The longest regularly scheduled bus ride in he world runs between Lima and Rio de Janeiro, covering more than 6000km by road. This is like getting on a bus in Amsterdam and getting off in… China. Or driving from San Francisco to Miami via New York. Or from San Francisco to Panama City. Or from Johannesburg to Khartoum.
Ormeño runs the service once a week, in each direction, and requests a staggering 280USD. The price not detrimental to its popularity, the bus was already nearly fully booked, five days before departure. The fact that budget airlines still have a long way to go on the South American continent has a lot deal to do with that.
After an excellent two weeks in Peru with Natalia, my original plan was to fly to Panama, cross the Darien Gap, visit Venezuela and Guyana, and then make it back to Brazil.
The Darien Gap is where Colombia and Panama meet. Once one country, the US managed to split it apart in order to be able to take firmer control of the Panama Canal.
This, notwithstanding the fact that what now is the border area between the two countries is a difficult no-man’s land to cross. On the Panama side, it’s mountainous, on the Colombian side, it’s thick tropical forest with lots of swamps. And, for the last few decades, the FARC had their hideout in this part of Colombia.
The FARC has moved on, but now, as an eco system, even the UN strongly advises against closing gap between the two sections of the PanAmerican highway, which, almost, connects Alaska with Ushuaia, the southern tip of the South American continent.
I wanted to cross the Darien Gap by land. Or rather, I wanted to hop from port to port, by speed boat, from the northern Panama coast, to Turbo, a seedy little town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
Most travellers go south to north and most then takes a plane after arriving just across the border, in Puerto Obaldia. My plan was to not take a plane at all and, probably, start in the port of Carti, making my way down.
But, talking with a representative of the port at Carti, I was told that no one really travels a meaningfully distance, south from Carti.
Wikivoyage possibly covers it best:
At the time of writing, a guy called Dagoberto was arranging trips to Mulatupo o Sasardi or El Porvenir or Miramar (where there are airports) for negotiable prices. Typically he asks for $50 to Miramar. He is a thirtysomething black guy who rides his mountain bike around town, and will seek you out shortly after you arrive in Puerto Obaldia. He was not around in April 2010.
It seems going north to south is quite a bit more cumbersome, the journey only getting easier from Puerto Obaldia onwards.
Then, as I originally had wanted to visit Venezuela and Guyana, I would have needed a decent amount of time for these two countries. Annoyingly, the border between these two is closed, due to a territorial conflict, meaning to travel between the two countries requires making a hop through the north of Brazil.
And then I would still have to get back home. Brazil is big, and distances are yuge. While, within Brazil, budget airlines do exist to a certain extent, getting affordable fares is often a pain, particularly in the short term.
Now, while my workload was starting to get a bit stacked for the period up to early September, roughly the period I had planned to be away, I decided to cut my trip short and was looking at ways to still cross the Darien Gap but to skip Venezuela and Guyana, for now.
Colombia, Peru and Brazil meet at a point on a tributary of the Amazon river. From here, it’s possible to slowly move downstream towards Belém, or, to fly wherever suits you. Air travel within Colombia is cheap, so I was considering flying to Leticia, on the Colombian side of where the three countries meet, and then flying from Tabatinga, on the Brazilian side, to Sao Paulo or Rio.
Azul covers this route and, when booked in advance enough, Tabatinga to Rio can be had for as little as 120 USD. Now, picking just the right date, I would be stuck with 300 USD or as much as more than double that. While I also still quite possibly would have no choice but to fly from Panama to Puerto Obaldia, as opposed to taking speedboats down the coast, for lack of these being available.
I decided I needed to look for an alternative.
Budget airlines don’t really cover cross-country connections well, in South America, though Sky Airline, based in Santiago, is an exception. For a while, they were connecting Sao Paulo with the Chilean capital for as little as 100 USD, though Sky cancelled that line two years ago. Now, still, Lima to Santiago can be had for under 120 USD, Santiago to Montevideo for as little as 50 USD. But, Sky no longer connects to a city conveniently located for Sao Paulo or Rio. Alternatives, on this short notice, between Lima and Brazil, fares were quoted at between 500 and 1000 USD, all more than the round trip Natalia had gotten from Sao Paulo to Lima.
I decided to take…
Ormeño has been running the Lima to Sao Paulo connection for a while and, over time, being able to get away with it, has slowly increased the price to an unreasonable level. Recently, apparently after realising the resounding success they have on their hands, they made the longest ride even longer, now continuing from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, an extra six hours of travel.
Surprisingly, the longest bus ride in the world only includes one border crossing, between Puerto Maldonado in Peru and Rio Branco in Brazil. I made this crossing a few years ago, but then flew home from Rio Branco, saving myself many hours of near-agony.
But, in case some say that you haven’t really lived if you haven’t experienced the longest bus ride in the world, I figured the right thing to do, now, was to go all the way and be done with it.
A few more years ago, I completed an eight day bus journey between Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, and Kampala, the capital of Uganda. But, here, each day I was on another bus, while each night I slept in a real bed, though some of the hostels and guest houses along the road where, ehm, less attractive than others.
Now, on the scheduled 100 hours+ ride of over 6000km, the only breaks I was going to get were the food stops, as the rather steep fee doesn’t even include on-board snacks. This, while another long ride I took a few years ago, between Santiago, in Chile, and Sao Paulo, saw me being offered both champagne, or rather, bubbly wine, and whiskey. Until I was almost turned back at the Brazilian border by zealous pen-pushers.
The longest bus ride in the world crosses the Andes, visits Nasca, Cusco, the Amazon and the Pantanal, crosses the South American continent from west to east, from Pacific to Atlantic on a highway aptly called the Interoceanica, starts in the home of ceviche and the land of the best food on the continent, and ends in the home of Samba, Rio de Janeiro, and the western hemisphere’s home of, ugh, rice and beans.
On my way
I have left my hotel in Lima. Earlier, I bought a bunch of provisions, but not enough to sustain me for five days. The Peruvian stops along the way will most likely primarily sell reasonable enough chifa, Peruvian Chinese, dishes. On the Brazilian side, on the other hand, we are more likely only to stop at large roadside restaurants. Though they tend to serve a wide array of Brazilian food, typically in addition to burgers, chicken and chips, they are also consistently overpriced and consistently below average quality. I will have to suck it up; street vendors never show up at these places.
I’ve arrived at the nearest rapid bus stop from where I’ll get to my bus terminal.
A few years ago, Lima introduced a rapid bus transport system which improved the public transport situation a lot. More recently, they also started on a metro network that eventually will connect most of the city, including the international airport.
When Natalia left, earlier in the week, we wanted to take the fast bus towards, but not to, the airport. Her luggage was one stroller, which, it turned out, was not allowed on the bus, one of the minders even pointing us to the appropriate sign.
Strangely, in the few days that followed, I no longer was able to find the same sign at any of the bus stations. My luggage is a backpack, but not smaller than Natalia’s stroller. Yet, I had no problem boarding the fast bus.
I’ve arrived at my bus terminal.
All Peruvian long distance busses are privately owned and, though in some cities in Peru, all busses arrive at a joint terminal, in Lima, all companies have their own terminal, most close to the center.
I had arrived just over two hours early. To discover that my bus was already going to leave 4.5 hours late.
This made me wonder whether it was actually arriving from somewhere else, which would mean this might actually not be the longest bus ride in the world. What have I done?!
I’ve walked into a Starbucks.
Peru’s Europeanized elite don’t live in the city center. They unanimously believe it’s a dangerous place. The elite, expats and tourists, all stay along Lima’s coast, in suburbs with gorgeous views over the Pacific, with fancy and expensive cafes and restaurants on every corner, clean streets, malls, business centers and Starbucks. There ate at least 30 Starbucks franchises in Lima alone.
The Ormeño bus terminal is halfway between the city and the coast, roughly on the dividing line between the two, and within striking distance of several fancy malls.
The sockets in the Starbucks are for flat pinned plugs, while virtually all sockets in Peru accommodate both flat and round pin plugs. I use up valuable battery power.
Back at the bus terminal, I confirm the expected departure time hasn’t slipped further. The few functioning sockets that work have all been taken by fellow travelers waiting to leave.
I notice a partially hidden sign claiming the travel time to Sao Paulo is four days and twelve hours, which would make it four days and 18 hours to Rio. Yet, staff earlier gave me an expected travel time of five days and six hours.
I walk into a nearby chifa restaurant and have my favourite chifa dish, pollo saltado.
Peruvian cuisine is easily the best on the continent, with ceviche being the king of Peruvian cuisine. A raw fish dish with the fish having marinated in a lemon sauce for a while. Yet, ceviche is not unique to Peru, all countries on the Pacific seaboard from Mexico to Chile serve their own version. But, not all serve it’s derivative, leche de tigre, tiger’s milk, the sour juice the ceviche is served in.
As I walked around the area close to the bus terminal, I stumbled upon a pyramid. Lima has several pre-Inca pyramids within the city limits, open as museums, but this one wasn’t on my maps.
Earlier, Natalia and I had tried visiting another one, in another part of town, but were barred from entering, as workers were busy fixing electrical issues, leaving the site in the dark. Confused by the loitering secret service, we discovered PPK, the president, lived just behind the pyramid, across the small street from where the electricity point was being fixed.
Back at the bus terminal, the expected departure time hasn’t changed. A darkened bus revving up. Could it be?
The terminal is significantly busier, staff are communally and, one in particular, noisily, snacking on salchipappas, chopped up sausages with chips covered in sauce.
I arrange my things such that I have my backpack, hand luggage, which includes some clothes, including a sweater, and a plastic bag with foods.
The bus for Mendoza and Buenos Aires is announced. Strangely, though this connection goes through Santiago, in Chile, that nation’s capital is not mentioned as a destination. Buenos Aires is a cool 4500km away.
The queue fills up and appears like it will fill the bus.
I check-in my bag. One type of passenger I was expecting were those doing the journey with too much luggage for a plane. Traders, basically. Except, it turns out, all luggage over 20k is charged extra. For Brazil, it’s 2usd per kilo. I suppose Ormeño wants to profit a bit extra from any trader on the route. Related, their international destinations are quoted in dollars while, if you want to pay in local currency, they give quite a bad rate.
Accepting my bag, I notice the clerk jotting down my name on an, as yet, empty list. Am I the only one getting on my bus? Or perhaps the only one going to Rio?
While waiting in the terminal, what seems to be a driver for the bus to Argentina, drags in one of the money changers hanging out on the street in front of the terminal, spending several minutes haggling over a good rate for the 500 dollars he wants to change to local currency.
Another bus rolls onto the premises. The baggage clerk starts loading luggage, including mine.
I notice two German girls that are colourfully dressed; socks, sandals, Thai fisherman pants, sweater. They’re heading to Ecuador.
My bus is called. I get on the bus and it’s empty. No passengers from elsewhere. That means that, indeed, this is…
The bus has two levels. The lower level has three seats per row, with the upper level having four. I wasn’t offered the chance to pick a seat below, implying all were already taken.
Upstairs, I find the seats are a bit narrow, but they recline a long way. Sadly, both reading lights on my side of the isle are broken. There are no power sockets.
The bus slowly fills up.
The bus is less than half full, and we’re leaving. For now, I have both seats on my side of the isle to myself. And three crying children behind me.
There are three non-Peruvians on board: myself, a Brazilian guy, an American woman.
The first film starts to play. But, for the first ten minutes, only on the screen at the front of the bus, not on the screens further back, while I’m near the end of the bus.
We slowly roll through Lima.
We pass the ruins of Pachacamac, on the outskirts of town.
We ride into Pisco.
The bus is so warm, I needed to take off my sweater, and it’s still too hot.
I go in for a nap nap.
We pass the road-side Nazca viewpoint.
We have left the coast road, going inland.
We have been going up the windy roads into the Andes, making slow progress. A few passengers get off in the town of Puquio.
A film starts. All screens now work, but there still is no audio.
The heating has been lowered, I can no longer only where at t-shirt.
Alpacas, vicuñas and lamas have started to appear on the roadside, grazing.
We break for the first time, in Cuycuhua, for an hour.
Just after walking into the restaurant, a big fire erupted in the kitchen. Noticing the multiple gas canisters, realising the chance of a ground-rocking explosion, I ran out, quickly followed by everyone else not willing to risk their lives.
The fire was extinguished shortly after, with water and foam, but then, only chicken soup was available. Mine came with a boiled egg in the soup. Unpeeled.
In the kitchen, one man had skin burns, which, from a distance, appeared horrible, wrapped in plastic foil for protection.
One of the bystanders asked ‘did they use chicken or tomato?’ ‘Tomato’, someone responded.
Then i saw what looked like the horrible skin burns were actually slices of tomato under the plastic wrap. I asked him if he was alright, and he was elated to tell us how he had killed the fire.
We are again on our way.
A film starts. Only the first screen works. No audio.
We take on several passengers in the town of Abancay.
Another film starts. The road out of Abancay is steep and narrow and clogged up by lots of trucks carrying oil and gas.
I finish a book. Meanwhile, the scenery between Abancay and Cusco, deep canyons, is stunning.
I spot snow peaked mountains for the first time
Another film starts. The sun has set, the bus is moving at a slow pace, no longer being able to easily overtake the many cargo hauls traveling into the Andes.
I finish another book. Night has fallen. As much as the heating was set too high the night before, it’s not working at all now, meaning that, as high as we are in the Andes, it quickly is starting to get unpleasantly cold.
The girl behind me, who got on in Abancay, has been on the phone much of the time, but only now for the first time was speaking in a language that’s not Spanish. It sounds vaguely familiar, which would be odd, until I realised I think I hear a faint resemblance to the gutteral sounds of Mongolian. A native language or a speech impediment?
We pull in to the bus station of Cusco. The last two hours, movement had been excruciatingly slow.
We get half an hour at the bus station, which is uncommon, perhaps due to the company still wanting to gain time after their late departure from Lima.
Outside the terminal, I wolf down two sandwiches and take two more with me, now knowing that the three stops per day that I was promised are possibly a fairy tale.
Getting back on the bus, the seat next to me has been taken. Many passengers left, but more got in, including one more foreigner, a French guy, and a few more Brazilians. The bus is now completely booked. Cramped quarters.
Finished another book.
I woke up, the heating back on, while the windows radiate an intense cold.
We stop in Puerto Maldonado, but not at a terminal, just at a gas station. Some people get off. The bus takes it’s time and many think were breaking. They start to get off, but are told to get back on. The bus continues.
The landscape has completely changed, having arrived in the Amazonian basin.
A mere 100 meters down, we stop again, at another gas station. Reluctantly, some start to get off, until almost everyone has left the bus. There is no food, but there is one toilet and one tap.
I asked the driver how long we;re staying here. ‘It’s just for a toilet break’. I ask him when were going to stop for food. ‘At the border’, which is still about four hours away.
I remembered the extra sandwiches I bought last night.
Another film starts playing.
Shortly after, one of the drivers hands out emigration forms, for Peruvians only.
The last film restarts.
There is virtually no traffic between Puerto Maldonado and the border. The scenery is strongly reminiscent of many parts of rural sub Saharan Africa.
We arrive at Peruvian customs.
Everyone had to take out their luggage and each piece is individually inspected.
Pro tip: this is where you can swap dirty and clean clothes, shoes for sandles.
Luggage checked, I’ve moved to the queue for Peruvian passport control.
I grab a Burger, banana chips and beer; who knows when will be the next time we eat, though, after I ask, I’m told it’s in Rio Branco, perhaps six hours driving away.
We cross the Acre river. We’re on Brazilian soil.
The same customs rigamarole on the Brazilian side; luggage is unloaded and we queue up again.
Inspection appears thorough, on both sides, but, on both sides, I left my plastic bag with foods on the bus, which didn’t disturb anyone, even though I got apples and bananas on me, technically, supposedly, not allowed to cross the border.
On the Brazilian side, quite chatty and quite friendly inspectors did prevent some foods from entering the country.
Perhaps it’s all about the immigration equivalent of self identification.
I shifted to the immigration queue.
While in line, keeping an eye on the Peruvians entering Brazil, I notice that many of the Peruvians are entering Brazil for the first time, “visiting friends”. All seem under 25. Possible, but a tad more likely that they will end up working.
Another bus arrived from the Brazilian side, also Ormeño, immigration officials telling the driver to queue up his passengers but to wait until our bus is fully processed.
One of the men checking luggage was wearing glasses with only one leg, the spectacles sitting akimbo on top of his nose. Every so often, he tried adjusting them, with little success.
How did it get this far? Did the glasses only just break? Can’t he get a replacement? Can’t he afford one?
I’m cleared and have officially entered Brazil. To rally the troops, all I need is connectivity on a dying phone battery.
Oddly, plenty of restaurants, shops and money changers on the Peruvian side, none of that on the Brazilian side, even though a little nearby settlement straddles the border area, shared with Bolivia.
Another film starts.
Another film starts.
We stopped at a gas station in a small town, which might be Senador Guiomard. It’s Saturday night, it’s a small town, and it’s a gas station that is open; it’s the center of local nightlife.
All outdoor tables are fully occupied, many empty beers on the ground. Several large cars, with their doors open, are blaring Brazilian ‘modern classics’ from their speakers, entertaining the crowd.
With the passengers, there’s a kind of elated sense of pleasure, Everyone happy they’ve made it into Brazil. One of the Peruvians first-timers asks one of the Brazilians on the bus whether the prices on the water-damaged hamburger menu are in dollars or real.
And that’s all there is, many different types of burgers, and beer. Served by, perhaps, the most successful business in town, the host couple, and their parents; he’s wearing slick clothes and has his hair styled with care, she is dressed as if ready for heading out to the club, though she is the one flipping the burgers.
Outside, one of the biggest beetles I’ve ever seen was, on it’s back, waving his legs at everyone, and sniffed at by one of the resident dogs.
We pull into the terminal at Rio Branco. The Brazilians that got on in Cusco get off.
Were on a boat, ferrying across what I think is the Rio Madeira.
We stop for breakfast a bit outside Porto Velho. Breakfast is limited to fried snacks and egg sandwiches.
My phone, running on fumes, finally has a place to charge.
The scenery has turned to savannah.
Just before we leave, I discover the freely available showers. Too late.
Many of the Peruvians got a sim card.
A new film starts.
Boarding after our break, one of the drivers needed to point out that the on board toilet is only for peeing.
The scenery consists of large farmlands, mostly for cattle. The cows are skinny.
The same film restarts.
The newly started film is stopped and a new film is started.
I finish a book.
The scenery is greener, more hilly, with fewer and smaller farms.
Another film starts.
We make a mock approach to a gas station. The bus pulls in, holds position for ten seconds, pulls out again.
We break, dinner is served buffet style. The husband of the couple running the place is going around the tables to say that they have free WiFi. It didn’t work.
On our way again and, immediately, a new film starts.
As I got on, one of the Peruvian boys asked me when we would get to Sao Paulo. I wavered. ‘Monday or Tuesday?’ “I think, Tuesday”, I say. ‘Morning?’, “I hope!”
I finished a book.
Were in the middle of nowhere. No cellphone coverage, no villages or even individual houses. The sky is clear, the amount of visible stars is stunning.
We break for gas and a toilet stop just outside Cuiaba.
The road has already become much busier, though the majority of traffic is still heavy goods. The stop only has one toilet and no restaurant. Why stop here? And, indeed, before everyone is able to use the bathroom, the drivers usher us back on the bus. Breakfast, we’re told, is twenty minutes onwards.
We stop for breakfast. On the other side of Cuiaba.
Hot tip: bring a towel; this stop, too, has decent showers.
We depart, a new film starts.
Only about 24 hours until sao Paulo. Then another six to Rio.
We hit, what I think is the first, toll road in Brazil. The road is still not great, but they have started to work on doubling the number of lanes, here.
The federal highway police stops the bus. Everyone has to get out with their luggage.
Everyone is lined up and, of course, the grimmest of the officers first asks me where I am coming from and what I was doing in Peru.
The police then check the bus, and, afterwards all the hand luggage.
A new film starts. This is the first film where the audio actually works properly. It’s, like most, dubbed
It’s amazing to me how all passengers are able to do completely nothing for the duration of the journey; they sit and stare, sit and stare. If there’s a film on, they stare at the screen, if there’s no film they stare.
The only exceptions are the kids, who do whatever they like, and their parents, who try to control them.
A new film starts.
We stop at a gas station. One of the drivers tells us there is a problem with the engine.
We leave after an hour. How well did they fix the engine?
We stop again at a roadside restaurant.
Food is not yet available, but the bus again needs to be fixed.
The bus is ‘fixed’ and we are on our way. The drivers claim they believe we’ll be in Sao Paulo around mid day, the next day, though my own estimate is end of the afternoon.
Just after boarding, a new film starts.
I talked to the drivers, and discovered I’m the only one going all the way to Rio.
Another film starts.
On Campo Grande’s ring road, the bus stopped and shut off the engine. The drivers investigate the engine.
We picked someone up at a federal police station.
I finish a book.
We stop for breakfast.
Somewhere the passenger picked up at the federal police post has disappeared.
Just as we leave the trucker stop, a new film starts.
A new film starts.
Another film starts.
Perhaps the film is a stunner, as much of the passengers are laughing often and loudly. Or, it’s the realisation the bus has almost reached its destination.
We pull into the terminal in Sao Paulo. Several of the girls have put on makeup.
Everyone shake hands to wave an almost emotional goodbye.
I’m the only one left.
The bus leaves.
I finish the last of the food and drink I brought from Lima.
The aircon is set to way too high. I’m freezing.
We stop for food. The place is a ‘Graal’, a popular Brazilian chain of trucker stops. Competent, but after Peru and western Brazil, painfully expensive.
I finish a book.
We arrive at the Rio bus terminal. I get out, touch the ground. I have finished…
Having walked over to the local bus station, waiting for a bus to my suburb, it leaves for the last stretch.