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The Bus Ride From Hell: Bogota to Guican in 14 Hours

You would think I’d know better by now.

But apparently I’m a slow learner. It’s not as though I haven’t already done three long bus rides in South America – including one that was 16 hours long. But those bus rides were in Chile and Argentina – where the buses have leather seats like a business class seat on an airplane. They recline. They’re roomy. And they allow you to see outside.

Not so – on my recent bus ride from Bogota to Guican – now regarded by me as the BUS RIDE FROM HELL.

If I’d been smart I would have re-read my 30 tips for long distance bus rides – before getting on the bus. We all need a little refresher if we haven’t been traveling in countries where travel isn’t as straight forward as it usually is in North America.

"One of Colombia's very uncomfortable buses"

One of Colombia’s very uncomfortable buses

The bus ride was the one big unknown with regards to our Colombia trip. We knew we had to get to Guican – the gateway town for hiking in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy – from Bogota. There were two options – a supposed 10-12 hour bus ride OR an expensive trip by private car that would take about nine hours.

So in the interests of saving money and absorbing some local flavour we chose to travel to Guican by bus. Just getting information was painful. There are confusing websites and the individual bus lines don’t have websites. Fortunately Rodrigo our guide let us know that the bus companies to choose from were Fundadores, Concorde and Libertadores – though Libertadores only goes overnight.

"Bumpy parts - where for hours you can't go more than 30 km/h"

Bumpy parts of the road – where for hours you can’t go more than 30 km/h

We also weren’t sure if we should buy a ticket ahead of time – but that would have been a lot of work and as it turns out unnecessary. But to be on the safe side we made our way to the Main Bus Terminal in Bogota – a huge, sprawling affair – an hour before our 6 am bus was scheduled to leave.

If you know what bus company you’re using then it’s a snap to buy a ticket. But there are dozens of bus companies so that information is very useful to have beforehand. Buying our ticket took seconds. It is not possible to purchase tickets online. To be on the safe side bring cash for the tickets. Ours were only about $US 25 one way.

"Buses in Guican waiting for the next load of passengers"

Buses in Guican waiting for the next load of passengers

You might be wondering by now what made this bus ride the bus ride from hell.

A number of things:

  • Even though there is a washroom on the bus, it doesn’t work and I have heard that is the case on all buses these days in Colombia (please correct me if I’m wrong). So you have to find a bathroom in one of the small towns along the way. That can be time consuming and you never quite know if the bus will leave without you. In fact I had to hold the bus back from leaving as John hadn’t returned when the driver was about to pull away. (Don’t forget to bring your own toilet paper and small change in case you have to pay to use the facilities.)
  • John and I had both started taking Diamox the morning we left for Guican. It’s a drug that does wonders to prevent and alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness.  But one of the side effects is that it acts as a diuretic so you have to pee A LOT. And you’re supposed to drink a lot but that wasn’t going to happen on this bus ride. So if you choose to go by bus, do not start taking Diamox until you get to Guican.
  • The windows on our bus had a darkened section – which I’m sure is helpful in the hotter, sunny regions, but it prevented you from seeing out properly. There was always a line in the middle of your vision. And it was very annoying.
  • The seats are wildly uncomfortable. If you do recline them and someone is behind you they quite literally have no room. The seats go back to within one inch of the seat behind so being jammed is a problem. The one bit of good news is that for a few hours here and there we would get two seats to ourselves.
  • If you didn’t bring noise cancelling headphones then you are in for 14 hours of non-stop, repetitive music. And some of it was the squeaky, disco type that was just about as bad as fingernails on chalkboards.
  • If the bus gets crowded then kids go on mother’s laps and you could end up seating three people where there should only be two.
  • The roads after Tunja are potholed, washed out, broken down and a mess. Expect to go no more than 30 kilometers per hour as a top speed for at least four hours. It took us in a car on the return four hours to do 140 kilometers.
  • The drive, though beautiful, takes you through country that is rife with landslides. If it’s raining which it was for us for the last few hours, try not to obsess about the fact that the bus might just be thrown over a cliff in a very real landslide. There are numerous signs that speak to the geological faults in the area. And sometimes in rainy season the road can be closed for DAYS.
  • Keep your expectations in check. I was counting on arriving in Guican in 10 hours. When 4 pm rolled by and I found out how far away we still were I almost went into shock. Plan on the trip being 14 hours.
  • The bus is a milk run. Anyone can flag it down over the entire route. So there is loads of stopping and starting and loading of bags.
  • Food and drinks are best bought in quantity in Bogota. That way you won’t be worrying about the bus pulling away without you. We ate a few bars we had and that was about it. When we arrived in Guican the restaurant had closed so other than a hunk of cheese and a piece of bread we had nothing else to eat all day.

But there are a few good things about the bus ride I should mention.

"Gorgeous sunset over the mountains about three hours from Guican"

Gorgeous sunset over the mountains about three hours from Guican

The scenery is stunning once you get past Tunja. Deeply incised valleys, tall mountains and even glacier views can be seen. And you get a taste of what the rural life is like in Colombia. People on the bus were friendly and helpful and in fact in the last hour I pulled out my computer and entertained kids and adults with photos of Canada.

The rest of the photos are taken on our return trip – done from the comfort of a car. There was no way you could pay me to do the trip by bus back to Bogota – especially since we would have arrived back in Bogota in the middle of the night.

"The pretty town of Susacon at about the half way point"

The pretty town of Susacon at about the half way point

"Rural scenes and hilly country"

Rural scenes and hilly country

"You see lots of laundry drying"

You see lots of laundry drying

"Rooster chained to a restaurant door"

Rooster chained to a restaurant door

"Biking seemed popular on weekends"

Biking seemed popular on weekends

"Just hanging out in small town Colombia"

Just hanging out in small town Colombia

"Big, puffy white storm clouds"

Incredible cloud formations

"A stop to pick up a couple of these corn and cheese pancakes"

A stop to pick up a couple of these corn and cheese pancakes

"Fruit for sale from a road side stop"

Fruit for sale from a road side stop

"A statue I believe of Santiago Botero - a mountains winner in the Tour du France in 2000"

A statue I believe is of Santiago Botero – a mountains winner in the Tour du France in 2000

Would you concur and call this the bus ride from hell?

Leigh McAdam

HikeBikeTravel
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Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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Join the discussion 31 Comments

  • Jessi says:

    Thanks so much for the insight! Are there any other cheap-ish modes of travel from Bogota to Guican or other Colombian cities that you might recommend? I’m traveling in March/April. Thx again!

  • Well, the corn and cheese pancakes look pretty amazing! So does the gorgeous scenery. Love your photos of real life in rural and small town Colombia. It does indeed sound like a miserable trip, but you got to Guican safe and sound — and we get to read about your adventures.

  • Gillian @OneGiantStep says:

    I don’t love doing the long bus rides, but I always love looking back on them; they’re always an experience!! Great pictures as always Leigh!

    • @Gillian Long bus rides do give you the sense of a country – and that was the reason for taking one in the first place. I’m very happy though that we didn’t have to do the return by bus. A private car felt like heaven and 9 hours was a piece of cake.

  • I think all of us travelers have the bus trip from hell story. Mine came from Thailand to Cambodia. The first three hours from Bangkok to the Cambodian border I had the three seats in the back to myself and the bus was A/C. I think having it so good just made the rest of the trip that much worse. It was a complete nightmare the moment we stepped into Cambodia. The best and most memorable experiences are the ones that were not so fun at the time.

  • This was quite an unforgettable experience for you and John, Leigh! I agree it does sound like the bus ride from hell. Your mere mention of “try not to obsess about the fact that the bus might just be thrown over a cliff in a very real landslide” was enough to give me goosebumps. I would never have made it through this bus ride. Glad you made it safely. The rural setting looks wonderful from your car ride though.

    • @Mary I did look at all the steep terrain we passed beneath and took note of all the landslides from the past and just hoped we’d be lucky to get through in one piece. Fortunately as you can see we were.

  • I couldn’t do 16 hours on a good bus. But at least you got a good story out of it!

  • James Abroad says:

    Wow! That does sound rough.. but if you made it there safely I’d say it was a success.. and the photos you took along the way .. what beautiful country side!

    I’ve been thinking about taking the ‘tica bus’ all the way from Mexico through Central America to Panama and can only imagine how tiring that will be :)

  • hue says:

    the statue said it was Santiago Botero? I don’t think he is, since Botero is from Antioquia. it was probably one of the many famous Boyacense cyclists. Colombia has had a lot of famous cyclists running the main European competitions for decades.

    sorry for bad English.

  • Laurel says:

    You brought back so many bus ride from hell memories and yes I would say this one qualifies, heck “14 hour bus ride” in itself qualifies, without the other stuff, but the lack of toilet and bad/loud music really tops it.

  • Peter Lee says:

    I think 14 hours are too long for a bus travel but you made it, Bravo!!. I can not adjust more than 5-6 hours. I agree that outside view is beautiful but I would love to cover this way with a bike. Was there any dealer who can offer you bike on rent??

  • Agness says:

    The scenery is just unreal and your bus rocks!

  • Without a doubt, Leigh! The darkened windows would make me feel blind as I like to see where I’m going. The seats would be next on my list. Having to pee A LOT would be the end of me — I’d probably be still in Colombia trying to get back home. Glad you made it so you could pass on this info. You got some fantastic shots, though! Thank you!!

  • Sophie says:

    Sounds like an interesting experience, to say the least. Memorable though, no? And not exactly boring…

  • Michael says:

    That all sounded like a nightmare. If there have been alternatives and it would be a choice of traveling by bus for 10 hours or paying 2x or even 3x as much for a more comfortable option, I’d pay. It’s not fun travelling even by train for more than 6 hours, much less in a bus.

  • Peter says:

    Leigh….It is quite a trip! I enjoyed the return bus trip so much more than the overnight BOG to El Cocuy….wonderful people and spectacular views.
    Think about it this way….One could be sitting in a metal tube at 10,000 meters looking at the seatback in front and dreaming of eating ANYTHING :) Give me the bus!!!! Enjoyed meeting you and John. Peter (The US Doc)

    • @Peter Thank YOU so much for dropping by my blog. It was a real pleasure to meet you – and what a privilege to spend the night in that refuge rather than a tent.John and I did wonder how far you ended up hiking. Magnificent area isn’t it.
      PS We got a ride from our guide back to Bogota – and what a treat that was. Wonder when you’ll be returning to Bogota. I’ve now just returned from backpacking the mountains in the high Arctic.

  • Marinela says:

    I can really really feel your pain, after many years of living in South America and having had probably more than just one bus ride from hell!

  • Emily says:

    Hi Leigh!
    Thank you for posting this! How did you decide which of the 3 bus companies to use? Was it just whichever had a bus running at a time that fit your schedule? Thanks!

  • Happy bus rider says:

    That is what happen in every bus ride in developing countries and the reason why I love them. It’s great to feel you are just one more local for the length of the ride rather than a wealthy tourist. Locals are so welcoming on buses! I had the most amazing experiences on buses. Those downsides you listed are really not downsides. Locals put up with that every day. We’re very fortunate to live in Canada after all. It’s easy to avoid “hell” rides: stick to comfort trips within North America and Europe. There is nothing wrong with that :)

    • @Happy bus rider The scenery was outstanding but with my husband on Diamox (a diuretic for altitude) and very few bathroom breaks he was certainly uncomfortable. I agree that it is a great way to interact with locals. I had a great solo experience in Tanzania with bus breakdowns, tardiness, no way to contact people but it sure made it an adventure.

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