You haven’t truly experienced Latin America until you’ve spent the better part of fours crammed onto a school bus next to a man who seems to be explaining the finer aspects of the two chickens on his lap. It helps if he is speaking in a language that you have never even heard of and if, according to his friend who speaks only a bit of English, he thinks you are fat.
For the sustainable traveler, public transportation is the way to go. The benefits are abundant. By using public transportation we can help protect the environment, support the local economy, and better understand the places we are visiting. Of course, traveling around Latin America is not without its challenges. Given the lack of train service, taking the bus is about your only option. The roads are often poorly maintained, traffic laws are treated more like friendly advice and driving schools seem to specialize in stunt driving. It is a safe bet that the local drivers are more familiar with the roads than you are, so if you are going to do any distance travel, the bus is a safer option.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of buses, local or city buses and long distance carriers. The local buses are a personal favorite. The buses might not be as well maintained as in western cities, but most of the people on the bus are people going to and from work, doing their shopping and visiting friends. City buses offer an opportunity to do something that is authentic and local.
In some more developed countries, such as Argentina or Brazil – the buses are some of the finest in the Americas. They come complete with movies, food, toilets and comfortable seating. On the other hand, you could easily find yourself on a “chicken bus” – often an old school bus that services many of the poorer communities in this part of the world.
It is hard to quantify the exact environmental benefits of taking a bus in Latin America versus taking a taxi or renting a car. Each bus is likely to have very different fuel efficiencies and emissions. While emission standards are not readily at hand, there can be little doubt that bus travel is better for the planet. Given the number of people on any given bus, it seems obvious that, mile for mile, bus travel produces significantly less pollution and uses less fossil fuel driving a car.
Of course, helping the local economy is another sustainable benefit of getting around by bus. Most bus companies are owned either by local governments or local businesses. On the other hand, most car rental businesses are multinational. While you might be spending less on the bus, that money goes to help generate jobs and support local finances.
Finally, taking the bus is fun. We travel to see the world from different perspectives and ultimately expand our own. The guy with two chickens who thought I was fat – that was almost ten years ago. During that trip to Guatemala I visited Mayan ruins, got to take part in a traditional Mayan ceremony, and even won a chili eating contest. Of all the memories – there was something special about learning about chickens from a man who didn’t speak any English or Spanish on a bus rumbling its way up the to the Guatemalan highlands.