The Bus to Pasto

Pop quiz: You're a bus driver, driving a large, touring bus full of passengers. You're traversing mountainous terrain with sharp turns, no guardrails, and steep inclines on a two lane road. It is pitch black outside. You approach a slow moving semi, which is actually behind another semi. Do you:

  1. Wait for a stretch of straight road on which to pass
  2. Wait for the semis to separate and pass them one at a time, waiting for the one immediately in front of you to move the the right as much as possible
  3. Wait for a tight turn and begin your pass of BOTH semis immediately after its completion, regardless of the fact that the next tight turn is only 300 feet ahead of you and a similar bus is likely to come barreling around the corner at any moment causing a horrific accident and the abrupt end to the lives of all on board

If you picked C, you're a winner. You get nothing.

We just finished up a 20 hour bus trip from Bogota to Pasto, a town about 1.5 hours from the Colombia/Ecuador border. We're planning to leave Colombia and this was a natural stopping point to rest after the long drive. This isn't about our future plans though, this is about narrow avoidance of death during our 20 hours on the bus.

Traffic in Colombia is… interesting. There are rarely lines on the road, people generally just do as they want, and everyone is seemingly in a constant state of almost getting into an accident. As we left town in our large tour bus, our driver deftly maneuvered in and out of traffic as if he were driving a VW Golf. This was terrifying, but I'd been on worse already and I said to myself, once we get out of the city, onto the open road, all will be well.

Shortly after leaving the city you begin your ascent into the Andean mountains. Our bus had a notice posted that the maximum speed was 80 km/h and had a handy display at the front, visible by all passengers, that indicated the current speed. I can tell you that we quickly learned the display was incapable of showing speeds in excess of 99 km/h, it would just give up and display "Alerta" (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine the meaning of alerta).

As night fell we continued to encounter lots of traffic and it became clear that we would not idly follow these struggling semis, dump trucks, smaller buses, and cars, no, we would overtake them and leave them in our dust. During our time on the road, we were absolutely the fastest moving vehicle and I slept little during the night as our driver time and again would pass vehicles of all kinds. In fact, we probably spent a full 20% of our time in the left lane that was meant to accommodate oncoming traffic. I counted no less than 4 times that we narrowly avoided head on collision.

The journey was nausea inducing, and after 4 hours Jordan and I donned out motion sickness patches to help settle our stomachs. Jordan, not being able to take it any longer, just went to sleep, leaving me awake, fearing that any moment could be my last. As we settled into a lull between mountains I finally fell asleep, only to wake after several hours with more than 8 hours remaining in our journey.

With daybreak came scenery. The drive was beautiful, the mountains stunning. The driving continued, but we became accustomed to the frenetic pace at which we moved through the countryside narrowly avoiding horses, cows, bikers, and of course, other vehicles. Only after we completed the journey did we read that the portion we covered during the night was not considered safe, with armed bandits holding up any bus dumb enough to stop to take on hitchhikers (which are omnipresent throughout).

Luckily, our bus line was the only one with a policy not to pick up hitchhikers. We did at one point encounter small groups of people on either side of the road with a make shift rope, comprised of of rags, spanning the road. As we approached, they raised the rope, presumably so that we would stop and they could rob us. Our driver continued unabated and they dropped the rope at the last minute. A quarter mile ahead, we passed another such obstruction, again at full speed without any sign of stopping.

We arrived is Pasto without major incident. We stopped several times on the trek to assist broken down busses from the same line, we picked up the passengers from one, and helped get another moving after it had overheated. Upon arrival we checked into our hostel and promptly went to sleep at 3 in the afternoon.

I suspect that this isn't our last encounter with harrowing transportation, but it was our first, and will be one to remember. My apologies for the lack of photos in this post, I was too terrified to take any, to make up for it, make sure you catch the stunning views from Monserrate and the Botero Museum in Bogota.