Unlike their revered, rail-bound cousins, long-distance buses are considered more of a necessary evil than rewarding travel experience. These unsightly, lumbering machines have a reputation for being uncomfortable, unpleasant and tireless champions of the very worst in musical radio.
But, when plying the right route, traversing a country by bus can be a genuine delight, offering penny-pinching travellers a front-row view of the world’s scenic byways and lesser-seen landscapes, as well as granting opportunities to meet memorable characters and tuck in to local delicacies en route.
So strap yourself in and leave your preconceived notions behind, as we embark on a whistle-stop tour of the world’s most beautiful bus rides.
1. Marrakesh to Errachidia, Morocco
The landscapes rolling past the windows along this 300-mile journey tend to transfix travellers in a style usually reserved for mobile phones and film screens; a phenomenon that is fitting given these desert vistas, hemmed by the dramatic Atlas Mountains, have provided the backdrop to countless cinematic encounters, from Lawrence of Arabia to Gladiator to Game of Thrones.
The story of this great voyage begins in the dizzying souks of atmospheric Marrakesh, quickly ramping up in tension as it approaches the High Atlas via the tortuous Tizi n’Tichka pass (2260m). Having meandered along heady mountain trails, the route passes an arid landscape of mudbrick kasbahs and palm groves to Ouarzazate, nicknamed ‘Ouallywood’ for its film studio, where a troop of Berbers, sporting colourful traditional turbans, may join your roving cast. The grand finale is Errachidia, a former French garrison town on the fringe of the Sahara, where sandboarding, camel treks and adventures in the great desert await.
2. New York City to San Francisco, USA
‘Heading out west’ has been the maxim that’s shaped millions of US journeys, from the Dust Bowl migrants to the pleasure-seeking Beat Generation; the iconic image of its favoured son Jack Kerouac pointing his headlights west to the beatnik scene of San Francisco still entices generations of travellers to pack a bag and cross the American heartland in search of adventure.
After leaving the bright lights of the Big Apple, this coast-to-coast pilgrimage can take many forms, but following Kerouac’s trail to ‘Frisco’ requires a stop – and fittingly wild night out – in Denver, the journey’s rough halfway point, where passengers can also stretch stiff limbs hiking in the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. The mammoth three-day Greyhound route, which rolls through the cornfields of Nebraska and deserts of Nevada, also offers optional stop-offs in intriguing, lesser-visited cities such as Pittsburgh, home to an avant-garde art museum in a former mattress warehouse, and Salt Lake City, where you can hear the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform – this overland odyssey really has it all.
Distance: 2902 miles (4670km)
Estimated duration: 75 hours
Top tip: Long-distance aficionados looking for a meatier prospect should consider following this ride up with the once-a-week 100+ hour bus ride from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to Lima in Peru, reputedly the longest single bus journey in the world.
3. Tavistock to Dawlish, England
It has been called the UK’s rarest bus service: the 112 from Tavistock to Dawlish, which crosses the middle of Devon’s stunning Dartmoor National Park, only runs on the fifth Saturday of the month… between April and September. This means that most years committed coach-connoisseurs only have two or three chances to make this journey, which owes its infrequency to being volunteer-run and superseded by more popular routes.
Passengers who are organised or just downright lucky enough to catch the 112 can look forward to an up-close view of Devon’s rolling moorland punctuated by granite tors and herds of Dartmoor ponies. The route passes a string of historic market towns before hitting the coast and trundling into Dawlish, where passengers will have just enough time for a traditional English Sunday roast dinner (cooked meat, potatoes and vegetables with gravy) overlooking the South Devon Coast before catching the equally rare return bus three and a half hours later.
Distance: 37 miles (60km)
Estimated duration: 2 hours
Top tip: The small bus only has 16 seats, so get there early to guarantee your spot – you don’t want to wait for the next service.
4. Kathmandu to Pokhara, Nepal
Anyone who considers the Everest Base Camp Trek Nepal’s greatest challenge should try making this winding route west from the Nepalese capital without seeing their breakfast reappear. The sick bags are handed out at the beginning of this legendary hippy-trail journey, where travellers once rode with their luggage on the roof, a joint clasped tightly between fingers.
At one end of the line is Kathmandu, with its rickshaw-jammed alleyways leading to temple-cluttered Durbar Square, and at the other is the serene alpine lakeside town of Pokhara. It’s only 200km (124 miles) as the danphe flies, but this is the realm of the Himalayas and the rickety bus spends the day spectacularly climbing mountain passes with aqua-blue rivers running far below. Though the views are mesmerising, you’ll be thankful for the occasional rest stop, where – for those who can beat motion-sickness with a monk-like inner-focus – hefty portions of delicious dhal bhat (a selection of curries with boiled rice) are served in rustic restaurants perched on picturesque precipices.
Distance: 127 miles (205km)
Estimated duration: 8 hours
Top tip: Book your lakeside accommodation in Pokhara in advance, and ask your lodge to send someone to guide you through the scrum of hotel touts.
5. Geelong to Apollo Bay, Australia
There’s no need to cough up for a hire car to experience Victoria’s sublime Great Ocean Road, one of the world’s most beautiful coastal journeys. Bus 101 departs from the historical port city of Geelong, just around the bay from Melbourne, and totters along almost half of the famed scenic route, stopping regularly to pick up wide-eyed backpackers and salty-maned surfers – the combination of which often results in a convivial in-vehicle atmosphere.
Sit on the left of the bus to eyeball the stunning coastal scenery, and on the right to marvel at the forested mountains. Along the way you can hop off at glorious stretches of sand such as Bells Beach for a revitalising dip or take a short detour inland to Kennett River to spot koalas and glow worms. Final destination Apollo Bay is well located for further Great Ocean Road explorations, including the iconic Twelve Apostles rock formations.
Distance: 70 miles (112km)
Estimated duration: 2 hours and 30 minutes
Top tip: There are tons of great detours along this route, but foodies should consider splashing out on dinner at Brae, near Lorne, an eatery amid 30 acres of gardens that’s consistently voted the best restaurant in Australia.
6. Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia, Argentina
It’s a trip to the end of the world; that’s the civic motto of Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, and this poetic title sets the tone of this grand journey that’ll have passengers feeling like pioneering explorers as they cross land, sea and international borders on a meandering voyage along the toe of Argentina.
Starting in the busy port town of Rio Gallegos, this bus route crosses the Chilean border, before boarding a ferry to cross the tempestuous Strait of Magellan, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet. While watching the hulking glacial landscapes glide past from the ship’s deck, it’s easy to envisage yourself as a modern Magellan, the strait’s Portuguese namesake, who passed through in 1520. After making port in Patagonia, hop back on the bus to cross the romantically-named Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), a windswept archipelago that’s home to storied shipwrecks and snow-scuffed mountain ranges, before arriving in Ushuaia, where the adventures continue with skiing, scuba diving and potential trips to Antarctica.
Distance: 360 miles (580km)
Estimated duration: 11 hours
Top tip: The meal services on board the ferry are limited so take extra snacks, as well as warm clothes for time spent taking in the surrounds up on deck.
This article was first published in November 2018 and last updated in November 2019.