Blurring the Line Between Bus and Plane
Having traveled overland from Mexico to Argentina—save for a quick flight over the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia—I can safely say that I know a thing or two about transport in Latin America. I've brushed my teeth and washed my hair in the sink basins of more bus terminals than I care to remember. But part of today's 26-hour journey, busing from Lima to Piura, was unlike any I've ever experienced.
The name of the company that ushered me to Piura (prew-rah) in 14 hours is Oltursa—one that I won't soon forget. It was so similar to the experience of flying on an airplane that I could've sworn I was on a flight from San Francisco to Bangkok.
The similarities stated with the ticket purchase. Assigned seating, managed by a computer system that enables real-time availability on the Oltursa Web site, gave me a choice of options, so long as I had my passport at the time of purchase and boarding.
Arriving at the company's personal terminal the next afternoon, I was rather shocked to see checked luggage being weighed (not allowed to exceed 20 kilos/44 pounds), carry-on baggage being hand checked by security, and men being wanded with a handheld metal detector and patted down. This was done around a corner, and I only had moments to subtly plunge the knife I keep at my ready into my small day-bag backpack to keep it from being discovered.
Onboard, the pre-departure safety video demonstrated how to exit in the event of an emergency, how to use the lapbelt seatbelts, and how to store carry-on baggage in the overhead compartments. Cell phones, handheld radios, and alcoholic beverages were all prohibited.
All passengers had reclining seats with overhead vents and lighting (that actually worked—a real rarity), small blankets and pillows, and view to a television displaying the journey's movie entertainment. A scrolling LED readout at the front of the cabin displayed the current time, speed, and external temperature.
Twice during the nonstop trip a uniformed attendant provided small meals (a hot dinner and a cold breakfast) to passengers, as well as the occasional beverage service of coffee and tea.
Argentina, a country that pride itself on luxury long-haul bus travel, is about the only place I've been able to find offerings such as these (although at such a premium that I couldn't afford to travel at such a class). For the price of US$2/hour, the experience with Oltursa was something I've never see at such rates.
But as comfortable as all this was, I dislike traveling in sealed buses. I absolutely love having control of a window seat with the ability to slide open the glass and actually smell the passing country, as a persistent rush of air washes over my face. You can feel the temperature change; you can smell the farms; you can taste the landscape.
But Peru can be a rough country, and security is omnipresent within the realm of Oltursa. Buses are monitored by GPS, and I have little doubt that the prohibition of cell phones and handheld walkie-talkie radios has less to do with keeping the noise pollution down, and more to with mitigating danger.
Nonstop travel is safer for everyone, and their belongings. When storage hatches close down below, you know there's less opportunity for your backpack to walk away without you at a stop along the way. I often squabble with bus companies because I like to keep my pack with me inside the bus (often at the sacrifice of my legroom), though I got the feeling that would be particularly difficult with Oltursa.
So, what's it like to sit down in a bus seat and not get up once for 14 hours? (shrug) I barely noticed. After a 40-hour ride in Brazil, and more 16 to 20-something rides in South America than I care to remember, I don't even start to get uncomfortable until many hours after that mark.
Bravo, Oltursa, on the closest experience I've had to flying whilst never leaving the ground—for better or worse, it was certainly memorable.