ANTM Travel Awards: Transportation

With a few small exceptions, the ANTM journey has been completed entirely over land, from the south of Chile up to the border between Honduras and Nicaragua, in Central America. When you’ve got this kind of distance to cover, transit becomes a focal point of the endeavor. We have spent many, many hours on all different types of buses, combis, collectivos—you name it. From the comparatively posh digs of Cruz Del Sur to the ancient school buses of Nicaragua, we’ve seen it all. We’ve met new friends on the bus. We’ve been offered everything from impotence pills to fried fava beans by the legions of roving highway vendors. And yes, there have been chickens. We have shared our ride with chickens, ducks, stray dogs, and anything else you can carry on, shove underneath, or tie on top of a bus. The most shocking and brutal thing we’ve endured? Vin. Freakin. Diesel. Dear gawd, we’ve seen more Vin Diesel films than Momma Diesel herself.

It hasn’t been all so bad, all those hours on the bus. There’s a kind of poetry to the first few moments of each and every ride. There’s a sense of freedom and possibility as you drift on out to the open road, headed to parts unknown. There’s also sadness when you leave a place you truly loved, unsure when—or if—you’ll return. Finally, there’s a wonderful sense of relief when you escape a place you didn’t like.

Ya see, my friend, the rollin’ wheels of the Andean ride is a metaphor for Time itself. If I’m soundin’ too much like my buddy Mr. Phil O’Sophical here, you gotta forgive me, brah. You see, my mind gets to wanderin’ sometimes. It could be that all those . . . long . . . long . . . Uhhh—what was I saying? Oh yeah. It could be that those hours on the bus did somethin’ funny to my mind.

Best Bus Ride
In the majestic land of Patagonia, anything and everything is possible. The time spent looking out the window, allowing our myriad thoughts to run free, was actually . . . yes, I’ll say it . . . fun. That, coupled with the fact that Chilean Patagonia contains some of the most stunning scenery (snow-capped mountains, gushing rivers, storybook skies) we’ve seen in our entire lives, it’s not hard to see why we sat through the journey with our jaws permanently dropped.

Winner: Chaiten to La Junta (Chilean Patagonia)

Best Long-Haul
First things first, let’s be clear about what qualifies as a “long-haul” around here. We’re not talking about a little eight to ten hour jaunt. Long-hauls need to be a minimum of 15 hours, unbroken, on the road. Does 20 hours on a bus sound like a lot to you? Maybe so, maybe not. You see, bus hours need to be measured in accordance with perceived time-lapse. One hour in a steaming hot bus with no bathroom is not the same as an hour marveling at the scenery in a comfortable, climate-controlled luxury cruiser. Best Long-Haul goes to the relatively painless 20-hour ride from Lima to Mancora on Peru’s finest bus company, Cruz Del Sur. We booked a few days ahead, earning the prized seats located in the front of the second deck. Vegetarian meal of tofu and rice? Check! Enough space to sleep sort of comfortably? Yep! Clean (enough) bathroom? Yessir! Granted, they played a Vin Diesel movie . . . but, hey, you can’t have it all. At least it wasn’t so loud that we couldn’t hear our iPods.

Winner: Cruz Del Sur (Lima to Mancora, Peru)

Lowest Bus-Related Moment
We’ve lived a great deal of our lives in the bus. Through laughter and tears, sickness and health, there has always been the bus. Amidst a full-spectrum of human experience, what could possibly have been our lowest bus-related moment? Imagine being stuck in a weird town, forced to wait several days for an available bus on account of a holiday-weekend you had never heard of and a sold-out concert in the town you are headed toward. You check out of your hotel ahead of a 20:00 PM departure, but, with nowhere else to go, you spend all day loitering in the lobby. Finally, at 9:00 PM you take a cab to the bus station, only to discover that something is terribly wrong. The bus left an hour ago! The 20th hour of the day was 8:00 PM. You are a fool. You are screwed.

Loser(s): Us (La Rioja, Argentina)

Worst Long-Haul
As with the Worst Meal Award in our last post, it’s hard to talk about the worst long-haul bus ride. The experience haunts us still. Especially the smell. But I’ll get to that. We had finally gotten on the bus in La Rioja (at 4 AM, mind you) after the mishap the night before (see Lowest Bus-Related Moment) and we were ready—finally ready—to endure the roughly 15 hours on the road to Salta. What could be bad about an AndesMar (like Cruz Del Sur, AndesMar is known for its comfortable seats, bus bingo prizes, clean bathrooms, and so on) trip to a town we were really looking forward to visiting? A lot, it turns out. A lot. First of all, when you get on an overnight bus at four in the morning, no matter how cranked the air-conditioning is, the bus smells rank—like the stalest of morning breath times 35. Gross. Once we settled into our seats and fell awkwardly asleep, we were awoken—frizzy-haired and bleary eyed—just a few hours later by an even fouler smell: farts. Never-ending beef-smelling farts erupting from the rather large guy in the seat behind us. Sorry, folks. I know it’s graphic, but a girl’s gotta talk about what a girl’s gotta talk about in order to aptly describe what we were forced to endure. As if things couldn’t get any worse, just a few hours later, the driver of the bus started pumping Indio Solari’s music at incredibly high volumes throughout the bus, as many of the passengers were on their way to a sold-out concert being held in Salta later that evening. Oh, and did we mention that the teenage dudes seated in the row next to us thought it would be the perfect time to drop a whole bunch of acid while drinking copious amounts of booze? Um, what? Needless to say, when we finally arrived in Salta, we were completely worn out. Not only that, we smelled like stale fried-beef farts. Awesome.

Winner: The “Please Help Me, I’m Being Asphyxiated” Route (La Rioja to Salta, Argentina)

Time I Was Most Convinced the Bus Would Never Arrive
If I am to be 100% honest, I would have to admit that there were many, many times when I thought our bus wouldn’t reach its final destination, and for various reasons. In Bolivia, some of the roads are in such bad shape that the bus often has to literally off-road until it can find a spot where the road is traversable again. Bus jackings and, less frequently, bus bombings have been known to happen in some areas of Ecuador and Colombia. And bus breakdowns? You’re basically guaranteed to get on a bus that eventually breaks down at least once if you’re traveling throughout South or Central America for any extended period of time. Given the sheer number of potential bus snafus liable to take place at any one time, it’s a wonder people actually get anywhere. But the ride that stands out as the time we were most convinced the bus would never arrive was, without a doubt, the journey along THE MOST DEATH-DEFYING ROAD EVER! from Yolosita to Caranavi, Bolivia. Picture a rickety bathroom-less bus packed with smelly people (no air-con), suddenly careening off a cliff and into a jagged-ridged abyss. This, I swore, was our fate. Our final end. It was an actual miracle that we got off the bus unscathed. The reality of the situation is that I spent the majority of the journey lying prostrate along the backseat, my eyes squeezed shut and my headphones in, trying to convince myself that I wasn’t going to puke, while Mark was conversing with a guy seated in the row next to him about coffee-production. Sigh.

Winner: The Road from Yolosita to Caranavi (Bolivia)

Best Bus Snack
One of my favorite . . . OK, really the only thing I like about being stuck on a bus for inordinate, often indeterminable amounts of time, is the legion of snack-vendors that pop on and off the bus at pretty much exactly the right moment. When you’re at your hungriest, you can be rest-assured that your poor, deprived stomach won’t have too long to wait before it’s satiated with any number of treats that seem to magically appear right before your very eyes. While most folks native to South and Central America partake in hilariously large “snacks” like plastic bags filled with roasted chicken and rice, we stuck to the lighter and more-easily-eaten-while-sitting-in-a-cramped-bus-seat fare. In Chile, we ate cheese empanadas. In Bolivia, we became obsessed with roasted fava beans because they were “healthier” (never mind the oil and salt they were slathered in). But the yummiest snack of all was delivered to us in the most delectable form: an ice-cream sandwich. We’re not sure about what flavor the ice-cream was (some sort of chai? orange spice?), but it was stuffed between two “slices” of graham-cracker “crust.” In the time it took for the guy to get from us to the rear of the bus and back up to the front again, we had wolfed our sammies down and ordered two more. They were that good.

Winner: Mysterious Ice-Cream Sandwich (Pereira to Medellin, Colombia)

Best Urban Transportation System
Public transit is an object of fascination for all New Yorkers. Every time I visit another major city, I cannot help but compare their transit system to ours. One technique being employed in capital cities such as Lima and Quito that I would *love* to see in New York is the installation of truly dedicated bus lanes. These express buses are an oasis of calm and order in otherwise chaotic systems dependent on privately operated networks of old, soot-spewing buses. Our favorite system? Medellin. The newly built subway system is the pride of the city and it is treated with a respect most uncommon this side of Zurich. The trains in Medellin are spotlessly clean and always run exactly on time. Medellin is situated in a valley flanked by hills on all sides. As you head up out of the valley, there are newer, generally impoverished neighborhoods rising into the hills. In an effort to integrate these lower-income neighborhoods into the economic pulse of the city, the government constructed cable cars rising high up into the hills. Can you imagine a new transit system being built in the States? How about increased service to low-income neighborhoods in the Bronx? Neither can we. So, with that, we give top honors to Medellin.

Winner: Medellin, Colombia

“Fowlest” Chicken Bus Network
We hesitated a bit before using the term “chicken bus” in one of our posts. The term is used mostly by foreigners to describe the more rundown buses in third-world nations that carry people and their loads of freight to-and-fro. There is something a little bit condescending to this term, since these buses are the only option people have and are preferable to riding in the back of a pick-up truck or just not having enough money to get where you need to go. But, the thing is, what else do you call a bus with soooo many darn chickens in it?

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from riding the bus, it’s that you do not leave your own culture behind. I can’t help it if I don’t like it when somebody puts their bags or—worse yet—themselves on my lap after boarding the bus. As for those chickens? I will admit to enjoying the surreal presence of a duck walking up and down the aisles of our bus to Managua the other day. However, it was not so nice to smell its, well, you-know-what, the rest of trip. Plus, let’s just say the notion of “animal rights” is not quite in the mainstream of public thought—unless, of course, you are referring to the right to board a bus!

We’re big fans of going with the flow, but in the final days of our trip, we are finding that a bit of comfort on our bus rides is very much needed. The irony is that the hardest bus system to cope with has definitely been right here in Nicaragua. There is no under-storage to put your bags, it is relentlessly hot and humid, and they stop every five minutes to shove even *more* people in. The final indignity? Once the bus pulls into the station, the driver gives the entire over-packed bus about three minutes to vacate before abruptly pulling out of the station—usually with Lex and I still inside, fumbling with our stuff. The Nicaraguans themselves are always very nice and I can’t help but feel a little guilty over our visible discomfort when everybody around us just rolls on with nary a frown, complaint, or poor mood among them. But hey, it is what it is, folks.

Bock-B’bock!: Nicaraguan Inter-City Buses


About andesnotthemint

Alexis, Mark, 2 seasons, 1 continent, a very long mountain range.
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