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Bus travel in Peru: From pleasure to purgatory

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Kings of the Road

Top-end Peruvian bus companies are blessed with fleets that would be just as noteworthy in more developed countries. Most Peruvian bus companies have their naysayers, but Cruz del Sur is probably the most frequently recommended service of them all. The terminals are good, the buses are modern and the service is often impeccable. You can sit back in your “anatomic semi-bed seat,” watch a recently released movie, have a nap, eat some surprisingly edible food and wake up in time for bingo.

More importantly, Cruz del Sur, like other top-end companies, has safety measures that are often totally absent among the budget operators. Regular bus maintenance, speed-controlling tachometers, shared four-hour driving shifts and no drunk drivers make the top-enders a hugely different prospect than Peru’s lamentable bus accident statistics would imply.

Mid-range Peru Bus Travel Options

Dropping down a notch, we have the mid-range bus companies such as Movil Tours, Cial and Linea (the mid-range classification is fairly flexible; fleets sometimes feature an array of buses, some of which flirt with near-luxury while others are slightly antiquated). On a personal level, I’m a Movil Tours fan. They are cheaper than Cruz del Sur et al, they aren’t vastly inferior in terms of comfort, and they run some routes that the top-enders don’t bother with (such as the inland trip from the coast to Tarapoto).

That said, Movil Tours, and others like them, are not as reliable and not quite as safe. They make more stops, albeit in designated areas, and the service can be sketchy at times. When I got stuck behind landslides after the Bagua earthquake, for example, Movil took us back to Bagua, ditched all the passengers in the terminal and turned a deaf ear to the subsequent backlash.

To their credit, however, they kind of sorted things out the next day. We had to walk across the wasteland that was once the main highway and work our way to Pedro Ruiz. In Pedro Ruiz, much to my surprise, two buses were waiting for us at the Movil office. The company had pulled both of them from other routes in order to take the stranded passengers on to Moyobamba and Tarapoto. That kind of sums up the mid-rangers: they can be a hassle and a source of some frustration, but you do normally end up getting to your final destination without major problems (and without losing all sensation in your lower body).

Loading up a budget bus in Peru.
Loading up a budget bus in Peru. It’s smart to stay away from cheap buses for longer rides, says Tony Dunnell.

Budget Bus Travel: Bottom Feeders

Welcome to purgatory. Some of these buses were old in the ’80s, fuming monstrosities that were never at the height of technology. Top Gun fans probably remember that epic “Highway to the Danger Zone” song. (Kenny Loggins, the man behind said masterpiece, wrote: Revvin’ up your engine/ Listen to her howlin’ roar/ Metal under tension/ Begging you to touch and go.) In the case of these Peruvian buses, it may be wise to listen to the howling roar, take note of the metal under tension and just go look for a better option.

It can’t be that bad, right? Well, sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that there’s no air conditioning because the windows open to allow a refreshing, fume-filled breeze. Sometimes the music is bearably loud, and the grainy Steven Seagal movie is one that you haven’t seen more than five times before. Sometimes, if you are really lucky, the bus will manage to keep moving for more than 45 minutes without stopping to pick up yet another family with eight hyperactive, screaming children and a bag full of chickens.

If you are out of better options and you need to get moving, these buses can be quite handy. However, they are hard to recommend, especially for trips of more than 4 or 5 hours. Going back to Peru’s bus crash stats, this is where you’ll find the bulk of the numbers. The combination of tired, drunk or reckless drivers with poorly maintained buses and frequent stops can be a recipe for disaster.

As far as comfort is concerned, well, forget about it. A few hours is bearable, but if you’re looking at 10 hours or more then prepare yourself for a test of both mental and physical stamina. You won’t be served any food, so you may have to resort to buying random things that appear on the end of poles outside your bus window. You will also have a child kicking the back of your seat for the entire journey (a strangely inevitable event). Also bear in mind that the undercarriage luggage compartment, that gaping black hole that looks like something a troll would live in, may not be entirely clean. Expect anything that enters to come out covered in oil, feathers and a host of unidentifiable, slightly pungent substances.

The Peruvian Bus Experience

All of the above is subjective and based largely upon personal experience. The standard of bus companies can wax and wane depending upon a variety of factors. Therefore, feel free to recommend, or warn against, any Peruvian bus companies with which you have recently traveled.

Tony Dunnell is an English freelance writer living in Tarapoto, Peru. He writes about travel for MNUI Travel Insurance and has two websites, HowtoPeru and TarapotoLife.

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