Argentina is blessed with an elaborate public transportation system of long-haul intercity buses. In this vast country, people apparently think nothing of hopping on a bus and heading out for ten, twelve, even twenty-two hours across the Pampas or the wide open spaces of Patagonia.
When I heard that there is a regular schedule of high-end overnight “executive” service buses featuring “Cama Suites” with lay-flat seats similar to those found in first-class airline cabins, I was intrigued. I’m a great fan of overnight train travel and have sampled a wide variety of rolling stock, so I was curious to see how a bus would compare.
With the perhaps grudging consent of the beautiful and mysterious woman I travel with, I booked roundtrip passage to Mendoza, Argentina’s wine capital, a thirteen-hour journey with a one-way fare of about $100. Surprisingly, perhaps, in this day and age, there was little in-depth description of the experience available online, so I was uncertain what awaited us.
We arrived at Buenos Aires’ enormous Terminal de Omnibuses to a scene that was familiar from our travels in Mexico, just larger and tidier. There is a bewildering number and variety of buses arriving and departing at all hours and it seems no bus occupies a “plataforma” for more than about twenty minutes before loading up, heading out, and making room for the next.
We had chosen Andesmar, which I was told has a reputation as one of the country’s better carriers. I spotted an Andesmar office and was directed to the “sector” from which our bus would depart. TV monitors are regularly updated with information on which bus will depart from which platform. Departures are seldom announced more than fifteen minutes or so before the scheduled departure time. From what I saw, they do a remarkable job of staying on schedule.
Our bus was a spiffy blue double-decked monster and the check in routine is down to a science: show your ticket, proceed down the platform to check your bags in the bus’ luggage compartment (a two peso tip seems to be standard), then board the bus and find your assigned seat. Ours were on the upper level, which seems to be the preferred location.
The bottom level contains a large compartment for the driver, his assistant (do they catnap and trade off during the night?) and, I’m assuming, the bus’ steward. Of course, this level also houses the passenger entryway in which are located the single restroom (closer to what you’d find on a train than a plane) and the steward’s station. Behind this is seating, but I never got a look back there as the curtains are usually drawn tight. Immediately to your right as you enter is a narrow staircase that leads to the upper level.
The thirty seats on the upper level (there are six downstairs) are widely spaced in a two-one configuration across the aisle. The word “suite” used by many companies is somewhat misleading; seats are exposed to their neighbors as they would be on any bus, although curtains can be used to provide some screening if not absolute privacy when it comes time for “lights out.”
On board service is much like you would find on an airline with some notable differences. Both trips started with a game of Andesmar Bingo, led by the bus’ single steward, with a bottle of Norton Chardonnay as the prize.
Afterwards there are two movies viewed on overhead monitors, spaced in such a way that your ability to watch and enjoy is somewhat determined by where you are sitting. All the fare we saw was American with Spanish subtitles.
Unlike present-day airlines, Andesmar serves honest to God meals, dinner and breakfast. Dinner consists of two courses, a cold starter and a hot entrée. The good news is that there is complimentary wine, courtesy of Norton, and champagne to end the meal.
The bad news is that the food is awful to the point of being inedible. It made me think fondly of those long-ago airline meals that we used to hate. Remember? On the other hand, they provide cute little bibs that airlines might be wise to adopt. Bringing your own food aboard is not much of an option since storage space is at a minimum. Our solution was to plan a very late, very full lunch before the return trip. I would encourage you to do the same; then you can treat the meal service as a science experiment.
When it’s time to call it a night the seats actually do lie flat and the curtains cleverly Velcro together to block out most of light from street lamps and passing traffic. Still, I found that a sleep mask was a good idea. Pillows and blankets are provided. Remember when airlines did that?
Partitions between seats keep the feet of the person behind you at a respectable distance from your head. I’m five feet nine and it seems like that’s the upper limit for stretching out completely; anyone taller might feel somewhat cramped. Even so, the sleeping accommodations struck me as almost as comfortable as the first-class airplane digs that brought us to Buenos Aires. Andesmar’s buses are scrupulously clean and the service was attentive and professional.
That’s not to say the sleeping experience is ideal. There are bumps in the road, occasional mid-trip problems resulting, on our return trip, in loud banging, and balky air conditioning that can leave you bathed in sweat. Use your own self-knowledge of how well you sleep on planes to judge how you’ll fare on one of these buses.
These long-distance night buses are an excellent option for those touring Argentina on a budget, combining as they do transportation and one night’s lodging, with two lousy meals thrown in for lagniappe. If the first-class service offered by Andesmar and others is too rich for your blood, there are other options, such as “semi-cama” (literally “semi-bed”). You can even sit up all night if you’re on a backpacker’s budget.
Bus travel can be booked online at www.andesmar.com. To use this service, your Visa card will have to be enrolled in the Verified by Visa program. Or you can use the services of a Buenos Aires travel agent; the one we used charged a 30 peso fee (about US$7.50) per person. The advantage of using a travel agent is that they will be able to guide you toward a line that will meet your quality standards. Ours even placed us in the front row of the upper floor; these are the primo seats on these buses for the panoramic view they provide. That service alone was more than worth the modest fee.