HERE IS A QUICK BREAKDOWN ON ALL THINGS BUS TRAVEL WITHIN COLOMBIA, INCLUDING SOME HELPFUL, ROAD-PROVEN TIPS TO MAKE IT MORE ENJOYABLE - NO MATTER THE DISTANCE.
Buses are by far the most common transportation method throughout Colombia. From the luxury overnight buses that crisscross the country, to the smaller, rough and rowdy chiva buses that trundle down mountain backroads, you can pretty much find a bus heading to every possible destination - no matter the size.
If you are planning to spend some time in Colombia, it is likely you will have your own (memorable) bus experience. So if you are looking to explore the country like the locals (how very slow traveler of you) then keep reading for everything you need to know about using the highly efficient, highly affordable buses in Colombia.
BUS TRAVEL IN COLOMBIA
\\ Buying Tickets
It is luckily super easy to purchase bus tickets in Colombia. In most cases, you can simply show up at the bus station and buy your ticket in person, either for that day or for an upcoming trip. When we decided to leave Cartagena and head to Armenia, we just went down to the bus station, asked around for which companies had routes to Armenia, and then bought the tickets. Super easy.
\\ Route Availability
One of the best parts about Colombia’s bus system is that you can practically reach any city, no matter how small or remote it is.
For example, you can take a bus from Cartagena to Armenia (which is located in the center of the country) and get off at any of the small towns (or random 4-ways) along the way. Plus, because bus travel is so common, you can usually just talk to your driver beforehand and let him know exactly where you need to get off and he will make sure to stop for you. Or, in some cases, you can simply just stand up and ask the driver to let you out, no matter if there is a stop there or not.
Also, buses run quite frequently, especially if you are looking to visit towns nearby. For example, in the town of Armenia you can catch a bus about every 20 minutes to the nearby towns of Filandia, Salento and Circasia. Similarly, you can usually catch a bus within half an hour to towns a bit farther away (like Pereira or Manizales).
And because bus travel is so common, especially for locals, there are often a plethora of bus companies and routes available. If you want to figure out exactly how to reach a specific town, we recommend just heading down to the local bus station and asking around.
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\\ Efficiency & Road Conditions in Colombia
One of the most common questions when it comes to bus travel in Colombia is about the road conditions themselves. In truth, because of Colombia’s relatively rough topography (the Andean Cordillera mountain range stretches along almost the whole length of the country), the roads can be quite rough. Not to mention curvy (we haven’t ridden a bus on a straight road yet).
Plus, because it rains quite a bit, the chance of landslides and flooding is also relatively high. Therefore we suggest taking the quoted travel times more as a possibility, and not as a hard expectation if that makes sense.
Similarly, travel times can change daily even on the same routes. For example, when we took a bus from Armenia to Medellin, it took us 8 hours for the first trip (to Medellin) and 10 hours on the way back. This change in time was largely due to a 2.5 hour hold-up at a construction site working on clearing a landslide.
So in the end, it is better to err on the side of a trip taking longer than expected instead of the quoted time. So if making plans, make sure to give yourself plenty of buffer time just in case the bus hits some issue (like construction or a landslide).
INSIDER TIP: because the roads are quite curvy and rough, we recommend bringing some motion sickness medicine if you are someone who gets car sick easily.
\\ What Does it Cost to Take a Bus in Colombia
Bus travel is often one of the most affordable ways to get around the country, especially if you are only looking to go a short distance. Below are a couple of things to keep in mind when planning a bus trip around Colombia.
BUS PRICES DEPEND ON 3 THINGS
DISTANCE: the closer the destination, the cheaper the fare.
For example: from Armenia to Pereira (30 kilometers) it costs 9900 COP per person. But from Armenia to Medellin (286 kilometers) it cost 70000 COP per person. This is also especially true when taking buses between small towns nearby or within a town itself (the bus in Armenia costs 2100 COP no matter where you are going).
DEPARTURE & ARRIVAL TIMES: more often than not, the cheaper fares occur when either the arrival or departure times are “sub-optimal.” This usually means you either are departing at a super early time (say 3 AM) or arriving at a really early time (say 2 AM).
For example, take a bus ride from Medellin to Cali. The cheapest fares (60000 COP) are connected with buses that leave either at 3 AM or arrive at midnight.
THE STYLE OF BUS: as you might expect, the total cost of a fare also depends on what type of bus you are taking. If you are looking to take a night bus and want to be comfortable, then expect to pay more for a more luxurious bus with seats that almost lay flat and that offer TVs and electrical outlets.
Here are some basic fares to give you an idea on bus prices in Colombia:
MEDELLIN → BOGOTA: 85000 COP ($22.31 USD // €18.97 Euros)
MEDELLIN → CALI: 75000 COP ($19.69 USD // €16.70 Euros)
BOGOTA → CARTAGENA: 105000 COP ($27.56 USD // €23.43 Euros)
BOGOTA → BUCARAMANGA: 70000 COP ($18.37 USD // €15.62 Euros)
CARTAGENA → SANTA MARTA/TAYRONA NP: 48000 COP ($12.60 USD // €10.71 Euros)
CARTAGENA → BARRANQUILLA: 15000-24000 COP (~ $4.50 USD // €4.15 Euros)
CALI → POPAYAN: 30000 COP ($7.87 USD // €6.69 Euros)
While bus travel is definitely more time-consuming than plane travel, more often than not it is going to be cheaper. In the end, the only time plane travel might make more sense is when you are on a tight schedule and need to arrive quickly, or if you simply don’t want to spend hours on a bus.
\\ Common Colombia Bus Companies
There are a ton of bus companies throughout Colombia. From the very local buses that usually only cover a specific area (like a district or "state") to national level companies that often have routes to all the major cities, and even some routes to major cities in other countries (Lima, Peru; Quito, Ecuador).
Here are four of the largest companies that offer tons of routes throughout Colombia.
Expreso Brasilia, founded in 1961, covers almost every part of Colombia (they have over 1000 destinations). Plus, their prices are quite reasonable and definitely on par with other companies.
When booking a bus ticket you also often have the option to choose either an express bus or a premium bus. The express bus is more basic and includes a TV (with a USB outlet), reclining chairs and a bathroom. While the premium buses come with TVs, Wi-Fi, refreshments and movies.
We personally took Expreso Brasilia from Cartagena to Armenia and really enjoyed the ride. The whole trip took around 26 hours and included about a 45-minute break at a nice restaurant for dinner. The seats were relatively comfortable (as comfortable as bus seats can be), and the USB chargers worked on the TVs (though the Wi-Fi didn’t really). Even the bathroom was pretty clean.
MEDELLIN → BOGOTA: 85000 COP, ~11 hours on a Premium bus
BOGOTA → CARTAGENA: 108000 COP, ~22-25 hours on a Premium bus
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Another older bus company in Colombia is Expreso Bolivariano, which was founded in 1956. And just like Expreso Brasilia, this bus company covers approximately 75% of Colombia.
But what really sets them apart is their focus on more luxury buses; including, offering double-decker buses with first-class seats on level one and “comfortable class” seats on level 2. The main differences between the two is that first-class comes with large chairs that almost totally lay flat and include a small table and individual touch screen TVs. Whereas the comfortable class includes normal bus chairs, and something called “environmental screens”. Both also include Wi-Fi, outlets, bathrooms and A/C.
Expreso Bolivariano also offers normal, single-story buses and transit vans for shorter trips.
MEDELLIN → BOGOTA: 75000 COP, ~10 hours
BOGOTA → CARTAGENA: does not service Cartagena
Founded in Medellin roughly 60 years ago, Rapido Ochoa’s first route was actually to the coastal town of Barranquilla (just east of Cartagena). Today, the bus company specializes in covering the most important cities in Colombia, including Medellin, Bogota, Cartagena and Santa Marta.
Many of Rapido Ochoa’s buses include A/C, Wi-Fi, USB chargers, TVs, bathrooms and comfortable seats. Their premium buses (De Primera!) also allow pets (though we expect you need to notify them ahead of time).
While Rapido Ochoa’s fleet is a fair bit smaller than other bus companies, it also offers services such as tour itineraries (one popular tour is around the small towns near Medellin) and parcel shipping services.
MEDELLIN → BOGOTA: 85000 COP, 9 hours
BOGOTA → CARTAGENA: does not service Cartagena
Copetran isn’t just the oldest bus company in Colombia (it was founded in 1942) but it is also one of the best. The first routes began in the Santander district before heading out into the interior of the country, as well as to the Caribbean coast (Cartagena, Barranquilla and Santa Marta).
Today, Copetran’s fleet consists of five types of buses: three with regular services, one luxury and one two-floor bus. The latter of which has amenities such as ergonomic chairs, two bathrooms, Wi-Fi, movies and individual TV screens. Similarly, the company is currently in the process of moving towards being a more logistically-focused company, meaning they will not only offer bus transport but also shipping, storage and distribution services.
MEDELLIN → BOGOTA: 85000 COP, ~9 hours
BOGOTA → CARTAGENA: 105,000 COP, 21-25 hours (Preferential Luxury bus)
\\ Extra Tips for Long Distance Bus Travel in Colombia
| Always bring a jacket with you because the buses can be quite cold, especially at night.
| Similarly, if you are taking an overnight bus, consider bringing a blanket and pillow so it is easier/comfier to sleep.
| Finally, bring earplugs because we found that bus drivers often keep the music playing (loudly) all night long - even at 2 AM...
| Try to sit on the right side of the bus (especially if it is an overnight bus) so you don’t look into cars going the opposite way. At night the lights can be super blinding which definitely makes it harder to sleep.
| As stated earlier, always expect the trip to take longer than stated. Similarly, be prepared for some hold ups for road work.
🏥 TRAVEL INSURANCE
For adventurous digital nomads (including those looking to explore more off-the-beaten-path places and ride the local transportation), we highly recommend signing up and using SafetyWing for all your travel medical insurance needs (including COVID-19 coverage). And don’t worry, policies can still be purchased while already abroad.
Bus travel is super easy in Colombia. And because it is by far the most common form of transportation, you can pretty much reach any city - no matter the size - within the country. We have ridden in buses of all shapes and sizes, from massive, luxury buses for long trips to fully wooden chiva buses blasting cumbia music while bumping along narrow mountain roads.
Riding buses in Colombia is not only efficient and easy, but it is also an adventure in and of itself. So if you are planning to travel around Colombia, we highly recommend using their massive fleet of buses. Plus, it is not only super easy but it is also much better for the planet (#sustainabletravel).
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