Friday, December 24, 2010

Not your average Greyhound trip!

In the US, a huge national debate is raging over high speed rail and its costs and benefits. Will people choose rail over driving their cars or flying? Is it just a political move on the part of some politicians? Is it worth the billions of dollars needed in investment to make people move just a little bit faster (but not nearly as fast as high speed rail in other countries)?

In Argentina, no such debate is occurring. The thought of resurrecting the country's ancient rail system built by the British over a century ago is nowhere close to being on a politician's political platform or making the papers. But then again, Argentina is in a completely different situation than the US. While the US has a struggling intercity bus network, Argentina's private intercity bus companies are thriving. There is so much demand for long distance buses that companies offer service to remote cities and towns with high frequencies and multiple classes of service. Let's not forget that Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world in terms of land mass. While Buenos Aires is far and away the the country's biggest city with a population of 13 million the metropolitan area, there are many population centers spread out across the country with very sparsely populated areas in between (take for example the region of Patagonia).

Last month, I took one of these long distance buses with Raja to Posadas where we transferred buses to go to San Ignacio, a small town on the way to Iguazu Falls. San Ignacio is known for its well-preserved Jesuit Mission which operated between 1632 and 1767, housed a couple of Jesuit priests and thousands of Guarani people, and cultivated mate, the preferred local tea of Argentines. We had bought our tickets beforehand from the Retiro Bus Station (it's still not completely possible to buy tickets online and this way we got to ask an actual person all the questions we had about departure, service, etc) located right next to the Retiro Train Station (which still operates suburban trains).

When we arrived at the station half an hour before our bus left, the energy at the station was palpable. For a Monday at 8pm, the station was hopping with travelers. Cafes, jewelry and trinket shops dotted the departure level while the floor above was completely filled with bus company ticket counters. There were over 100 bus bays and approximately 50% of them were full at any given time. I had chosen cama-suite, the top line in bus travel as I wanted to sleep well and the distance from Buenos Aires to Posadas is about 1000 km or 12 hours. Wow was I impressed by the quality of service! I don't know if you can tell by the photos, but in cama-suite, the chair extends almost completely flat. If you're not traveling with someone you know and happen to be on the side with two people, there's a curtain you can pull so you don't have to watch your seatmate sleep. (But conversely, if you are traveling with someone you know, the curtain does not give the two of you more privacy, like a private compartment on a train would.)

I wasn't sure about what sort of food we'd get so I'd packed a bunch of sandwiches. But it turns out that our tickets included an appetizer (rolls with prochiutto and cheese), a full dinner (Raja had steak and mashed potatoes while I had pasta) complete with beer and/or wine, a post dinner glass of champagne, and breakfast served with a copy of that day's local paper from Posadas (one of the biggest cities in Northeast Argentina).

Entertainment featured a movie called Mother and Child which I had the choice of listening to in either English or Spanish (dubbed) with a personal headset. When I decided around midnight after the movie finished that it was time to sleep, I put on my blinders - mine and not the bus company's - unrolled the blanket, and rested my head on the pillow. I woke up to hot cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and a second floor view of rolling sugarcane fields and rich red earth. All in all, it was a very smooth ride and I slept right through the night. In terms of monetary value and convenience, taking the bus to visit the Jesuit Mission at San Ignacio Mini made a lot of sense and in terms of value for money, we definitely chose well.

So what is it that makes Argentina's intercity bus network a success? Is it the impeccable service (similar to flying first class on Emirates) that makes people take the bus? Is it the reliability in terms of quality and frequency (Argentina's two airlines, Aerolineas Argentinas and LAN, tend to go on strike a few times a year, grounding flights and passengers)? Or is it economic (owning a personal vehicle is expensive in Argentina)? I tend to think that the reason is a little bit of all of the above and I must say that I'm not sure what occured first. Certainly the high quality of service on intercity bus transportation in Argentina could serve as a model to bus companies in the US. However, the cost of hiring a driver and on-board attendent in the US could be cost prohibitive since wages are higher there than in Argentina. Certainly though, it seems at least on the east coast, bus companies are pushing a business model of high quality service (complete with WIFI and other amenities) to induce travelers onto the bus and out of their car.

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