Paraguay has a cheap, efficient and extensive bus network. It is possible to reach almost anywhere in the country by public transport.
The buses travelling around Paraguay can be broken down into three types.
Firstly local, then long distance and finally city buses.
The first of these, the local buses, are to be found in every town and community across the Paraguayan countryside.
In the days before the cheap motorbike became the ubiquitous form of transport they were for many people in the countryside their only means of getting into town or from settlement to settlement. Even today they provide a vital link between towns and the rural districts that surround them.
Local buses are almost without fail ancient vehicles that have seen many years of service. Many have wooden floors and missing windows but just plodding along.
These old buses are as solid as lorries. A metal body on top of a tough chassis that would be just at home beneath the body of a truck.
They need to be almost indestructible as in Paraguay outside the towns as soon as you turn off the paved road you find yourself driving along cobbles or more likely a dirt road. These roads are often in poor condition, but the bus must get through to the isolated communities along them.
Progress along a dirt road in a local bus is invariably slow as the driver picks his way along the road. No power steering to help so driving is quite a physical undertaking.
Often the buses are owned or rented by their drivers and they are responsible for keeping them running. The engines are pretty basic. Nothing in the way of electronics and certainly no computers. Simple enough for any competent mechanic to keep running.
And keep running they do. At times the driver may carry a bottle of water to stop and top up the radiator from time to time or may have to fight the steering wheel just to keep the bus in a straight line, but almost always the bus will, get through.
These local buses serve every community but often no more than once a day. In general the day’s bus leaves early in the morning to take people into town and to the market before returning them to their homes at lunch time.
So if planning to travel out of a rural district by bus it is vital that you know what time the bus will pass by in the morning and when it will return.
Nothing like a bus time table is available. Instead a little bit of local knowledge is necessary. No changes in times or even days of service will ever be published. Nothing could be worse than waiting for a couple of hours for a bus that is never going to come.
However once their times and destinations are learnt the local buses make trips from country to town simple and straight forward.
The next type of bus that you will encounter in Paraguay is the long distance buses.
These travel along the main roads linking towns and cities enabling passengers to travel between distant destinations at the opposite ends of the country.
Every town has it’s own bus company and buses leave several times an hour heading towards the nearest city, be that Asuncion, Encarnacion or Ciudad del Este stopping off at every town along the way.
Buses making journeys of up to about three hours are only slightly more modern than the local buses. They are generally the type of single decker bus you would have found travelling around any European city 30 years ago.
As such they are built for neither comfort or speed. Travelling on such buses requires a certain state of mind. An impatient person checking their watch will very soon find themselves boiling over with frustration. Quite apart from anything else the way in which buses constantly stop and start to pick up and drop off passengers will soon drive such a person mad.
Instead a relaxed state of mind not really paying attention to anything is what is needed. In such an almost zen like state the miles simply roll by.
With no time tables there is no point in even considering that the bus might be running late. It will reach it’s destination in due course.
With these buses linking towns and cities together they can become very crowded. An aisle packed with standing passengers is common and seeing some even hanging out of the doorways is not uncommon.
This is not a means transport for those uncomfortable with being confined to crowded spaces for extended periods of time.
For longer journeys there is a little more space and comfort on offer.
They journeys between distant points in Paraguay are undertaken by modern long distance coaches.
These have more comfortable seats and even on occasion have on board refreshments.
They are less crowded with everyone having a seat and do often need to be booked in advance. Also unlike the other long distance buses they do not constantly stop and start at the request of their passengers. Rather they only stop at designated bus stops. So to catch one it is vital to know where it is going to stop.
Furthermore they may offer some degree of comfort but it must be remembered with the large distances they need to cover a journey may take six, seven or even more hours.
If your trip takes you into Asuncion it will then be possible to continue onwards on a city bus.
Asuncion is served by a vast web of competing bus companies. Each has their own livery and set of routes.
As such to travel around by city bus takes a bit of practice and even locals heading to and from work tend to stick with the same bus.
Firstly most buses take circular routes and so there is no destination as such. Secondly buses are numbered rather than named. For example to company operating route number 15 will have buses labelled 15, to show simply which company they belong to. Then those taking variations on the route will be called 15.1, 15.2, 15.3 etc.
All of which is not overly helpful when trying to negotiate the city’s bus network.
However to make things a little clearer buses also display a list of cards in their front windows listing places they will pass.
Reading these signs as the bus approaches and knowing the name several locations in Asuncion is vital to avoid catching a bus to the wrong part of town.
Generally only the major points along the route are listed. So knowing that where you want to be is somewhere between destinations A and B that the bus is displaying will ensure that you do head off in the right direction.
Of course if all else fails, and there is not a queue of passengers waiting to board, the driver will happily confirm whether or not it is the bus for you.
These are the means of transport for commuters and school children in Asuncion. As such they are very crowded during rush hours and best avoided at those times.
All city buses charge a flat fee for a journey. Whether it is just one block or from one side of the city to the other the cost is the same. The only difference in fare being that air conditioned buses charge more than non air conditioned buses.
Additionally unlike other buses in Paraguay city buses do not accept cash. Instead a card must be purchased in advance and loaded with credit.
Many places sell these cards and they do make the buses much simpler to use. No need to search for the correct cash when boarding. Instead the card is just tapped against a reader which deducts the relevant fare.
So no need to remember the exact name of your destination. Or even how to pronounce it.
I have used all these various types of bus over the years. It may not be the quickest way to get around. It does though work just fine.
Occasionally a bus may break down or take forever to turn up. When that happens it is though just a minor irritation. I do always eventually reach my destination.
The buses also have character and a trip in one is often and enjoyable adventure. Bus journeys I will continue to take whenever I wish to travel further than my nearest towns.