What You Need to Know About Bus Travel in Northern Chile
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Bus travel in northern Chile is not easy for the first-timers. Here is everything you need to know about taking the bus in northern Chile.
Northern Chile has some of the world’s driest areas and features stunning coastlines, valleys of lush vineyards, the Andes Mountains and the desert. However, bus travel in Northern Chile from Arica and Santiago is long and you may spend short periods of time traveling through thousands of miles.
For those first timers in Northern Chile, the routes are difficult to figure out as there are not so many visible attractions on the map. Moreover, taking the bus in Chile is partly different from your experience in other South-American countries in terms of cost, service, and other logistics.
In this post, you will read the tips for taking buses in Northern Chile and the best places to stop along the way.
Bus companies that travel through Northern Chile
There are several bus companies transporting passengers between Arica and Santiago, and stopping by other cities and towns. Among them, Pullman Bus and Turbus are the two most popular bus companies and tickets can be purchased online or from the bus stations in the main city like Arica, La Serena, and Santiago.
I took both buses but my preference is Pullman Bus. It is quick, safe and the price is reasonable. Turbus stops everywhere along the route from La Serena to Santiago and picks up passengers, which I do not like about it.
Cost and schedule of bus travel in Northern Chile
How much is the cost for bus trips in Northern Chile? You can check out the fare and the schedule on this website. As the cost of travel in Chile is significantly higher than its neighbor countries Peru and Bolivia, be prepared to pay a higher rate too.
How to purchase bus tickets
You know the fare and the schedule of the bus. Now let’s talk about how to get the bus ticket. Some online forums state that you can only purchase tickets online if you are a Chilean citizen. I have not booked the tickets online in Chile so I have no proof if this statement is true, but I booked on this website when I used bus travel in other South-American countries without any issue.
What I usually do is to purchase the next leg of my bus trip as soon as I arrive at the bus station. You can pay for your bus ticket in cash or by credit card.
If you plan on visiting San Pedro De Atacama from Santiago or Northern Argentina, make sure to book your tickets at least ten days in advance. I tried getting the ticket from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama but they are all sold out for the following week.
Not every bus departs from the same bus terminal
While most cities in Chile have one bus terminal, Arica and Santiago have different terminals.
Bus Terminals in Arica
For Arica, you can easily figure out from which terminal your bus leaves and arrives. This is because Arica has only two bus terminals; one is for domestic departures while the other is international. Both bus terminals are across the street from each other.
Bus Terminals in Santiago
Santiago currently has seven bus terminals, and which terminal your bus leaves from depends on the destination of your journey and the bus company. Most buses going north either depart from Terminal De Sur or San Borja, which is outside of Estacion Central. It is easy to figure out which terminal you will be leaving from by looking at your ticket.
However, some terminals like San Borja is huge and they have food courts, restaurants, ATMs and shops, and over 85 bus platforms. It is complete chaos and working out your platform can be a headache. In this case, you can ask around. People at the bus station are friendly and you will find someone to help you.
When you take the bus in Chile, make sure to arrive at the designated platform early. This is because the bus is extremely punctual and will leave with or without you. If you are worried about being late, it is best to scout your platform in advance so you do not have to look for terminals and your platforms in a hurry.
Select stops along the way
Since it takes almost 30 hours traveling between Arica to Santiago, most people will select a few stops along the way to break the journey. For myself, I took a few days’ break in Antofagasta and La Serena. La Serena is the second oldest city in Chile after Santiago and I stayed at a hostel for a few days, visiting Avenida De Mar, the beaches, and the old town square. You can also make a trip to Elqui Valley from there.
Pretty much everyone else will visit San Pedro de Atacama and Valparaiso once they get to the north. You can book the ticket to San Pedro De Atacama with Turbus from both Arica and Santiago. Pullman bus no longer ran the route from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama the last time I was there.
You can choose to cross into northern Argentina
As finding somewhere to stop along the way between Arica to Santiago is difficult, it is also possible to cross to Northern Argentina through San Pedro De Atacama. You can visit Salta and then take a road trip north to Cafayate and continue to Jujuy Province. These places consist of high-altitude deserts, dramatic rock formations, colorful hills, semi-transparent turquoise lakes, and grand salt flats. The unique terrain alone is worth spending a few weeks there.
If you plan on going south from Salta, the suggested locations to stop are Mendoza for famous Argentine wine Malbec, Leo Messi’s hometown, Rosario, and down to Buenos Aires. Afterward, you can return to San Pedro de Atacama or Santiago. CATA Internationale has a daily service from Mendoza to Santiago. For Canada, USA, and EU passport holders, there should not be any issue traveling between Chile and Argentina.
You have to go through security control on your bus journey from Arica to the South
If you take the night bus from Arica to the south, note that an officer will ask for your passport for border control and return it back to you several hours later. If you take the overnight bus, you will need to get off the bus between 3 am and 4 am to let your luggage go through border control again. This is because the border between Peru and Chile are relatively weak and Chilean immigration is trying to stop drug trafficking activities from Peru and Colombia.
Bring your own food and drinks
As there is no complimentary meal service and restaurant stops during your bus trip, you should bring your own food, such as granola bars, cookies, bread, and fresh fruit, as well as juice and bottled water. It took 18 hours bus from Santiago to Antofagasta and I only received a boxed juice and snacks, and that certainly did not last long.
Choose a cama seat for extra comfort
When it comes to overnight bus trips, it is usually best to select a cama seat so you can recline your chair to 180 degrees, and have extra legroom. This is because you have already saved one night’s accommodation cost, so why not give yourself an upgrade.
Go at your own pace
Taking the bus trip in northern Chile is a budget-friendly and efficient way to take in all the culture and sights of parts of this incredible South-American country. The bus has different schedules and there are several locations to choose from to break the journey, so you can take your time and go wherever you want, and whenever you want.
Be selective at your break stops if you have limited time
Chile is the longest country in the world. If you only have limited time, say a week or two, you probably feel rushed and want to cram everything in your schedule. To maximize your travel time, try taking the night bus (but not the one that goes to San Pedro De Atacama and from Santiago to Mendoza as you do not want to miss the beautiful scenery along the way), and pick two to three locations of your choice along the way to visit and explore deeply.
You can also visit less touristic destinations. Local towns and remote beach areas a dime a dozen in Northern Chile and Argentina. I loved picking random stops that were not mentioned in any travel guides and just spending a few days there to get to know the place. It was an interesting experience.
You could perfectly book the flight tickets from Arica to Santiago, but you would be missing out on a lot if you want to have an adventure. And flight tickets from Arica to Santiago may not be as cheap as you expect them to be.
Overview of Bus Travel in Northern Chile
With all that being said, you can see that taking the bus in Northern Chile involves challenges but it is an interesting and rewarding trip after all. Additionally, this Northern Chile bus travel guide tells you everything you need to know about it.
When I traveled in Northern Chile, I had some hard times planning my trip and other travelers do also, but we all had a great time and crossed paths with lots of interesting people along the way, which created memorable trips I will cherish.
Have you traveled by bus in Northern Chile? Share your experience and tips below.
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