Buses in Colombia

Buses are the workhorse of the Colombian transportation system, and if you want to see Colombia, you will certainly take a couple of bus rides along your travels. There is no train system in Colombia, and car rental is expensive and impractical given the rental rates, frightfully high gas prices, and pricey tolls.

At best in Colombia, you will find bus fares that cost around $4.000 ($2) an hour. On the most expensive end, you'll find fares that cost $8.000 ($4) an hour. Colombian bus travel is moderately priced; it's quite a bit more expensive than neighboring Ecuador and Peru, but not as expensive as in Argentina or Brazil, for example.

Remember that fares go up quite a bit during high season: In Colombia this typically means around Christmas, Semana Santa, and "puentes"...special holidays when most Colombians have the following Monday off, resulting in a three day weekend.

Prices, along with everything else in Colombia, seem to increase quite a bit year over year.

The good news about Colombian buses is that they are plentiful, and there usually is a good deal of competition for the routes, which holds down prices. Routes bewteen Bogota and Medellin, Medellin and Cali, and Cali and Bogota, for example, will offer numerous buses leaving every hour (and sometimes even half hour), with anywhere from three to half a dozen companies competing for the route.

Bus fares are somewhat negotiable, and if you speak Spanish, it never hurts to politely ask for a reduced fare: Be reasonable with your request. For example, if the woman at the taquilla (ticket window) tells you that a bus is leaving from Bogota to Medellin and it costs $60.000, you could politely ask if she could sell it to you for $50.000. Don't push your luck, though, by offering something ridiculous, like $30.000. A 10% or 20% discount is what you should look for (and often you'll get it).

Your best bet is to show up early, and inquire at every ticket window about the next available buses and prices. Make sure to always ask if there is a bathroom, television, and air conditioning on the bus. Quality can vary quite a bit. If possible, ask if you can see a picture of the bus, and always ask how many hours the route will take. Bear in mind, though, that land transportation is very unpredictable in Colombia. With frequent traffick jams, landslides, and even the occasional strike or political protest shutting down the highways (especially in the Coffee Zone if the coffee workers' union goes on strike), you never know what you are going to get.

For that reason, this gringo recommends flying wherever possible. A very good strategy is to travel by bus on short intervals, making stops along the way, and then catch a cheap flight back to connect with your international flight back home. For example, you could start out in Medellin, catch a bus to Manizales, stop in Pereira, head to Salento to see the Valle de Cocora, and then continue on to Cali. After a few days in Cali, you might head south to Popayan, continue on to Pasto, and end up at the border in Ipiales. From there you could fly back to Medellin to catch your flight out of the country.

The good news is that with strategic use of a combination of buses and planes, you really can see all of the important parts of Colombia, and on a very reasonable budget!




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