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Bus

The main way to get around Colombia, buses range from tightly packed colectivos (shared minibuses or taxis) to comfortable, air-conditioned, long-distance buses, and connect nearly every town in the country. Buses are the principal means of intercity travel, and go just about everywhere. Most long-distance intercity buses are more comfortable than your average coach-class airplane seat, and the overnight buses sometimes have business-class-sized seats. Wi-fi is now pretty much standard on nicer buses (though it's often patchy or doesn't work at all). A word of warning: many Colombian bus drivers turn the air‑con up to arctic temperatures. Wear a sweater, a beanie and gloves, or better yet, bring a blanket. Bus drivers also tend to crank up the music and/or action movie (dubbed in Spanish) on the TV, even in the middle of the night. You may like to travel with earplugs.

It is common for buses to stop at requisas (military checkpoints), even in the dead of night. The soldiers at checkpoints will ask everyone to get off the bus, check everyone's identification, and then pat people down. They may look through your bags but often ignore foreigners altogether.

Long-distance buses stop for meals, but not necessarily at mealtimes; it depends on when the driver is hungry or when the bus gets to a restaurant that has an arrangement with the bus company.

All intercity buses depart from and arrive at a terminal de pasajeros (passenger terminal). Every city has such a terminal, usually outside the city center, but always linked to it by local transportation. Bogotá is the most important bus transportation hub in Colombia, handling buses to just about every area of the country.

The highway speed limit in Colombia is 80km/h, and bus companies are obliged to put a large speedometer at the front of the cabin, so passengers can see how fast the bus is going (although in practice they are often broken or disabled). Bus company offices are also required by law to post their accident/fatality statistics at the ticket counter, which can give you a good idea of their safety record.

Types of Bus

Most intercity buses are air-conditioned and have good legroom. On shorter routes (less than four hours), smaller busetas ply their trade. There are sometimes also vans, which cost more but are faster although far from comfortable. In remote country areas, where the roads are bad, ancient chivas (a truck with a wooden carriage on the back with open rows of seats rather than a center isle) service smaller towns, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. The fastest service is called Super Directo.

Feature: Chivas

The chiva is a Disneyland-style vehicle that was Colombia's principal means of road transportation several decades ago. Also called bus de escalera (which roughly translated means 'bus of stairs,' referring to the stairs along the side) in some regions, the chiva is a piece of popular art on wheels. The body is made almost entirely of wood and has wooden benches rather than seats, with each bench accessible from the outside. The body of the bus is painted with colorful decorative patterns, each different, with a main painting on the back. There are home-bred artists who specialize in painting chivas. Ceramic miniatures of chivas are found in just about every Colombian handicraft shop.

Today, chivas have almost disappeared from main roads, but they still play an important role on back roads between small towns and villages. There are still a few thousand of them and they are most common in Antioquia, Cauca, the Zona Cafetera, Huila, Nariño and on the Caribbean coast. Chivas take both passengers and any kind of cargo, animals included. If the interior is already completely packed, the roof is used for everything and everybody that doesn't fit inside.

Nighttime city tours in chivas are organized by travel agents in most large cities and have become a popular form of entertainment. There is normally a DJ, and sometimes even a band, on board playing loud music, and a large stock of aguardiente (anise-flavored liquor) to create the proper atmosphere. The tour usually includes some popular nightspots and can be great fun.

Costs

Bus travel is reasonably cheap in Colombia. Bus prices can be negotiable outside of peak holiday times although the agent often already quotes the discounted fare to ward off the competition – for this reason it's often cheaper to purchase tickets at the terminal than online. Try your luck with a polite 'Hay discuento?' (Is there a discount?) or 'Cual es el minimo?' (What is the minimum?), then work your way down the counters. You want to take the second-to-cheapest offer; there's usually something wrong with the cheapest bus.

When you get on a bus out on the road, you pay the fare to the ayudante (driver's sidekick). Ayudantes are usually honest, but it's worth knowing the actual fare beforehand to be sure you're not getting a gringo price.

Reservations

Outside of peak holiday periods (like Christmas and Easter), reservations are not needed. Just rock up to the bus station an hour before you want to leave and grab the first bus going. On some minor routes, where there are only a few departures a day, it's worth considering buying your ticket several hours before the scheduled departure.

A common trick, especially with smaller buses, is to say they only need one passenger to leave, then they lock your bag in the back and you end up waiting an hour for the bus to leave, watching other buses leave before you do. Don't get into the bus or pay until you see the driver start the engine and prepare to leave.