Busing Argentina in style

After Patagonia, we turned our attention to one of Argentina’s other famous natural wonders – the Iguazú Falls.  Of course, since they’re at completely the other end of the country, we had to get there first…

We ended our time down south by flying back up to Buenos Aires at some truly unreasonable hour of the morning (seriously, our flight left at like 3am or something – no doubt that was the reason we could afford the tickets).  We arrived to OK-looking weather which quickly turned into a torrential downpour as soon as we were out wandering around in it.  (This seemed grossly unfair – after all, we were only out seeking a café near the airport to get us some coffee to get us through the morning, knowing that we had a full day’s wait until our overnight bus.  At the very least the weather could have given us a break for some espresso, no?)

So we gave up on the café idea, flagged down the nearest taxi, dropped our bags in a locker at the bus station, and proceeded to find a café near the bus station instead.  And once we were done marvelling at the sheer magnitude of Buenos Aires’s main bus station, an uneventful day of waiting passed.  You get pretty good at whiling the time away patiently after a year or so over travelling.  Then we got on our bus.

And what a bus…

Buses are a big deal in Argentina.  It’s a big country, but South America in general doesn’t have a lot of cheap air travel, and Argentina is no exception.  Nonetheless, Argentina has always been one of South America’s wealthier nations, and its European-descent population, very much like middle classes the world over, likes to travel.  Driving is definitely popular – from what we could tell, there’s nothing a motorised Argentine likes more than to attempt to dispel the myth that Ayrton Senna was the only South American with balls at high speed – and so the long distances are not necessarily a problem for our speed-limit-plus-at-least-50% friends.  Still, Argentina is not so rich, and lots of long-distance car trips can get expensive.  Enter the bus.

I gather it’s only recently, with rising fuel prices driving up long-distance bus fares, that flying has become even vaguely competitive in cost on any routes – and on plenty, including up to Iguazú, the bus is still considerably cheaper.  So the bus has had a few decades to cement its place as the chosen mode of transport for many an Argentine adventure.

With a fairly extensive network of far-flung destinations (bus trips of 24 hours or more run on daily schedules on multiple different bus lines on a good handful of routes around the country), with substantial competition, and with Argentines liking nothing if not to travel in style and comfort, the buses are not just convenient – they’re also exceptionally well-appointed.  There are a variety of fares available – with government regulation ensuring that each seat sold is precisely categorised into a set of standardised classes, so you know exactly how comfortable you can expect to be.

The most comfortable standard class is ‘cama ejecutivo’, and you can expect a fair bit:  leg room and a leg rest, a seriously impressive level of seat recline-ability, blankets, food, etc.  It’s pretty good.  Hell, even the ‘semi-cama’ ordinary class is better than what you’ll get on any bus in most other countries.

But apparently it’s not good enough.  Because some companies have introduced their own super-luxury seats.  And, well, on the way up to Iguazú, after a long day and a long night, why the hell not?

‘Tutto Letto’ on Via Bariloche

Tutto Letto’ on Via Bariloche

So it was that we found ourselves on the Via Bariloche ‘Tutto Letto’ bus.  In seats one and two, on the top of a double-decker bus, above the driver, looking out in the pouring rain that had once again descended on Buenos Aires.  (Actually when we got to Puerto Iguazú we felt a little bad that we’d complained about getting wet while in search of coffee:  it turned out that by the time we arrived at our destination, half of La Plata – basically the poor side of the greater Buenos Aires area – was under water.)

Not only were our seats especially comfortable.  Not only did we get a privacy curtain to wall ourselves off from the other guests and from each other.  Not only did we get a little 175mL bottle of wine with our TV dinners.  And not only did we get our own personal TV sets.  (Much of those you get with the other classes too, by the way.)  But when it was heading towards nap time, the nice man who’d brought the dinner and wine asked if we wanted a whiskey nightcap before sleep – and promptly poured me a Styrofoam cup full of Jamesons.

I’m not really sure, if I’m honest, where I’m going with this blog post.  But it seemed like the unreasonably high standard of comfort that you get out of your blue-dollar-funded bus travel deserved at least some mention.  This particular 16 hour bus trip cost us a whopping AR$530 each, or around $US95 at the official exchange rate, or less than $US80 at the blue dollar rate.  (The blue dollar, since I haven’t written about it here yet, is a reference to the US dollar exchange rate you’ll get from illegal street money-changers, evading dollar capital controls to get their hands on dollars, for which they’ll pay much more than the official exchange rate.  More on that later.)

So, point and purpose aside, if you’re going to be bussing around Argentina, here are some handy tips:

  • You can book your tickets online at Plataforma 10 – it’s kind of like Argentina’s Kayak.com for bus tickets.  Alternatively, obviously you can buy them from the bus company offices at the bus station.  Even if you’re doing that, Plataforma 10 is still worth a visit to check routes and times – it seems pretty universally accurate.
  • The main bus station in Buenos Aires is called Retiro – that’s the source/destination you’ll want when you’re searching timetables and fares to and from the capital.
  • We went with Via Bariloche twice – once to Iguazú in their luxury ‘Tutto Letto’, and once from Mendoza to Buenos Aires in ‘semi-cama’.  They were great and very comfortable both times.  There are tonnes of companies, and generally you get what you pay for, but I also found it quite helpful to search TripAdvisor for advice on the company we were looking at booking before I hit the ‘purchase’ button.

Also, no matter what you get, bussing around any other country will never be the same.

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