There is some AMAZING stuff in Argentina. The challenge is that unlike other popular tourist destinations in the world they lack A) An established/useful train system and B) A vibrant discount airline system with cheap regional airfare. Two facts which are made that much more difficult by Argentina’s immense size.
The good news is that Argentina has a fantastic bus system. The bad news is, it’s also surprisingly expensive but while you may find the famous chicken buses of Central American fame in some areas, there are usually options for long haul, first and second class buses which offer quality conditions and excellent service. Before I go further, I’ll share with you that I’m a converted skeptic. I’ve done the Guatemalan colectivo adventure, Belizean and Mexican buses. The price was always right, the experience usually an adventure, and the physical discomfort typically a consideration. At 6’4″ I tend to dread most forms of public transport. The thought of a 3 hour bus ride tends to make me grimmace, let alone the 17+ hour bus rides Argentina is famous for.
So, it was with mixed dread that I set to booking my Bus trip from Buenos Aires up to Iguazu in Argentina’s far north. A bus ride that typically takes 17-18 hours each way. Still, the price to fly in and out was about $300 beyond my budget and I’d already blown my spare funds on my flights in the southern part of the country. With no clue what I was doing, I set to the task of booking the BA -> Iguazu leg as everyone had told me that a visit to the Falls was worth it, no matter what. I now gladly give the same advice.
As a quick aside, there IS a train line that goes there. Usually. If you’re like me and had a strong preference for the train, I can only tell you that every piece of advice I got was that the bus was faster, better, and more comfortable. Don’t bother research it, just commit to flying or taking the bus.
What you may not know is that Buenos Aires has a massive multi-story bus station. From their central hub you can travel to just about anywhere in South America. In truth, the station is so large (I believe over 100 bays) that it has several foodcourts and a wealth of shopping venues. Just make sure to arrive early, as finding the right spot and figuring out which bus is yours can be difficult. There’s also usually a shortage of people available to help point you in the right direction.
In my interactions with the Argentinian bus system there are three levels of Bus service on a third through first class scale. Based on my (admittedly limited) interaction with the second class tier, it’s suitable for most traveler’s needs and will be a pleasant surprise for budget backpackers. If you’re looking at a long trip (such as Buenos Aires to Iguazu or the common BA to Bariloche route) a 2nd class ticket is advisable. These tickets typically provide wider seating which reclines at a near 60-70 degree angle, well maintained and air conditioned buses, drop down LCD TV screens (which played American movies in English with Spanish subtitles), and airplane-like meals and drink service. On my 18 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires the crew even provided a complimentary Scotch as a nightcap. The company I traveled with, Crucero del Norte, has a large assortment of pictures available on their website if you’re curious about what the buses look like.
I was so concerned about how miserable the ride might be that I only booked a one way ticket to Iguazu, planning on biting the bullet and booking a return flight if the experience was miserable. Needless to say, not only did I book my return trip on a Bus, but would gladly do it again.
Which brings me to the next key factor. Price. I already mentioned that travel in Argentina, even by bus, was surprisingly expensive. As it turns out locals get a citizen’s price, while tourists are forced to pay a visitors price. Where in many areas there is a tourist based transport infrastructure and a local tourist infrastructure, the transport system in Argentina has combined the two. The bad news is, this means that even if you wanted to travel super budget on a more local-oriented bus system, the option isn’t there. It can also be frustrating because where you’re paying a premium for standard transportation, the locals pricing can be as little as a quarter of the cost for the same ride. On the upside, it’s still affordable and a positive boon for the local economy.
The general price for a one way ticket between BA and Iguazu as of my December 2011 trip was AR 369 for 3rd class (semi-cama), AR 422 for second (Cama) and AR 495 for 1st class (CamaSuite). At an exchange rate of 4 AR pesos to $1 USD that comes out to $92 for 3rd class, $105 for 2nd class and $123.75 for 1st class. So, for 13 dollars more – less than a dollar an hour, I was able to experience a significant upgrade. One which included two (quality) meals, drink and some booze. You’ll note, however, that that’s still $210 for the RT ticket to/from Iguazu which isn’t exactly cheap.
While you should check the accuracy and pricing on your own, I found this list to be extremely helpful and accurate. It shows the time, company, and cost for BA -> Iguazu trips.
I highly recommend Bus travel in Argentina. Don’t let the distances or the fact that it’s bus travel dissuade you from seeing the country’s spectacular natural and cultural beauty.
Questions? Have your own experiences with the bus system to share? Please post them in comment. I’m eager to hear them.
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