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San Gil to Santa Marta Bus Scam in Colombia

This is an outline of a Copetran bus line scam that is pulled on tourists wanting to travel from San Gil to Santa Marta, Colombia. When you make your purchase to travel this route on Copetran you are given a ticke that says “Santa Marta” — exactly as it should — with the info that [...]

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This is an outline of a Copetran bus line scam that is pulled on tourists wanting to travel from San Gil to Santa Marta, Colombia. When you make your purchase to travel this route on Copetran you are given a ticke that says “Santa Marta” — exactly as it should — with the info that you need to change buses in Cienaga. But when you go to board this bus the company pulls your Santa Marta ticket and prints out a new one for you that simply says “Cienaga” with a price printed on it that is lower than what you actually paid. Needless to say, when you arrive in Cienaga there is no connection to Santa Marta waiting for you. The following is the story of one way to beat this scam.

SAN GIL, Colombia- “Trust me, just trust me,” spoke the driver of the Copetran bus in San Gil as we boarded, “I will take you to Santa Marta.” A traveler quickly learns that whenever someone tells you that you should trust them what they actually are saying is that they intend to f##k you. We were entering into a tourist scam played out by Copetran bus lines.

Don’t believe what people say travel tip

Copetran Bus

Earlier that day:

As the bus terminal in San Gil is located a cab ride outside of the city, the bus companies will come around to the hostels and hotels to sell tickets to tourists. For two weeks I watched as the girl managing the Santander Aleman hostel would call up the bus companies and facilitate the sale of tickets for the various guests. It was always a smooth transaction, though the prices being charged seemed overtly expensive. 75,000 pesos was often the cost of a bus ticket from San Gil to Santa Marta being sold though these means.

It was my plan to just walk or take a cab to the bus terminal on our day of departure and barter down the ticket price for the 12 hour ride to Santa Marta, but when the hostel worker told me that she could score us tickets fo 55,000 pesos each I could not object. She called a bus company and an hour later a man appeared with our tickets. I inspected them, they both had “San Gil” and “Santa Marta” written upon them. We were told that we would just have to change buses in Cienaga. No problem. Looked good. We paid.

When we arrived at the bus station we found that our bus was late. For some reason, our ticket seemed to confuse the terminal attendants when I showed it to them inquiring as to when the bus was coming. They often had to ask the Copetran — the company our tickets were for — attendant directly about our bus. This was funny, as it has been my experience that nearly all the reps knew the bus schedules for all the buses coming in and out of the terminals where they worked. I was beginning to sense that something was askance about our tickets.

Copetran logo

When our bus finally arrived, a Copetran bus rep called us over, pulled our tickets, then lead us over to a bus, telling the driver that we were going to “Santa Marta.” When the bus driver appeared confused by our destination, the ruse was up: something was f’cked. The Copetran rep who took our tickets quickly ran into the company’s office. My wife gave chase. After loading on our luggage I followed.

[adsense]Inside the Copetran office, my wife was arguing with a group of bus drivers, ticket vendors, and other workers. They had pinched our ticket and printed us out another. “We need this ticket,” one of them spoke with finality as he stuffed our Santa Marta chit into his pocket and printed us out another. What he handed us did not have our destination printed upon it, but the word “Cienaga,” the place we were suppose to transfer to another bus for Santa Marta. The new tickets also had a purchase price of 45,000 pesos on them — 10,000 less than what we paid for the Santa Marta ticket.

What was to happen was clear from the start: the bus company would sell tickets to tourist bound for Santa Marta but drop them off at the cross roads at Cienaga. Few tourists plan on going to Cienaga, we all want to go to Santa Marta. Copetran tours seems to know this and responds accordingly.

Mirrors and smokescreen.

My wife questioned the driver about our new tickets, which now had another destination printed upon them. He told her to trust him, that he would take us to Santa Marta. There could be no fighting beyond this — perhaps this was some sort of standard policy, what do we know? It was evening, we were all packed up, or gear loaded into the bus. We knew was was going to happen, but shrugged and got on the bus anyway — we would take care of this in Cienaga.

In Bucaramanga — Copetran’s base of operations — our bus pulled in for a layover. The bus next to ours had a placard for Santa Marta printed upon it. I asked the driver if my bus was going to Santa Marta as well, and he said that he did not think it was. My bus was bound for Cartagena via Cienaga. I told him that I had purchased a ticket for Santa Marta. This driver then walked over to the driver of my bus and asked what was going on. The slick haired captain gave him a sly smile and said something that I could not hear. The Santa Marta bus driver then gave out a big laugh of understanding — “Claro, claro,” and shrugged as he walked by me.

I knew beyond doubt at this point that trust was not to be the order of the day.

I woke up in the morning to find another driver conducting the bus — a normal move on long journeys. Preparing for what was to come, at first opportunity I told the driver that we had purchased tickets for Santa Marta and expected to be delivered there. He rudely grunted.


In Cienaga, we were dropped off on the side of a traffic congested road. There was no terminal, nowhere to transfer buses, no Copetran shuttle to complete our journey to Santa Marta. There was only a mob of taxi men and rickshaw drivers yelling out, “Santa Marta? Santa Marta?” We were to be dropped off here short of our destination.

“We were scammed,” my wife said in defeat.


As the driver unloaded the passenger’s luggage who were departing at this stop, I made for the buses doorway. I firmly set up my blockade. When the driver returned I made my ultimatum clear: either pay for our transport to Santa Marta or you don’t get back on your own bus.

Opting to shell out a handful of pesos than fighting me in the street, he conceded to my demand. Extremely angry, though compliant, he lead us across the road, flagged down a minibus going to Santa Marta and paid our fare.

How to beat this scam without hard arm tactics

  1. Never ever, ever, ever, ever buy a ticket for anything through the cooperation of a hotel or tourist agency that you can go directly to the source and purchase yourself. We had the manager of our hostel facilitate our ticket purchase because she had become our friend and said that she could get us a cheap price. This is not our standard operating procedure, nor should it be yours. By hiding behind the frock of tourism you show that you are ripe to be scammed.
  2. Research your route ahead of time. Be weary of any “transfers” that are said to be included in the price of your ticket — it is much too easy for a bus to just drop you off on the side of the road and leave you in the dust at the crossroads. If suspicious about a transfer, buy one ticket to where the bus routes intersect then another to your destination.
  3. Don’t allow a bus company to pull your ticket and give you one for another destination. If this happens, be sure to get a refund in advance for the difference in price.
  4. Never trust anyone who says “trust me” over and over again.


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Filed under: Bus Travel, Colombia, South America, Transportation

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

13 comments… add one

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  • Jasmine September 30, 2011, 9:43 am

    I feel so bad for you guys that you’re having the luck that you are. I’ve never heard of this bus line, Copetran, and have never heard of hostels buying bus tickets for guests or even offering to help. For anyone else who reads this, I would say just avoid the middle man completely and go to the bus terminal. There should also never be a transfer between popular destinations like that. Between pueblos, yeah, but San Gil to Santa Marta? Definitely not.

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    • Wade Shepard October 1, 2011, 8:49 pm

      Hello Jasmine,

      The bus routes are little strange around those parts. From what I could tell, to get from San Gil to Santa Marta you have to either go to Bucaramanga or Cienaga first. It is strange, no? When I showed my “Santa Marta” ticket around to the bus reps, they looked at it like I made it up myself.

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  • Boram April 10, 2012, 4:45 am

    While I was reading your article, I pissed off to colombians who deciebing you and your wife.
    But fianlly you guys got to Santa Marta well… even there were many accidents.
    By the way, what if a woman is travelling to Santa marta from Sangil, the only certain way to get the ticket is buying at San gil terminal???
    The article is supposed to show the price and where exactly can get them.
    Sorry if i read it wrong, but hope you anwer my question! Thanks.

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    • Wade Shepard April 10, 2012, 9:51 pm

      Yeah, I imagine this could piss off some Colombians, or at least be a little embarrassing. The thing is that I paid less for these tickets than if I went to the bus station and bought them myself. Don’t know what to recommend here, maybe just buy a ticket to Cienaga and then taking a minibus to Santa Marta or maybe going to Bucaramanga first and then getting a ticket to Santa Marta. The bus from San Gil goes through here anyway.

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  • Boram April 17, 2012, 9:39 am

    Thanks for recommends! I am actually going to Colombia in October! But I guess you and your wife aren’t in Colombia. But anyway thanks and you made my day!

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  • ALEJANDRA OCHOA April 30, 2012, 5:43 pm

    Good afternoon, my name is Alexandra, is not a scam by the hostel, we really want is help with a better rate for the host, in exchange for providing the best handle an agreement servicios.Solo empresarial.realmente what happened was workers caused by the bus company, the hostel at any time want to cause problems, you must call the hostel for the hostel to talk with the company about what happened and make the necessary corrections. Sorry for the inconvenience that I present. we did not know .. we learn so far …….. needs to communicate all this time to make corrections. apology from the hostel, we had never submitted a enconveniente with transport companies, thank you very much.

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    • Wade Shepard April 30, 2012, 9:00 pm

      I know it wasn’t a scam by the hostel. I said in the article that the worker at the hostel got us a discounted price — she helped us. The blame falls on the bus company.

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  • Arianwen July 7, 2012, 3:31 pm

    Thanks for this warning. I’ll be in Colombia in a couple of weeks and plan on doing the same journey. I hope they don’t try anything with me as I’m not very good at arguing with angry foreign bus drivers!

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  • Britany March 2, 2013, 6:22 pm

    So glad I came across this piece while researching which bus to take tonight from Santa Marta to San Gil — won’t be Copetran!

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  • Adventures With Will April 4, 2013, 12:23 pm

    It’s pretty common for them to transfer you when you arrive in Cienaga. I don’t know of any companies that go direct from San Gil to Santa Marta. I just recently did the trip with Berlinas and they transferred me onto a local bus, it was a pit of a pain in the butt but I don’t think strong arming them like you did was worth the risk.

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  • Steven Vandersmissen July 15, 2015, 11:36 pm


    We are in Colombia right now and kind of got scammed by a bus company. I say kind of beause it was more like stealing. We were in Bucaramanga and wanted to go to Barrichara, you can get there via San Gil.
    We chose the local San Gil bus company.
    We asked the time of departure and price. There were 2 employees in the booth. The one behind the computer told us it was 30.000 pesos (combined price for 2 persons as stated in many guides and a placque in the office) and gave us a paper to write down our names. I took out 30.000 pesos and put it on the counter.
    After filling out our names they started a conversation about how we had to transfer to another bus in San Gil to get to Barichara. Before this conversation started the employee behind the computer had already taken the 30.000 pesos and put it in the breast pocket of his shirt.
    After the filling in of our names and the friendly informative talk about the bus change in San Gil the employee behind the computer gave us a ticket which stated 30.000 pesos and asked us for another 30.000 pesos.

    To make this story shorter, they just took our many and said they didn’t receive any and that we were crazy, we went to the police in the terminal who were very helpfull and off course couldn’t do anything because it was their word against ours.

    I thought this was just totally retarded, it’s not even a scam they just take your many and then say what money? Nothing you can do to avoid this. Totally ruined my trust in Colombian bus services.

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    • Steven Vandersmissen July 15, 2015, 11:41 pm

      Cotra an Gil was the bus company

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