The Long Journey

There’s a bit of glamour in solo backpacking, but it’s mostly a grind.

One of the most common struggles is figuring out how to get to your living accommodations when arriving in a new city. I did this at least a couple dozen times over the course of seven months backpacking in South America. Here’s how:

  • When I was lazy and it was available, I’d just take an Uber.
  • When it was less than three miles away, I’d walk.
  • When I was feeling adventurous or it was relatively straightforward, I’d gladly take public transportation.
  • When I was short on money and there was no Uber, I’d reluctantly take public transportation.

I chose each option about a quarter of the time.

Bogota was by far the most stressful experience of them all. I mapped out my entire journey over multiple days.. and still got lost.

In Bogota, the primary public transportation system is the TransMilenio, a bus rapid transit (BRT) system. It effectively serves as a train, subway, and bus all at the same time. In the middle of every highway, there’s even a dedicated “mini-highway” for the buses.

When I walked into the bus stop to start the journey from the airport to my hostel, the first thing I noticed was the multiple platforms packed with buses. And each platform was lined with dozens of signs and huge crowds of riders to match. As I soaked in the scene, I realized what a long journey I was in for.

It was the first and only bus ride I’ve ever taken in which I changed buses in the middle of a highway. Three bus changes, two hours, and one short walk later, I rolled up at the hostel and promptly took a nap.

Bogota was the extreme example. But whether it was language (everything in Spanish), safety (don’t travel through certain areas or use transport options), signage (no directions), ticketing (if it’s cash-only, you need to have or exchange currency), timing (rush hour crowds), road conditions, or even the weather, every first trip in a new city presented some combination of these challenges.

So ride-sharing becomes the default option for international travel because the barriers to using public transportation can be high. I hope it’s another opportunity for transportation super apps to rise up and knock down those barriers, or it may be yet another reason for cars to continue dominating the market.

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