied, gorgeous Argentine landscape. Many also find it worth it because rides are cheaper than flights. (To get an idea, our Bariloche buses were about AR$450 each way.)
Tickets: Because bus travel is so widespread in Argentina, travelers can have their pick of a number of lines. I recommend researching ticket prices online and then buying in person at one of the line’s many puntos de venta or ticket windows scattered about the city. I had a friend who rode Via Bariloche and was pleased with it, so I ended up opting for that line to and from Bariloche, as well as for buses to/from El Bolson and a day trip to Villa la Angostura. (To and from Bariloche, though, we were on El Valle buses, which is part of the Via Bariloche company.) One of the hostel managers at La Camorra in El Bolson (great hostel, by the way, along with Penthouse 1004 in Bariloche) raved about Crucero del Norte saying it is slightly more expensive, but the seats are more comfortable and the service is excellent.
Why buy in person? Online commerce is not nearly as mainstream in Argentine as it is in the U.S., and some bus sites reject international credit cards or sometimes, simply just don’t work. My roommate and I fought with the Via Bariloche site for a solid few hours before giving up and finding out we could buy tickets in person two blocks from our apartment. You also can interact with an agent in-person, and if you’re like me, can allay your uncertainty about how it all works by asking un montón of questions. Plus, they’ll print your tickets for you right there.
El Valle bus, second level, by Karina for TKGO
When buying tickets, you also will choose your type of seat and number. “Semi-cama” is the cheapest option, and the seats are the equivalent of riding coach; they are the smallest and recline the least. The majority of the bus seats are semi-camas, and they usually comprise the second level. Here is a detailed breakdown of the types of bus seat “comfort categories.” While getting as close to bed status as possible on a bus is nice, the comfortable seats are usually located right by the bathroom.
Numbers 1-4 (semi-camas) are the prime second-level front seats and thus have the best views.
Buenos Aires Bus Station: The Omnibus station is located in Retiro, one of the rougher parts of the city, and butts up to La Boca. If you take the Subte “C” (the blue line) to the Retiro stop, you will have to walk a couple of blocks to arrive at the bus station. Keep that all in mind when packing; you will be moving through crowds, and pickpockets are prowling.
Now, about actually catching your bus. Aim to arrive at the station 30-40 minutes ahead, so you will, at the very least, have 20 minutes to figure things out. (The station has about one help desk in the whole place.) Your ticket will say “Plataforma,” or some abbreviation of that word, with numbers below it — for example, 25-35. What that means is that at about ten minutes prior to your departure time, your bus will pull into a spot numbered between 25 and 35. The slot number also should be announced and go on a board, but best to watch out for yourself and keep a lookout. Bus departures are pretty punctual, so you want to get out to it and on quickly.
Montevideo Tres Cruces Station: If you are taking a bus to an Uruguayan beach town, there is a good chance it’ll be from the Montevideo hub, Tres Cruces. It’s smaller, nicer and more manageable than Retiro, but from what I was led to believe, it is impossible to purchase tickets ahead of time. I believe you can reserve seats, though, which is advisable since agents could stick you with standing-room tickets if you’re one of the last to buy. Check the terminal’s site for all lines’ schedules and destinations.
Other advice/details: Pack like you would for a long flight. Bring snacks, books, your charged iPod, earplugs and an eye mask (if you want to get serious).
If you’re going a distance, you’ll most likely be making a lot of stops, so be prepared for people getting on and off the bus.
From the bus, three hours north of Bariloche, by Karina for TKGO
Basics: To travel between Uruguay and Buenos Aires, most people take a Buquebus ferry. I personally could do with the name being less confusing, but when people talk about Buquebus, it is a ferry, as actual bus transport would be difficult across a body of water. The main Buquebus station is a swank little place in Puerto Madero, and checking in, boarding, etc. functions a lot like it would at an airport. Arrive early to give yourself time to check in, get through security and customs and grab a nice aisle seat (they’re not assigned) on the ferry.
Tickets: Buquebus has deals for fares exclusively on their site, so buy tickets online rather than in person. Prepare to deal with a frustrating, finicky site, however, that functions only when it wants to. I also have heard the English-language version of the site is incomplete and won’t allow you to purchase online, so stick to Spanish or find an hispanohablante friend to help.
I say go for the cheapest tickets available, since the rides are never too long and the first class section and perks didn’t seem to be all that special.
Other details/advice: Don’t forget your passport! The rides are only a couple of hours maximum, and my friends and I have found it surprisingly easy to forget you are traveling to a different country, which obviously requires a passport. Unrelated: Buquebus also operates some planes and buses.
Ferries do have little stations selling sandwiches, drinks and some hot food; I thought the selection to be pretty decent. Also, do some shopping! The Buquebus station has great duty-free shops if you’re looking to load up on nice makeup, perfumes and alcohol. The ferries also have duty-free shops.
Runway or road to Bariloche? By Karina for TKGO
Tickets: I have yet to board a plane since landing in Ezeiza from the U.S., but I know how I am going to fly when I do, thanks to A Gringo in Buenos Aires. As this article explains, the government subsidizes Argentine airline flights for citizens. Identical plane tickets will cost about 50 percent less for an Argentine resident than a foreigner, and that’s more than a negligible difference. To keep non-citizens from taking advantage of the subsidies, most Argentine airlines require flyers to give their Document Nacional de Identidad (DNI, which is like an Argentina social security number) when purchasing tickets. Except, apparently, LAN Argentina does not require DNI to purchase a ticket online. The employees verify DNI only when customers check in or check bags at the airport. Therefore, check in online, carry only hand luggage, and you’re as good as Argentine. I have a friend who traveled this way, no problem, a couple of months ago.
…And a word on hostels
View from Penthouse 1004 in Bariloche, by Karina for TKGO
Money: Bring LOTS of cash. ATMs are few and far between in small towns — in fact, Punta del Diablo had none — and every hostel I stayed in during my trip south only accepted cash.
Similarly, the ATM at the Buquebus station in Montevideo was not working, and apparently never is. Most people will take Argentine pesos for Uruguayan ones, but they have the freedom to quote you at whatever exchange rate they want, which is usually somewhere between 4-5 UR for 1 AR.
Food: Most hostels include a free breakfast, and I can almost guarantee it’s a sliced baguette, some spreads (dulce de leche, jam and butter) and coffee. I will say the coffee is usually very good, but if you’re looking for a hearty breakfast, prepare to buy or bring your own food. Not all offer kitchen access, so check beforehand if you think that’s something you might want.
Research: Like anywhere, hostels run the gamut. Helpful English-language hostel sites with reviews include Hostelworld, Hostels Club, Hostelz and Hostel Bookers. Check out reviews both good and bad on a number of sites to get a well-rounded perspective.
In regards to researching and planning activities, do not expect the hostel staff to function as concierges, too. They’re probably serving a number of roles already, and you, I, anyone — we’re not paying enough to expect them to be ready to make us an itinerary. Sure, ask them for advice and recommendations, but you will have to figure things out independently, too. And sometimes it is for the best, since they might refer you to friends with high prices or less-stellar companies just for the kickbacks.
Lunch in the yard at La Camorra hostel in El Bolsón, by Karina for TKGO
I hope all this information helps! Feel free to leave any additional tips or insights you have in the comments section.
–Karina for TKGO