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Colombian Buses – Let Me Explain Why I Despise You

Taganga, Colombia – For the last three weeks my dislike of the buses in Colombia had been growing but I’m done with even trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. Every trip on a bus leaves me disappointed in some way. I have yet to have a bus ride that’s enjoyable and today [...]

Taganga, Colombia –

For the last three weeks my dislike of the buses in Colombia had been growing but I’m done with even trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. Every trip on a bus leaves me disappointed in some way. I have yet to have a bus ride that’s enjoyable and today was the last straw. I have reached the point beyond reason and will start treating these bus companies the same as taxi drivers – like the shady, underhanded, conniving offspring of a used car salesman and a lawyer.

Let me count the ways these buses annoy me.

How Much? Who Knows.

In Bolivia I could haggle over the price of a bus ticket but the prices were usually consistent. When I did pay too much I would over pay by $1 or $2 dollars. They really scammed you if you paid more than $4 above the standard price. On the worst days I still didn’t worry. In Latin America, other than in Argentina and Chile, I expect to pay between $1-$2 per hour of travel. In Colombia I never know what to pay but find myself paying closer to $4 and possibly $5 per hour of bus travel.

That’s after negotiating on prices if it’s possible which is still mostly a mystery to me as to when a bus company will negotiate on the price. Sometimes they just look at me like an idiot for stating a price other than what they gave me. I’m obviously not from Colombia so how am I going to automatically know that 108,000 pesos ($54) for a 13 hour bus ride from Medellin to Cartagena is a stated price and not the first round in a negotiation. It’s certainly high enough to be the starting price of a multi-round negotiation. After getting enough stupid looks I think I’ve figured out a few ways to tell if I can bargain on the price but nothing is ever definite.

Can I Bargain on Colombian Bus Prices?

  • If it’s a minivan shuttle don’t bother. They won’t negotiate.
  • If it’s a minivan shuttle don’t bother. They won’t negotiate.
  • If the sign above the kiosk is old and faded. Negotiate.
  • If the kiosk doesn’t have a computer. Negotiate.
  • If a man in the bus station asks you where your going and then leads you over to a kiosk and states a price. Negotiate and negotiate hard. He is much more willing to negotiate on price than the person behind the counter dealing with several customers at the same time. Aim to get a price around 20-25% off of what he originally states.

This is all really just a big pain for travelers. Colombians give their National ID number and receive the price that I just bargained hard for…if the company was willing to bargain at all. If not, Colombians just pay less. The whole bus ride I’m left wondering if I’ve just paid a good price or was still fleeced.

No Shoulder Room

Why are the width’s of each seat only wide enough for small children? I’m not asking for a seat able to hold the butt of a soccer mom whose eaten a few too many cheeseburgers and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Just wide enough so that my elbows and shoulders aren’t stuck in a person crotch each time they walk down the aisle. With a country that sells as much fried food as Colombia I would think that bus companies would understand the importance of wide seats. Looks like I’m not thinking correctly.

No Leg Room

Colombian buses - no leg room

Here is a perfect example of the lack of leg room in a Colombian bus.

Colombians are some of the tallest Latins I’ve come across outside of Argentina so why are all the buses designed for sub five foot humans? I’ve seen men taller than myself wedge themselves behind a seat and have their knees firmly pressed against the seat in front of them. That is if they decide to stay on the bus. I’ve seen them get on only to look at the seats and get back off again. I knew what they were thinking because I’ve often thought the same. I don’t get off the bus. I just pick the aisle seat so that my legs join my shoulder and elbow in the aisle.

The real fun and arguing begins when someone decides to put their seat back. I’ve never looked at short people with as much envy as I do when I’m sitting on a long bus journey in Colombia.

The Ticket Swap Scam

I don’t know what else to call this scam but it seems like its more than just a coincidence since Wade on Vagabond Journey recently wrote an entry about something similar that has recently also happened to him.

I had purchased a bus ticket to Santa Marta for 30,000 pesos ($15) after negotiating down the original 35,000 pesos price. They wrote S/M on my ticket for the destination and pointed to a bus made in the 1980’s and well past it’s prime. It’s not often you hear locals comment on the crappiness of a bus because they’re usually accustomed to their dilapidation. Not the case on this one.

The ayudante (think bus steward) took my ticket and two hours later we pulled into Baranquilla where I was told to get off the bus and change into another. Ok, this isn’t the first time I’ve paid in advance for a multi-bus trip. Usually you change buses at a bus station but I’ve never had problems before and there were a dozen other buses nearby indicating that this was some type of bus junction.

I got off the bus, stowed my pack in the luggage of the next bus and climbed on board. Shortly thereafter the ayudante asked me to pay. Huh?

I told him that I paid in Cartagena for my fare to Santa Marta. He looked confused and said that he didn’t receive my fare from the bus that dropped me off at which point I told him that that wasn’t my problem. I didn’t pay 30,000 pesos for a two hour bus ride and wasn’t going to pay any more. Once I told him I wasn’t going to pay another fare I had the attention of others on board and the bus driver. The bus driver asked me to pay 10,000 pesos ($5.00) more at which point I lost it.

“I paid in Cartagena to go to Santa Marta! My ticket said I was going to Santa Marta. I paid already and I’m not paying anything else!”

They asked for my ticket which I didn’t have because the other bus took it. I told them that and they continued to tell me to pay 10,000 pesos. We argued this over and over again until the bus driver realized he had the number for the driver of the other bus and gave them a call. The bus driver and the ayudante disappeared for a few minutes and the ayudante returned with my ticket and ‘Bus Transfer’ stamped across it. Whether or not a call was actually made or not I have no clue but afterwards not words or money were ever exchanged between us for the rest of the bus journey.

I’m not sure if this comes down to a legitimate attempt to rip people off or just incredibly bad communication between bus companies. If they are trying to rip off tourists then the first bus seems to be to blame. What I believe is going on is that the first bus in the transfer is preying on travelers who they have pegged as unable to speak Spanish or have at least a limited vocabulary. There hope is that instead of arguing you will hand over a few extra dollars and assume that maybe you really didn’t buy a ticket all the way to your final destination. This way the first bus pockets the money they should have handed over for your fare and the second bus still gets paid. Whatever is going on both Wade and I were on our way to Santa Marta so it seems like more than just a coincidence for this to happen twice in such a short span of time.

What really got to me about this was that I was never told that I needed to change buses so when the ayudante on the first bus took my ticket I thought nothing of it. Usually if you are going to transfer buses they give you some kind of receipt with your final destination on it so you have proof of purchase on your next bus. The main way to avoid this is to make sure you always have some receipt with you and your final destination printed on it. Since the driver and ayudante of the new bus greeted me as I got off and confirmed with the driver of the old bus that I was going to Santa Marta I thought everything had been understood. Maybe it had all been understood but definitely not to my benefit.

It’s a Work in Progress

It doesn’t inspire much confidence when the bus pulls into a town for a fifteen minute break and the driver or ayudante pulls out a tool box and slides beneath the bus to work on something. And yet this is more common than anyone would prefer. Granted, I think it’s more common on the smaller 24 seater buses or the ramshackle things that cruise around the countryside.

Clank, clank, clank. “Try it now!” is heard too often.

I heard that several times today when my bus stopped on the side of the road in a random town and emitted a large, gray cloud of exhaust before sputtering out and dying.

“Try it now!”

Sputter, sputter. Large exhaust cloud. People running away.

So, first I have to negotiate over the ticket price, then they try and swindle me by having me pay for the same ticket price on a bus with no shoulder room or leg room and in the end it breaks down. Normally I might only run up against one or two of these things but today the fates aligned to allow me the opportunity to experience all of them in their glory. How lucky could I be!

I couldn’t take it any longer so I asked for my bag and joined a Colombian couple who were walking away to catch a taxi shuttle to Santa Marta. I had my fill of Colombian buses for one day and wasn’t going to wait an hour or longer for the replacement bus. The 4,000 pesos I paid for the 25 minute shuttle cab into Santa Marta was well worth the price to get away from that bus.

Quality vs. Price

In Colombia I’m happy if I get a ticket for $3.00 per hour and am ecstatic if it’s $2.50 per hour. These prices combined with the bus quality creates the worst quality to price ratio I’ve experienced anywhere in Latin America (Granted, I haven’t been to Brazil or Venezuela to comment on what they have to offer).

No buses are a worse ride than the Chicken buses of Central America but at least you know your going to get a crappy ride before you even set foot on them. No one expects a comfortable ride on an old American school bus that has been driven down to Nicaragua after carting school children around for ten years. And at $0.75 per hour of bus travel you get over the fact that your crammed into a tin can bus, have no leg room and will gladly be shoved up against the side if it means your shoved up against an open window in an otherwise stiflingly hot bus.

The same is true in the opposite way for the buses in Argentina. I never enjoyed paying the amount I paid to take a bus in Argentina but the quality of buses was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in any type of public transport. Only the Germans and their military-like precision could give a more precise approximation of when a twenty hour bus ride will reach it’s final destination (It’s often within 15 minutes of being correct in Argentina).

I have three more weeks of dealing with these buses and can’t wait to find out what great experiences still lie ahead of me.


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Filed under: Colombia, Cubicle Ditcher, Security

About the Author:

Sam Langley left a comfortable and profitable job with an insurance company in the USA to travel the world. He has been going for years, and has not stopped yet. Keep up with his travels on his blog at Cubicle Ditcher. has written 147 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

5 comments… add one

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  • Wade Shepard October 18, 2011, 10:29 pm

    It seems as if that Santa Marta “bus transfer and ticket pull” scam is going strong. This now pretty must confirms that what I experienced a month ago was not an accident or a fluke. Good to hear that you battled through it as well. It is incredibly aggravating to always have to be on guard against not only being charged more for being a tourist but being scammed as well.

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    • Sam October 19, 2011, 10:43 pm

      After a very similar thing happened to me I can’t believe that there is not some kind of scam going on. Aggravating for sure. Maybe my next few rides I’ll have better experiences. haha.

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  • Jasmine October 19, 2011, 2:09 am

    Hi Sam,

    I’m sorry you’re having such bad experiences on Colombian buses. I’ve bussed the entire country from north to south and across several times, in fact I don’t even want to think about how many hours I’ve spent on Colombian buses, but have never had a bad experience. I found the quality to be fine.

    As far as the prices:

    In Ecuador, buses are $1 an hour and gas costs $2 a gallon. In Colombia, gas is almost $5 a gallon and buses are . Yes, bargaining can be a bitch but it’s not unlike haggling for anything else in any country that’s not yours or you haven’t spent much time in, you never do truly know when you are getting hosed or not but that’s part of the travel experience.

    In Mexico, the lowest-class first-class bus, which is comparable to the buses in Colombia, costs around $3 an hour (sample fare Mexico City to Veracruz as seen here: http://www.ticketbus.com.mx/). And gas is a dollar cheaper per gallon here than in Colombia (http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/04/17/sign-of-the-times-drivers-flock-to-mexico-for-cheaper-gas/).

    By the way, when I was traveling across the country with a Colombian, he had to bargain for bus prices just like I did when I was traveling alone, it was not a simple matter of handing over his national ID number, which wasn’t even done until a price was agreed upon. Colombians probably bargain more than any other Latin American country I’ve been to, it’s a part of life for everyone and the best way to deal with it is just to chill out and not take it personally.

    FYI, never buy a transfer ticket in Colombia, it’s just not done. Especially from Taganga. It should always be done per journey, buying the next ticket at the corresponding bus station, not in advance.

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  • Jasmine October 19, 2011, 2:30 am

    Also, another thing I forget to mention. You say tourists pay more than locals like it’s such a disgusting thing to do, but it happens all over the world and is common practice. In Bali, I have to pay to rent on a lounge chair when locals can sit on them for free as long as no one is waiting from them. In Tobago, tours to Buccoo Reef are clearly stated with having much lower prices for tourists as locals. Hell, even in my own state of Florida, us residents get discounts on Disney theme park passes. Even one of the most famous names in the tourism industry gives locals a different price than tourists.

    Most visitors to Colombia are not long-term travelers like you or me, but rather they are there for a couple of weeks or a month, have money to blow, and don’t give two shits about paying $1 more per hour on a bus.

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  • julane jones October 20, 2011, 7:40 am

    i totally agree with you on the price/value/hassle level of colombian buses. Comparable in “shitty quality” to Guatemalan buses without the “fun” factor of people watching. In Guatemala all we needed to do was ask a local how much we should pay …with only one exception did we struggle to get the local price.

    ironically, we did get a lower price on our bus from Popayan to San Agustin with a computer printed ticket. Verdict is because we bought it one day in advance.

    happy travels. we were told by so many friends to go to santa marta.

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