All Aboard: Traveling Colombia on a Overnight Bus

I flipped through the pages of a tattered South American travel guide in search of the Colombia section. After spending hours hunched over my laptop working remotely from a tranquil hostel in Cali, Colombia, I needed a break from the screen.

I thumbed through worn pages describing Bogotá, the city I had called home for more than a year. As I read about the museums I had already visited and the restaurants I had dined in, Salsa music floated through the first floor of the hostel. It was a song I was familiar with, but couldn’t sing the words. Over the music, I heard my boyfriend making traditional Venezuelan empanadas for the hostel manager and some of the guests we befriended during our stay. As usual, he banished me from the kitchen because my ineptitude for cooking only slows him down.

One of the two cats that lived in the hostel lazily sauntered by and I continued flipping through pages in the guide book until I found the sub-section devoted to Cali. Several paragraphs discussed Salsa, as Cali is famously dubbed “The Salsa Capital of the World.” It’s a moniker hard to dispute and several hostels in the area where we stayed advertised Salsa lessons. Travelers eagerly handed over their money to learn a few steps, or maybe just to say they took a Salsa class in the Salsa Capital of the World.

The sub-section about Cali advised travelers to fly into and out of the city because driving or riding a bus was very dangerous, especially at night. A check of my phone revealed it was 6 p.m., only three more hours until my boyfriend and I would board an overnight bus back to Bogotá.

It wasn’t the first time I was told riding buses through Colombia, especially at night, was dangerous. I turned to the front of the travel guide and saw the copyright date was 2009. Eight years ago, I thought. A lot can change in eight years, especially in Colombia. I then flipped to the back and found a familiar name credited for authoring the Colombia section. I had never met Richard McColl, but knew we had mutual friends and I was familiar with his work. I wondered if, in 2017, Richard would board an overnight bus from Cali to Bogotá.

I can’t speak for Richard, but I can speak for my past self. When I was traveling around Colombia alone at the beginning of 2016, I most definitely would not have taken an overnight bus to another city. The perils of overnight bus transportation in Colombia were splashed across travel blogs and similar travel guides and those warnings had frightened me into forking over money for plane tickets from Florida to Medellín, then Medellín to Cartagena, Cartagena to Bogotá, Bogotá to Lima, Peru then finally a flight back to Bogotá to look for a job and put down my suitcase. I could have saved hundreds of U.S. dollars back then, but being a young woman traveling alone with broken Spanish, I figured peace of mind was more important than money.

A little more than a year after my flights around Colombia, I had a better grasp on the Spanish language in addition to having a tall, Spanish-speaking man by my side. I hate that having my boyfriend in tow during this trip to Cali inspired me to make bolder choices such as opting to travel by overnight bus rather than a plane, but it’s the truth. At nights, we walked 15 minutes from the local bus stop to our hostel, a move I certainly would not have taken if I were traveling alone. If I was traveling solo, I probably wouldn’t have even used Cali’s public bus system called Mio. I probably would have just taken taxis and Ubers each day of my visit.

I don’t consider these decisions to be overly cautions or dramatic, nor are these safety measures I enact for myself strictly reserved for traveling in Colombia. As someone who was a victim of an attempted street robbery, I would rather avoid any experience where a knife is waved in my face then pointed at my neck again. (It didn’t happen in Colombia and the only reason it was an “attempted robbery” was because I fought back by throwing rocks at the would-be robbers.)

While I was ecstatic to travel to and explore a new city with someone I cared about, the trip to Cali with my boyfriend revealed an ugly truth: it’s more expensive for me to travel alone as a woman. I can’t speak for every solo traveler who identifies with being female, but between flights instead of overnight buses, Ubers instead of local buses and taxis instead of walking at night, I sure saved a lot of money having a guy with me.

It’s not just about the money, though. While traveling in Cali with my boyfriend, I wasn’t constantly looking over my shoulder making sure I wasn’t being followed. I didn’t have to haul all my luggage into the bathroom because he could watch it while I did my business and my hand didn’t hover over my drink to protect it from the possibility of it being spiked.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t turn into a careless buffoon flashing fat wads of American dollars around in the roughest neighborhoods of Cali simply because I had a guy with me. (I don’t even have fat wads of American dollars.) I was still cautious with my valuables and consulted a map before leaving the hostel so we didn’t have to do so on a busy street corner in classic tourist fashion.

I’m also not advocating to only travel with men while in Colombia or anywhere else. On the contrary, I cherish the memories and experiences from traveling alone in Colombia, Peru, Morocco and Japan and I think more women should travel by themselves. But the contrasts I experienced while traveling alone compared to traveling with my boyfriend were so stark. It makes me sad and angry that many solo women travelers must spend extra money, avoid certain activities or limit their clothing choices just to feel safe.

At 8:30 p.m., my boyfriend and I said goodbye to the new friends we had made at the hostel and took a seven-minute taxi ride through Cali’s north side to the bustling bus station. We boarded the double-decker bus with an interior akin to a plane’s first-class section. Twenty-five U.S. dollars each bought us plush leather (okay, probably pleather) seats that reclined and allowed the rider to listen to music or watch movies on individual screens. I dozed off while the enormous bus whizzed through the quite streets of Cali towards the winding mountains that separate Colombia’s first and third-largest cities. About nine hours later, I opened my eyes and saw the dark sky had changed to blue and spotted the familiar local buses of Bogotá out the window.

I smiled thinking of all the destinations I would go to next by way of overnight bus. Times are changing in Colombia, and whether I had a guy with me or not, there was no doubt I would board another bus to explore more of this beautiful country.

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