Buses are a great way to get around in Peru, but there are definitely some things to keep in mind. Peru is a fairly large country (almost 500,000 square miles) and unless you can afford to fly everywhere, buses are your principal means of transport. Fortunately, we have no horror stories, but here are some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.
Peruvian buses can be divided into overnight buses and daytime buses, with varying degrees of service and quality within those categories. Overnight buses are for runs longer than 7-8 hours and the service can be either cama (fully-reclining seat) or semi-cama (partially reclining seat), with the luxury companies obviously more expensive. We took the luxury company Cruz Del Sur (see photo) from Cusco to Arequipa primarily because of safety reasons. A quick scan of Latin America Herald Tribune’s headlines for Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador reveals a disturbing number of bus crashes…almost always by budget companies and usually very early in the morning because the driver fell asleep. The mountain roads are notoriously bad and the budget companies have an obsolete fleet as well as drivers who obtain their licenses on the black market. As we settled into our lower-level cama seats, a Cruz Del Sur employee took a short video record of each passenger and we watched the “features” video talking about the bus having two drivers who work in shifts. To combat fatigue, the luxury companies have two drivers who take turns driving and the budget companies have one driver who chews coca leaves non-stop.
For the less dangerous routes along the coast, we used budget companies for overnight runs and have seen the difference in the quality of the comfort, meals, entertainment and restrooms. For our 13-hour, Arequipa-Nazca semi-cama overnight run, our seats reclined partially but did not have head rests and no blankets were provided. There was no meal served and there were no restaurant stops. There was no video entertainment and after the first hour or so, the toilet was clogged and unusable. It should be noted that even when meals are provided they are not always good. One of our “breakfasts” consisted of Oreos with pink center icing and a small box of mango juice. Likewise for the on board video entertainment: our Lima-Cajamarca cama run showed a really bad World War II film of a psychotic Nazi commander psychologically torturing and then killing the members of a Jewish theater troupe.
Taking the budget overnight companies or for a long daytime service, we have our own bus survival kit. The first item, obviously, is toilet paper, but we never want to be caught without bottled water, snacks and earplugs. There have been a few occasions when I’ve forgotten my earplugs and -- with the driver’s favorite folk music turn up full blast -- I’ve been caught sitting directly below the speakers.
Lastly, don’t expect to get a great night’s sleep on these buses. Make sure you have nothing planned the morning of your arrival and if possible, secure a reservation at a hotel that will allow you to check in early.