After a week in Santiago, I felt the urge to go somewhere new, somewhere south but not that south that I would need winter clothes (remember, in Chile, north is hot and south is cold!)
Concepción, Chile’s second-largest city, seemed like a good compromise—a six-hour bus ride isn’t a huge commitment and I rented a studio for a few days easily.
I should have guessed it wouldn’t be a smooth trip just based on the bus ticket purchase.
A few days before the random travel date I had picked, I went to the Terminal San Borja to buy my ticket, exactly like I did for La Serena. I had completely forgotten that Santiago doesn’t have one terminal but many—all the companies in San Borja were northbound.
“Where can I buy a ticket to southern Chile?” I asked.
The following day, I walked to the Terminal Sur, which is actually a few blocks down from San Borja, along La Alameda.
It was complete chaos inside and there seemed to be only one company, Tur-Bus.
“Are there… ahem, are you the only one with service to Concepción?” I asked a helpful Tur-Bus employee.
“You are in the Tur-Bus terminal,” she pointed out. “Terminal Sur is further down.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
Terminal Sur ended up being even smaller and more chaotic, but at least I was able to compare prices and departure times because I’m not taking a bus that leave at 3 a.m. (who the fuck takes a long-distance bus at 3 a.m.?)
The day of the trip started well. I found a taxi almost right away and he found Terminal-Sur-not-the-Tur-Bus-one almost right away. We were all good and I had plenty of time.
I had a coffee, inexplicably served with a fork. Then I had another coffee, which also came with a fork—either it’s a Terminal Sur tradition, either the kiosco employees had worked the night shift and were as sleepy as I was. I would have gotten a third coffee just to stay awake long enough to board the bus, but then I remembered I’d better stop drinking because the toilet in the bus is gross. I didn’t want to spend the ride looking like Mark when he really needs to pee but also really doesn’t want to put the tablet down for a minute, so I stared into my empty Styrofoam cup and played with the fork instead (mildly entertaining when you’re half asleep).
8:45 a.m. Time to find my andén, i.e. the platform. The bus company employee had scribbled “40 to 49” on my ticket, which, translated from Spanish, means “we have no clue where the bus will pull in, just stand somewhere, wait and look for it.”
So I walked to the boarding platform, and oh boy, the chaos… Hundreds of passengers were waiting for their ride, stuck in a tiny safe space between the buses and the fence, all with tons of luggage and absolutely no clue where their bus would park.
“I’ve been there since 6:30 a.m.,” an old lady complained. “Where is the Andemar to Valdivia?”
I didn’t reply it sounded like a rhetoric question but the poor woman had every right to complain. Besides, I had no clue where the bus or the destination city was, and I couldn’t help wondering how she was still standing because after only five minutes stuck in the crowded boarding area with my backpack, I wanted to demand a refund for my ticket and go home.
Except, of course, you can’t get a refund on these $30 tickets and technically, I don’t really have a “home” right now, so I stood there and waited. “It’s alright,” I told myself. “The bus will arrive in just a few minutes, your backpack will be stowed into that giant compartment at the back and you will be able to sit down and sleep for the entire ride.”
“Pullman Tur, Pullman Tur, Pullman Tur,” I started mumbling to myself. No, this isn’t an ancient Mapuche spell I picked up in Santiago, just the name of the bus company I was looking for. I checked my ticket to see what the bus looked like—company like to show off their fancy double-decker buses with free Wi-Fi, charging plugs, reclining seats and other amenities that are in fact rarely available once on board, and there’s always a picture of it on the ticket.
White and purple. My bus was white and purple.
I took a glance around. Most of the fucking buses were white and purple or blue, except an Eme double decker sponsored by the breast cancer foundation. Why wasn’t I travelling with Eme? Their bus was easy to spot!
At 9:05 a.m., I started to worry. Buses are usually on time, especially those leaving from Santiago, the first stop of the trip. “Pullman… OH! Oh, never mind, Pullman Sur, not Pullman Tur.”
It didn’t help that “Pullman” is apparently the keyword when you start a bus company.
Normally, I would have paced between platforms 40 and 49, looking for the bus. But I couldn’t move, I was stuck at andén 41, and I couldn’t see anything because ten double-decker buses parked inches from your face kind of block the view.
“Are you wanting for the 9 a.m. bus to Puerto Montt?” a lady asked me.
“No, the 9 a.m. to Concepción.”
It comforted me a bit that other 9 a.m. buses were still missing at 9:40 a.m.
At 9:55, the lady grabbed my arm. “Quick, go to the far platform, over there, your bus is coming!”
I fought my way through the crowd. Sure enough, she was right, my bus was pulling in at andén 47.
In less than five minutes, all passengers were on board. My seat was the last one at the back. I reclined it, put earplugs in, took my neck pillow out of my bag—yes, I take my bus sleep seriously—and closed my eyes.
I reopened them two seconds later, the driver’s helper was collecting passenger names, ID numbers and emergency contact, “just in case.”
Good to know.
I closed my eyes again and turned my head to the right, my favourite sleeping side.
Holy fuck, why were we going so fast?
Someone must have told the driver the same thing because he suddenly hit the brake hard. Ouch.
Then he accelerated again, and braked, and accelerated, and braked. It could have been me driving a rental for the first time.
And he did that for the entire trip—100 km/h… oh, 45 km/h… and back to 100 km/h! I’m not making it up—in the bus, there’s a digital screen showing passengers the current speed and an alarm goes off if the maximum speed limit is exceeded.
Yeah, it wasn’t a great bus sleep.
We finally arrived in Concepción around 5 p.m., two hours later than planned. I wasn’t even sure we were there because there was no announcement, the bus just stopped but it had stopped in many places many times in the previous hours.
Much to my relief, Concepción had a proper bus terminal with enough space between the platform and the bus. I collected my backpack and went straight to the tourist info in the terminal to ask for a map.
After feeling like cattle most of the day, I was treated like a baby by the tourist info employees, but it was actually done in a very kind way.
“So there you go. Just take the bus that says ‘Chiguayante’ and get off at Tribunales on O’Higgins. Wait, I’ll write it down. Now, tell me, where do you stop? Tri-bu-na-les.”
I did just that and checked in at the studio I rented on Expedia.
And then, suddenly, I felt completely overwhelmed.
Here I was, clad in black like a freaking death angel, wearing “warm” clothes because I had been told it was cold down south, but it wasn’t actually cold, it was 27⁰C. I had no idea where to go in the city—maps gives you a basic layout but they don’t exactly recommend the best neighbourhood to find food, relax or just take a walk. As usual when I arrive somewhere new, I felt like the stupidest person in town, the one who doesn’t know the supermarket doesn’t sell paper bags, the one who almost gets followed by security because she is staring at ham for half an hour trying to find the smaller, cheapest pack (… I really don’t need 1 kg of sliced ham), the one who has no idea when stores close.
Concepción felt different and suspiciously quiet after Santiago—what, there are no Venezuelan selling deep-fried empanadas at 3 a.m. at the corner of the street?
I can hear seagulls tonight and a dog barking, but no garbage trucks speeding in the city and no emergency vehicle speeding on La Alameda. I assembled dinner, kind of. I’m actually not quite sure what I bought or what I’m eating.
I’m travelling, everything is an experience.