"Women are the guardians of continuity. If the hearth moves, they move with it. Remember, it is the gypsy women who keep their men on the road."

~"Boomerang Love," Jimmy Buffett

Night at the Bus Station: The Battle for Floorspace

When it comes to travel writing and blogging, the focus is almost exclusively dedicated to what you find at the destination. And rightly so – that’s sort of the point of traveling, right? Occasionally, there might be some spotlight on the method of travel itself, such as my last post highlighting some of my more memorable experiences on bussing around the country. What is usually neglected, however, are those interim periods between stops. I mentioned in my last post that I have amassed over 150 hours of bus travel. That figure does not include the countless hours of wait time spent dawdling between stops.

In a perfect world, one would arrive a comfortable 15 minutes prior to their departure time, just enough cushion to check their luggage, buy a snack, and use the bathroom one last time, but not so long that you feel you are wasting time by being early. The bus ride would be uneventful, and upon arrival at the target destination, one could immediately board the next taxi to the destination city’s center and the fantastic travel adventures would commence.  The amount of time spent at the actual bus station would be minimal, a parenthetical that is so fleeting that it doesn’t really dignify acknowledgment. Sadly, that is rarely the case. Whether it was due to mechanical problems, layovers between bus rides, union strikes, or just inexplicable delays, a good, not insignificant chunk of our trip was spent hanging out in bus stations. Although it isn’t particularly glamorous or romantic, considering how much time we have spent in bus stations, I felt it would be remiss to ignore this inevitable aspect of our travels.

You see, when travelling by bus, every small decision can affect your experience: the bus company you select, the time of year, the time of day, and even the seat number. Over the last several months, I like to think that I have become quite savvy at striking that balance between minimizing my travel time, maximizing my comfort, and keeping within my budget. The bus station itself, however, is a factor that you have relatively little control over. In my experience, bus stations have run the gamut from ramshackle benches and dirt floors to full-service centers that rival most outlet shopping malls. Interestingly, although the bus station is technically your first impression of a new location, there is rarely any correlation between the bus station and the actual city. For example, Buenos Aires, for all its glitzy, cosmopolitan glamour, has a bus station that is as skeezy and unattractive as the rest of them. The basement flower felt like the catacombs of Snape’s dungeon, the concrete walls and floors were uninviting and cold, and the open doors allowed for the occasional stray dog or beggar child to wander freely. Meanwhile, random unassuming cities tucked in the middle of nowhere like Neuquen have inexplicably clean, immaculately kept stations that provide a pleasant surprise for travelers who have the privilege of passing through to use their facilities. 

Perhaps the only features accurately represented by the station are the city’s size and popularity among travelers.  To begin, Buenos Aires’ massive tri-level station has an elaborate color-coded system of dividing gates and ticket agents by regional sectors based on the destination. For example, if you were bound for Tucumán, you would head towards the “Northwest Argentina” zone (orange, I believe), which is then subdivided according to different bus companies. This system is further complicated during off-peak hours, when you arrive at your target location, only to find a sign taped to the window directing you to a sister counter in another zone. It’s not unlike arriving at your gate at the airport, only to find that the waiting area for your flight has been moved to the terminal on the other side—the only difference being that none of the bus stations have the handy golf cart drivers, moving floors, or underground shuttle systems that can expedite the commute. About the closest thing I have encountered to that level of technological convenience is that Cordoba, Argentina’s next largest city, has escalators connecting some of its floors (but just some of them). This behemoth station is a four-story monstrosity with a labyrinthine design that does little to facilitate its high traffic. Instead, I found myself in a maddening cycle of crossing bridges, going up and down stairs, following arrows, and essentially finding myself back where I started – it felt like being in a living Escher painting. This mayhem is compounded by the fact that despite its size, there is very little diversity among the sectors. It’s an endless cycle of the exact same cafes and restaurants with the exact same signs, with waiters wearing the exact same uniforms, serving the exact same food. Needless to say, after hours of travelling and sleep deprivation, it is easy to get disoriented.

Cordoba's station is like a less Inception-y version of this 
Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, you have the cities that are too small to justify a central bus terminal. Usually there are only a handful of bus companies that pass through, so they will drop you off directly at their ticketing station. There is rarely a waiting area or information desk (or bathroom!), so you’re on your own as far as finding your way into the city, getting food, finding housing, etc. Some of the routes which primarily serve locals go one step further. Rather than having an actual building which serves as a station, there is just a desultory bench or decrepit little tin structure on the side of the road. Occasionally, I have seen passengers who flag down the bus from places on the highway which are completely unmarked. I have yet to figure out what establishes these locations as actual “stops,” and fortunately, I have never been put in the situation to find out.

El Bolson bus "station" 
As hinted at before, however, due to the freak cold snap that swept through Argentina in July, I was forced to spend my first night at a bus station.  The irony of the story, however, is that we didn’t technically have to sleep there. All the buses for that night were suspended, that fact wasn’t changing. What surprised me, however, was that the bus companies and conductors were generously offering passengers the chance to sleep on the heated bus. Seeing as how the initial plan was to take an overnight bus anyway (not to mention that we were already experts at the fine art of bus-dozing), that offer did not seem like an altogether awful compromise.  It was actually much better than expected, and we had every intention of accepting this plan.
We just wanted to eat dinner first. And again, wonders never cease, the bus companies were providing hot meals for all the passengers who were stranded at the station. Most of the passengers were just eating on the bus, but having just freshly arrived from an earlier bus, we decided to stretch our legs and make ourselves comfortable in the station's restobar. July 19th was el Día de los Amigos (seriously, any excuse for a holiday here), and we thought that our companionship was worth celebrating. Plus, we just really wanted a drink. So we thought a bottle of beer and a little dessert would be a fine accompaniment to our respectable little TV dinner of stir-fried rice.
Our Friendship Dinner
If I had the choice to pick a city in Argentina to be stuck in for the night, Esquel (population 28,000) would not have been at the top of my list. This observation is based on the fact that aside from the casino down the street, the restaurant in the bus station bar may have been one of the more happening places to be. The café was a fairly large room, complete with a projector screen, audio equipment, tacky Christmas lights, and a chalkboard that promised live music on Thursdays (alas it was a Monday). Nevertheless, the atmosphere was much upbeat than your average bus station, and infinitely better than being stuck in a bus full of sleeping babies. Initially, the plan was to strategically exhaust ourselves in order to pass out on the bus. It was working splendidly - we were laughing and enjoying eachother’s company, we were well-fed and in high-spirits, plus we had the luxury of using a normal-sized bathroom whenever we wanted. At about 2:30 AM we finally decide to turn in for the night and head to our bus. It was then that realized that we had been locked out. What we hadn’t considered was that it was only the passengers who would be sleeping on the bus-- not the drivers. Miscalculation. The other passengers couldn’t have let us in if they wanted to. With no other options, we headed back to the station, picked a spot away from the windows, spread our blanket on the floor, put on as many layers as possible, secured our backpacks to a nearby bench,  and lay down for some fitful, chilly sleep. 
We spent the night under that bench
All things considered, we made the best of a bad situation, and truth be told, it could have been much, much worse. Although neighboring cities like Bariloche and El Bolson had more going for them touristically, their open air bus stations would have forced us to find hostels for the night. That said, sleeping on the floor of a bus station (even one with a roof and doors) is just another of those romantic, rugged, thrilling backpacker fantasies that gets you some marginal street cred among other travelers. Once you cross it off your bucket list, though, you never really have a desire to repeat it. 

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Bussing it throughout Argentina

As promised, after logging over 150 hours of bus travel (and counting!), I can comfortably say that I’ve become an expert at bussing through Argentina.  I have experienced every level of “bus,” which has become a fluid term, since it includes everything from a modest 10-seater van which took us from Rio Gallegos to El Calafate to the Marga bus which ended up boarding a ferry to cross the Strait of Magellan:

As I started writing, I quickly realized that the variety and breadth of these experiences could not be encapsulated in just one post. As such, I'm taking a page from my food post, and splitting this entry into a three-part series (sort of like a Horcrux, only not the consummation of all that is evil and unholy). Over the next few days, I hope to shed some insight on one of the most fundamental aspects of traveling in Argentina, while hopefully dropping some amusing anecdotes along the way. 

Part 1: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

When the buses are good, they’re awesome.  When they’re bad, they can be miserable. Anybody who's traveled knows that the smallest complications (delays, feeling under the weather, forgetting your camera, etc) can affect your perception of the company, and it can often difficult to separate those issues from a genuinely bad experience with the busline/airline/travel agency itself. Nevertheless, I have endeavored break it down as objectively and honestly as possible. 

  • Good: A standard long-distance bus ride with servicios usually provides food at the appropriate mealtime. Some bus companies have provided pretty solid offerings, including a protein entrée, a side of bread or rice, dessert, and occasionally a beverage. If the bus times don't necessarily fall during mealtime, they may still offer a snack box or drink. 
  • Bad: Some cheaper companies settle for really stale vacuum-packed ham and cheese sandwiches on processed white bread which just leave you thirstier than when you left. 
  • Ugly: It can often be unpredictable in what situations they will serve food. The very same company that served some of the best bus food I have eaten also left us starving on the 14 hour ride from Trelew to Rio Gallegos. Foolishly, with each passing bus stop, we refrained from purchasing a snack because we thought to ourselves, “Surely they must feed us soon.” Silly us.

  • Good: Interestingly, the seats are classified by angle of recline. The standard “economy” seat is a semi-cama (semi-bed), which reclines so the passenger can sleep in a semi-prone position. I have never really experienced problems sleeping in this position, but then again, I’m short enough to fit in the seat. If you are willing to spend a few extra pesos (I’m talking roughly the equivalent of $5USD), you may get a full cama which unfolds into a completely horizontal position. In this regard, an executive or first class bus is luxury when it comes to leg room, comfort, and cushiness. An advantage to the cheap seats is that they are on the top tier of the buses.  If you buy your tickets in advance, there's a good chance you can get a front seat with a little extra leg room and a fantastic view. 

Front row seats
  • Bad: The complete disregard for any semblance temperature control. In the summer, the buses are almost always about 10º too cold, resulting in my wearing a laughable number of layers for a tropical climate.
    Entirely too many layers for a visit to Iguazu in May
  • Ugly: During my first long distance ride to Resistencia (about 12 hours from Tucumán), it was uncharacteristically rainy throughout the entire country, and it rained the entire ride. It was as if a storm cloud was following me all the way to my next destination. Since I wasn't driving,  this would normally be a minor inconvenience at most, if not for the small problem of the leaking ceiling dripping cold rain water over my head.

  • Good: Some rides are timed remarkably well, so there are very few moments of idle dead time where you’re staring blankly out the window or sleeping for lack of anything else to do. During these rides, the conductor keeps a steady cycle of meals, movies, and the occasional game of bus bingo to keep our circadian rhythms as normal as humanly possible. In particular, some of the bus rides have showed some very high quality boot-legged movies, including blockbusters like “Sherlock Holmes” and Academy Award winners like “Hurt Locker” and "Blind Side." 
  • Bad: If the conductor can’t be bothered to turn on the DVD player, they will turn off the lights at 8PM and expect you to sleep until morning. 
  • Ugly: Some of the awful straight-to-DVD movies that they wouldn’t even bother releasing in the US, normally starring either Rob Schneider or Michael Jai White. 

Bus Stops
  • Good: Long-distance buses usually make several stops along the route. On an overnight bus, a considerate bus line might turn on the lights when they approach a major bus station, so people who will be disembarking know to wake up and start gathering their belongings. A particularly attentive conductor may even announce the stop for people too disoriented and groggy to notice their surroundings. An exceptional conductor will announce exactly how many minutes the bus will hang out in case you need to make a bathroom or snack run. 
  • Bad: Not knowing which stop you are at (bus stations are often unmarked), and out of fear of missing your stop, being forced you to stay awake for several hours, straining to catch a kilometer marker or some city sign to orient yourself. 
  • Ugly: Not knowing whether the bus is stopping for a break, to refuel, or to drop somebody off and being so paranoid about being left behind, that you end up holding and waiting when you really, really, need to use the bathroom.

  • Good: A bus originating from your destination, so it departs on time and arrives relatively close to the ETA (approximately within 15 or 30 minutes). 
  • Bad: Mechanical or electrical problems that cause you to be stuck in the Resistencia bus station for 3 hours, after only having traveled 17 kilometers. 
  • Ugly: A 24-hour transportation strike on the day you were originally planning to travel from San Juan to Bariloche: the longest leg of your journey (approximately 16 hours)in which you had bought the tickets a week in advance in anticipation of high season.  
A noble fleet of buses