The best bus ride in the world

Long bus rides are an inevitable part of travelling around South America. You get used to them; you eat the plastic tasting food, drink the tepid coffee, watch the often inappropriately violent movie and you try not to whinge  when you end up in a cramped seat that forces your knees up under your chin. The less said about the contortionist/balancing act that goes on in the bathrooms the better. Yes, bus rides are something to be endured – with gritted teeth, earplugs and sleeping tablets – they are never to be enjoyed.

But then there is always an exception and the bus ride from Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile, is one. The seven-hour bus journey take a route through the Andes mountain range, providing passengers breath-taking views of the landscape. After speaking to some fellow travellers A and I decided that we might aim for front row seats so we would have the best view. We had no idea how good a view that would be.

As soon as we left Mendoza and headed west on the Trans-Andean Highway, a gorgeous panorama of wineries, snow-capped mountains and a cloudless blue sky unfolded before us. It was stunning. As we travelled closer, and eventually through, the mountains their grandeur became ever more apparent. For the first three hours of the bus ride we did nothing but stare out of the window, transfixed at the scenery. Books, crosswords, ipods were all forgotten – they were unnecessary.

The actual border crossing in the middle of the mountains was he most scenis I’ve ever passed through. The fact that we had to wait nearly an hour to cross was actually a welcome delay; it gave us time to tramp about in the snow and take pictures.

The scenery on the other side was just as beautiful, until the fields gave way to the streets of Santiago. It was the most memorable bus journey I’ve ever had and I really don’t expect it to be topped anytime soon. It was as good as any organised tour and, actually, we found out that some people run organised tours that follow an almost identical route,at least up the to base of the Andes. I genuinely feel sorry for anyone who ended up paying the tour prices for this.

A place to lay our weary heads

Most of the time when we are travelling, we plan ahead. We research the hostels in the towns we are heading to and we book them online well before we arrive. We don’t rock up to a town without a place to lay our weary heads. Most of the time.

But dodgy internet connections and combined with a rather relaxed attitude about our next destination saw A and I leave El Salvador on a bus destined for Managua, capital of Nicaragua, without knowing where we were going to stay. We had some addresses of hostels scratched down, but that was about it. We’ll be right, we thought.

The bus ride was supposed to be an 11 hour bus ride, which would see us arrive at the late but still reasonable hour of 10pm. So we board the bus and settle in for a long and fairly uneventful bus ride, entertained by various movies in Spanish.

It was at the borders that things got held up. First at the El Salvador-Honduran border, things were very slow. Then later, at the Honduran-Nicaraguan border, for no apparent reason our bus was left waiting for about 45 minutes, about 20m from the border. We knew we were delayed, but didn’t think too much of it. We’ll be right.

For whatever reason, the bus did not make good time, and combined with the delays we found ourselves outside the Managua bus station at 12.30am. We had no idea where we had been dropped and there was no map we could lay our hands on, but then at that time walking anywhere in an unfamiliar city was out of the question. There was no taxi in sight, but then even if there was, we had no local currency. The only thing we had was $5 US between us.

We were starting to resign ourselves to spending a night curled up in the bus station waiting room, before we chanced upon an English couple who had managed to find a taxi. They had a booking at a hostel, the taxi driver knew where it was and we were welcome to share the cab.

We cruised through the sketchy looking streets, and eventually pulled up outside their hostel. Except it was shut for the night, and reception were not answering the bell. Our driver volunteered another place nearby, which proved to be shut, and then another, also shut.

Eventually we found a place – god knows where – that was willing to give us a room. While I am so very grateful the hotel owner did in fact take us in, I have to say it was the worst place I have ever laid my weary head. I could go on for some time about the cracked windows and peeling paint and the fact that the toilet was in the room, hidden behind a crumbling. But really what made me cringe was the fact that there was blood on my sheets. Not a lot – no, it wasn’t a murder scene – but enough for me to recognise it and just shudder. I was on the verge of throwing a tantrum (I do that when I am tired – doesn’t everyone?) but sucked it up and went to bed instead.

The next morning we were up and out early, in search of food and a cash machine. I thought that perhaps I had judged the neighbourhood harshly, everything looks a bit scary in the dead of night right? Well this place looked just as scary in the day. Rubble, rubbish and just general debris littered the roads and the pavements, traffic screamed around the streets and the place just looked dodgy.

We found breakfast, found the cash machine – stashed the money in our underwear – and headed back to the hotel. On the way back I was more jumpy than usual when carrying money, I just felt like I had a big red target painted on my back. At one point I saw a man headed towards us and saw him carrying something long and slim in his hand.

A knife! He’s going to use it to mug us!

No over-active brain it’s not a knife, it’s a screwdriver.

A screwdriver! He’s going to use it to mug us!

Except he didn’t – of course he didn’t – he didn’t even glance at us and we got back to the hotel with zero problems. Within half an hour we packed, paid up and got the hell out of there.

We were on the collectivo on the way to Leon when I mentioned to A that I thought that was the worst place we had stayed on this trip, recounting the blood on the sheets.

“Yeah, well there was something else too,” he said. “When you went to the bathroom, I put my bag on the bed to get some stuff out, and about three or four cockroaches ran out from under my pillow. I didn’t tell you, cause you were already on the verge of a tantrum, and there was no way we were moving. So I just didn’t mention it.”

Awesome. Next time I’m sleeping at the bus station.