Saturday, October 8, 2011

Living Here: Taking the Bus

I was the only passenger on a long-distance bus Thursday. I had the entire first-class coach to myself. It was just me and the driver. This was surprising to me considering the high level of bus ridership here, and is an experience I have never had before in Mexico, even though I have traveled a lot by bus.

I make a lot of trips between the Cancún airport and Mérida. This typically has entailed a half-hour shuttle between the airport and the Cancún downtown bus terminal, and the four-hour bus ride between Cancún and Mérida, or vice versa. Recently I have been able to use a newer ADO (Autobuses del Oriente) service that takes passengers directly from the Cancún airport to Mérida, skipping the shuttle and bus station segments entirely. In Mérida it stops in Alta Brisa and at the Hotel Fiesta Americana.

This is a great service and although it costs a little more, if it dovetails with one's arrival or departure schedule, it will save an hour or two. However, I have been on this bus route several times now and have never had more than one or two fellow passengers. At this time there are only a couple of departures from the airport per day, both in the afternoon. From Mérida there are only midnight and 10:00AM departures. With the kinds of flights I've been taking lately, I've only been able to take advantage of the Cancún airport to Mérida run and not the other way around.

The novelty of riding alone in the big bus this week prompted me to recall past bus experiences. When I first traveled by bus in Mexico nearly 20 years ago, I was amazed by the habit of Mexicans to close all the curtains in order to sit in the dark and watch movies or sleep. As a curious traveler, I always prefer to enjoy the beauties of the countryside and see where I am headed. It frustrated me on several occasions, as we passed through spectacular countryside I'd never seen before, when a fellow passenger asked me to close the curtain to eliminate glare on the video monitor so they could watch a vapid, violent movie. Even after making the trip dozens of times, on these cross-Yucatán runs I still often prefer to watch the countryside pass by, monotonous as it may appear along the toll road, than to watch a movie or read. There is always something interesting to see.

I also recalled my surprise, some years ago, at seeing a Jalisco bus driver hurling his cola bottle, junk food wrappers, plastic plate and bags out of the bus window one by one after finishing the various courses of his on-the-job lunch. No one said a word.

I remembered a couple of long, long rides, when a combination of winding mountain roads, those always-closed curtains, heat and questionable roadside food led to the most disagreeable travel experiences I have ever had. Despite those bad trips, I enjoy taking the bus.

I thought about my very first Latin American bus rides, when in the early 70's I did volunteer work in rural Colombia -- the romantic heart of Gabriel Garcia Marquez country. These were true pigs-and-chickens buses. The surplus early 1950s American school buses were painted bright colors and had beads and bangles hanging in the windshields. All of our baggage was piled on the roof, accompanied by a few passengers, young men whom we later suspected of having passed the trip reviewing the contents of our luggage. We sat eight abreast on closely-spaced wooden bench seats as the buses slowly ground along muddy, potholed dirt roads. As we reached a stop, people would swarm on and off the roof, passing down boxes and bundles, and despite the fact that we wanted to watch this process in order to make sure our bags were not stolen, we remained seated in order to not lose our places in the crowded interior. We once waited hours in line at an isolated sun-baked, steamy ferry crossing on the Magdalena River. My most vivid memory of that experience is the very poor campesino family who offered to share their meager food, thick tortillas and some overripe fruit, with me as we waited.

Modern long-distance bus travel in Mexico is a far cry from that long-ago trip and is vastly superior to similar services in the United States. Buses are safe, run frequently, generally run on schedule, and make connections to small towns and pueblos. Buses here are for everyone. Middle-class families and even business executives take the bus. The deluxe buses, such as Platino here in southeast Mexico and ETN in the central part of the country, are more comfortable than first-class airplane cabins, offering roomy reclining seats with full leg rests, snacks, cold and hot drinks, comfortable, clean restrooms, and for those who like that sort of thing, movies -- with headphones -- so the rest of us don't have to listen to movies we have no desire to see.

Second-class and country buses are more interesting, but slower and less reliable. However the people on these buses are wonderful. I can't count the number of times seat mates have offered to share food and drink with me, just as that family did decades ago in Colombia.

I love the bus system here because you can easily go just about anywhere without a car. Taking the bus often costs less than driving, and although it may take longer, it is certainly less stressful. It also affords the chance to really look at the countryside (most of the time), and sometimes to meet interesting people. It's my preferred mode of travel in Mexico.


  1. One time, taking Primera Plus from Morelia to San Miguel de Allende, I was the lone passenger on the leg from Celaya to San Miguel. That made me feel rather privileged, but when I reached San Miguel and mentioned it to a friend who lived there, she was aghast. "Weren't you frightened?" she asked. Yeah, like the bus driver was going to pull off the road and have his way with me? I don't think so.

  2. Jennifer: Thanks for mentioning Primera Plus, probably the line I have traveled most in Mexico over the years. I've never felt insecure on Mexican buses. I usually have a good trip and a good time. I am impressed with the professionalism on many of the bus lines. Back in the "good 'ol USA," if the Greyhound driver introduced himself, welcomed passengers and gave a trip briefing over the PA system, folks would probably think it was weird. This is common in Mexico, as you well know.

  3. It's my preferred mode of travel in Mexico, too, Marc. Although in 45 years of traveling in Mexico, I have never had a bus to myself. Maybe I will have to try the direct service from the Cancun airport to Merida this fall.

  4. Oh Marc, I'm with you! I think the bus system in Mexico is great and I use it all the time. Jorge and I much prefer to take the bus over driving. Once we're at our destination, if we want to go to somewhere off the beaten track, we hire a driver and car (not expensive in Latin America) we've never had any issues while traveling by bus. I also enjoyed your account of the Columbian buses in the 70s. I had the same cliff-hanger, death-defying rides but mine were in Peru. And I agree, the people one meets "on board" are incredible. Greyhound used to have a slogan, "leave the driving to us." As you pointed out, the US and Canadian bus companies leave a bit to be desired but riding "by coach" is exactly what I do in Mexico. Thank you for the fun read!

  5. I have not yet ridden a Mexican bus, though, I should. But your story of the littering driver reminded me of an incident on a tour bus earlier this year. A very fussy Canadian woman was sitting behind me. She went on and on about how much litter there was on the Mexican highways. How people just tossed things out their windows. We were just finishing up our lunches, and she asked the tour guide if there was a litter box. Allowing for a two beat, I turned around and said: "Why? Doesn't your window open?" She just stared at me confused. Some humor simply does not travel well.

  6. The buses are so luxurious now - I was surprised when I returned to Mexico for the first time in a couple of decades. I remembered them as rattletraps covered in religious images, and with drivers who brought along their loud music and girlfriends. Colorful, sometimes scary. Some of the city buses are still like that.

  7. Kathy and I will be taking the ADO from the airport to Fiesta American on October 28 :)

  8. I have never seen an empty bus before. I live here since 3 years and I frequently use the bus from Cancun to Merida....

  9. Wow, as a New Yorker having an entire bus to oneself is inconceivable! Great info and thanks for sharing this. I am a newbie to Merida and fell in love with the city last year, and hope to follow your footsteps in a couple of years. Your blog is one of my favorites to read.


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