Getting Around: Mexico by Bus

My backpack was vintage, and not in a stylish way. A leftover from my mom’s backpacking trips through South America in the seventies, the bag had an exterior frame as large and graceless as an old lawn chair. I was happy to free my aching back from this aluminum exoskeleton, but I was having a hard time shoving the giant pack into the overhead rack of the bus.  The behemoth bulged with supplies: everything from high heels to a percolator to a three month supply of Parmesan cheese (difficult to find and expensive in Mexico in those days and an absolute necessity, on par with coffee).

When I finally wedged the bag into the luggage rack, I sat down in the springy seat and exhaled just as the bus roared into motion, lurching wildly. The a thought crossed my mind for the first, but not the last, time: maybe we should have waited for the Primera Plus.

Even my cheapskate parents were willing to cough up the extra cash to ride on one of Mexico’s new luxury liners, but Abigail and I had elected to go second class because we didn’t want to wait an extra few hours in the station for the next “extra first class” bus. Now that I eyed our surroundings, I was beginning to have second thoughts. The second class bus wasn’t quite as colorful as the chicken buses I remembered from my childhood, but there was a family of six crammed into the two seats directly in front of us, the floor was strewn with litter (including a jiggling plastic bag that looked suspiciously vomit-filled), and our window was stuck shut, which soon made the Yucatecan heat nearly intolerable.

Actually the worst thing about second class buses is that they stop everywhere: in every tiny rancho, and every single time a potential rider flags them down from the side of the highway. Six hours into a three hour trip, I started to notice an awful smell—like a medley of old wet running shoes and dog shit. I stared suspiciously at the whining baby in the seats in front of us.

“Bloody hell that’s awful,” Abigail complained,wiping sweat from her forehead and giving me a look that was tantamount to a silent curse. (Of course it had been my idea to jump the gun and get on the second class bus.)

To distract myself from the awful smell, my uncomfortable seat, Abigail’s curses, and the sweltering heat, I got up to rummage in my backpack for my book. Standing up on the lurching bus was a challenge, and we hit a particularly large pot hole just as I’d managed to untie the top of my bag. The pack erupted in a cascade of super-heated grated Parmesan, coating me, Abigail, and the seats around us in yellowed cheese powder. Abigail screeched a litany of British cuss words as the open canister rolled down the aisle, eliciting gasps from even the most hardened Mexican bus riders. The smell? Something like a medley of old wet running shoes and dog shit. The ride lasted another four hours and the heat did not abate.

The above story is not really typical of modern Mexican bus travel, unless you take second class buses and there is really no reason you should, unless you are:

a) on your way to an obscure location (plus class buses do not typically go to small villages or out-of-the-way locales)

b) obscenely broke (travel on first class or plus class buses is fairly reasonable)

c) a masochist for adventure

In contrast to the second class bus I described, the first class “plus” lines are a different animal altogether. As Carl writes in The People’s Guide to Mexico, “Mexico’s amazing bus system just keeps getting better. Competition with regional airlines and between rival bus companies has created an amazing class of luxury “superbuses” with Pullman-style comforts and VIP terminal facilities that rival first-class jet travel. Luxury buses are easy to identify: Most are huge “stratoliner” types, with very high profiles, oversized tinted windows and lavish paint jobs. Their names are equally grand: Primera Plus Express, Serviconfort Uno, Pullman, Ejecutivo and so on. Among the services and frills offered: assigned seats that actually recline rather than just rattle, bathrooms, fully extending leg rests, pillows, snacks and beverages, “flight” attendants, movies, functioning reading lights and a No Fumar (No Smoking) policy.”

If you’ve never been in a Mexican bus station, you may be surprised by the variety of lines available. Much like an airport, each bus line has a separate counter or office, replete with attendants wearing perky uniforms. You can stroll around checking out the marquees until you find a bus going to your destination, or you can you can book tickets online at ADO, ETN, and Primera Plus, to name just a fraction of the lines.  (For a more complete list, check out flyertalk.com‘s bus forum and scroll down.) If you plan on going further south into Central America, check out TicaBus.

The blog Savoir Faire abroad has a funny and informative recent post “Experiencing Mexico by Bus!” (thanks to a PG reader for the link), which includes the following sampling of “plus class” bus prices for 2013:

  1. Mezcales to Guadalajara – 402 pesos ($33.22) with Primera Plus
  2. Guadalajara to Morelia – 323 pesos ($26.69) with Primera Plus
  3. Morelia to Mexico City – 348 pesos ($28.75) with Primera Plus
  4. Mexico City to Taxco – 173 pesos ($14.30) with Costa Line
  5. Taxco to Mexico City – 173 pesos ($14.30) with Costa Line
  6. Mexico City to Oaxaca – 808 pesos ($66.78) with ADO Platino
  7. Oaxaca to San Cristobal – 762 pesos ($62.98) with ADO Platino
  8. San Cristobal to Cancun – 994 pesos ($82.16) with ADO GL

When I asked Rich for his comments on bus travel in Mexico, his single piece of advice was, “Do not watch the road or the driver.” This is key. Although, as Carl notes, “on a statistical basis–miles per accident or something like that–Mexican buses have an excellent survivor record,” that doesn’t mean that their drivers don’t drive like maniacs. They do. It’s best to ignore their shenanigans while perhaps muttering a quiet prayer to St. Cristopher or maybe San Judas de Tadeo.

Below you’ll find a selection of info on bus travel from the 14th edition of The People’s Guide to Mexico, now available on Kindle. The book contains an additional sixteen pages on Mexican bus travel, including detailed information on navigating terminals, catching taxis from bus terminals (more complicated than it sounds), crossing borders by bus, and more of Carl’s “bus survival tips.”

  • First-class service (not to be confused with “plus” or luxury service) is generally equal to or better than Greyhound in the U.S. You can expect assigned seating, air conditioning, bathrooms and, for better or worse, videos. (However, the bathrooms are sometimes afuera del servicio–out of service–so if this is critical, ask first or take a luxury bus.) Stops are infrequent on first-class runs and occur only at terminals, major bus stops or occasional rest and refreshment points.
  • Depending on the frills, the cost of a luxury-class seat is anywhere from 30-40 percent more than an “ordinary” first-class ticket. In turn, a first-class bus ticket is often just a little more than second class.
  • The confusing variety of independent bus terminals is gradually being simplified as towns of medium size and larger create a single central bus terminal, appropriately called the Central de Autobuses. However, in some towns, each bus line has its own station or there may even be more than one large terminal. Oaxaca is a good example–it has one terminal for first-class and luxury buses and another terminal for second class. Querétaro has a huge combined terminal for first and second class and another (fortunately close by) terminal just for luxury buses.
  • Arrivals and departures will be announced in echoing and unintelligible Spanish that is best ignored. Your ticket has the vital bus number and departure time, and it is more reliable than your translation of loudspeaker announcements.
  • You may be offered the chance to select your own seat number at the ticket counter. The diagram is similar to those used at airlines. I always choose a seat in the teens, 13-19, give or take a seat. This puts you in the first half of the bus, handy for quick rushes to the front door at rest stops, but far enough back to avoid having to watch traffic.
  • When riding on buses equipped with bathrooms (almost all first-class and some second-class), avoid the last few seats. The strong odor and slamming door will distract you from the scenery.
  • Stopovers are usually not allowed. If you’ll be stopping, buy a series of tickets: city A to city B, then B to the next stop or final destination.
  • On first-class and long-haul second-class buses, baggage can be checked through to the final destination. You should be given a claim stub and if you aren’t, ask for one. Baggage handlers on a few lines tend to be sloppy about checking claim stubs, but on most they are efficient and dependable.
  • The standard baggage allowance is 25 kilos (55 pounds), but unless you’re carrying something extra bulky, they’ll rarely hold you to the limit. I once traveled with five enormous baskets loaded with handicrafts, a full-sized backpack and a portable typewriter. It took a major conference between the bus driver, ticket agent, baggage handler and myself, but I got that nightmarish quantity aboard for a very reasonable “adjustment” fee.
  • First-class bus tickets for destinations inside Mexico can also be purchased in the U.S. through Greyhound and its Mexican affiliates.

The bullet points above are excerpted from The People’s Guide to Mexico by Carl Franz, all rights reserved.  Photo courtesy of Kprateek88.

7 Responses to “Getting Around: Mexico by Bus”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Tina Rosa says:

    Steve is weeping on behalf of all that lost parmesan!

  2. churpa says:

    Sainted mother! Do you have any bus travel tips I forgot to include?

  3. -el codo- says:

    Next month that’s going to be one of the first things I get in the states. A big gnarly block of parmesano. If there is anything I learned on my marathon bus rides 72 to 96 hour jobs. It is to dress for 50 degrees even when boarding in Mérida in the month of May. A bolster of that memory foam will also follow me on a bus. What a difference it makes wedged between me and the window sill. And a pair of earplugs or phones for drowning out Bruce Lee’s dubbed cries of “¡Te mereces esto villano! (Take That! Villain!”

    Tablet readers, like NOOK and KINDLE are godsends for readers on buses. Not only is the print more legible, the font and spacing can be instantly adjusted larger to prevent eyestrain. Downloading a so-far unread Gary Jennings lurid and bloody Aztec novel can greatly shorten the boredom of a bus ride. Two dollar bus terminal baloney sandwiches can get a little tiresome, so a pre-trip to the market is in order. Fruit, nuts, pungent green olives, some bolillos or birotes, maybe some salami. A lot of canned food these days has those pull tab openers so tuna fish is not out of the question. I’ve zip loc’d entire meals including tamales and empanadas. A liter or two of boxed fruit juice, like naranja or mango and I’m all set! More and more centrales de camioneras have real brewed coffee kiosks or have one close by so there’s no need crankily sink your teeth into the skull of an obnoxious six year old who is screaming in your year from the next seat.

    • churpa says:

      Good point about dressing for the air-con! Also, you bring up another point…there are two real drawbacks to going “plus-style.” It’s less interesting because they usually stay on the major toll roads, and also the fancy buses don’t allow snack vendors to board at stops. So you miss out on all those tasty tamales…However, you can always go find a tamale when you get to your destination five hours earlier than you would have traveling segunda clase…

  4. Dios!!! I will never forget having to sit in the parmesan cheese for another six hours after what I have always called, “the parmesan cheese incident”…. The dirty looks we got from everyone who walked up or down the isle of the bus for the rest of the trip would have withered my soul if I had one.