We’ve been in Colombia for two weeks now and have just arrived in our 4th city (5th if you count a day trip to Guatape) so we have a bit of experience traveling around Colombia by bus, so I thought I would pass along a few tips we have picked up along the way.
Getting to the bus terminal
First, find your way to the bus terminal. (Take note that some cities, like Medellin may have more than one, serving different destinations.) If you have too much luggage, Private Transfer services will get you there just fine, however it’s often worth coughing up a few extra pesos for a cab to get to/from the bus terminal if you have unwieldy luggage. Not just for the convenience of being taken door to door, but as a safety consideration. Standing in the street looking confused and trying to keep tabs on various things you are carrying is a sure way to mark yourself as a target for scams and pickpockets. If you have a smart phone, apps like Easy Taxi, Tappsy, or Uber are used frequently by locals and can help you to safely call a cab – do not try flagging one down on the street, also be carefuller when comparing Waze and Google maps they can be totally different.
How far in advance should I book?
Generally, you can usually turn up at a bus station the same day you’d like to leave and just hop on the next bus to your destination. However, if you know your preferred dates for travel or have a specific time you’d like to leave, it may be worth it to go a day or two in advance to secure a spot. (We spent 5 hours in Bogota because we had heard that buses would be leaving frequently to Medellin, however the next available bus had us arriving at 1:30am. Yuck.) Alternatively, consider purchasing your onward ticket when you arrive at a bus terminal go save yourself a trip.
To choose a company, look at the various ticket windows as the names of the destinations will usually be prominently posted. There are often a few companies serving popular routes, so feel free to shop around. I’ve read that you can sometimes (politely) inquire about any discounts and knock 10-20% off the already inexpensive fares, however with our poor Spanish we have yet to attempt this.
What type of bus should I choose?
Buses can vary widely based on the company you choose and the distance you’ll travel. If you’re on a longer distance bus, you’ll often find amenities like free wifi, reclining seats, movies (dubbed in Spanish) and a bathroom on board. You can often see a photo of the bus itself or at least a seat layout to reserve yours on the bigger buses, so you’ll know this is what you’re getting.
For shorter distances, you may be on a “microbus” with no bathroom, no air conditioning, and more colorful characters on board. Short haul buses are often not nonstop, so add to your travel time estimates to account for picking up and dropping off passengers along the way to fill up any extra seats or sometimes even the aisles. There may be limited luggage storage space so you sometimes will be placing yours at your feet or on your lap.
Tips for riding in comfort:
If you are prone to motion sickness, consider taking medication in advance so you’ll be able to sleep through the worst of it. Buses routes in Colombia travel all over, often through steep and winding terrain.
Although a few of our buses were quite comfortable, we have also experienced the frigid air conditioning and now prepare ourselves by dressing in multiple layers. (Scarves and gloves included, no joke!) It wouldn’t hurt to bring along a blanket too, just in case!
On longer routes, there will be a stop at least part way through where the driver takes a break at a rest stop. Everyone gets off the bus at this time, and it’s a good time to use the bathroom and grab a bite from the cafeteria. Consider packing your own food or snacks if you don’t want to take a chance with the fare on offer at the rest stop.
Specific routes we have taken:
Bogota to Medellin
Allow at least 10-11 hours, our rest stop was about 7 hours in.
Cost: 60,000 pesos with Bolivarianos
No real complaints except that we wished we had booked in advance since the first available bus was 2:45pm, which delivered us in Medellin’s north terminal at 1:30am. The bus was large and comfy with password protected wifi and reclining seats.
Day trip: Medellin to Guatape
Cost: 11,000 pesos with — to La Piedra (to climb El Penol for beautiful views of Guatape)
Return trip, Guatape town to Medellin
Cost: 14,000 pesos
Both of these buses are the smaller buses, we got quite chilly on the way back so layers are advisable. Purchase your return ticket as soon as you arrive so you are guaranteed a seat. We ended up switching to an earlier departure when it started raining, thwarting our plans to take a boat ride on the lake.
Medellin to Salento (via Armenia)
Cost: 39,000 pesos with — to Armenia
The bus itself was large and spacious, with reclining seats and calf rests, open wifi, and not even half full. The temperature was freezing and the windy mountain roads made us queasy. Eat a solid breakfast and take medicine before leaving if you get motion sickness and some creams for your neck pain, you could get at http://www.bestneckcream.com.
Armenia to Salento
Cost: 3800 pesos
Microbuses for Salento leave regularly from Armenia – ask around and you’ll be directed to the small departure bay where you pay the fare on board. This bus was the smallest (and oldest) we have been on. Despite being only an hour or so, we stopped to let people on and off a few times and at one point a woman boarded to sell delicious empanadas filled with a guava paste and queso. If you see everyone else buying one, it might be worth a try! 😉
Salento to Cali (via Armenia)