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  Riding The Bus In Mexico,article by Bruce McGovern
  Originally published in 2006
Buses in Mexico, my experiences. This essay was written for first timers, as it is basic info. Others may enjoy the memories, though.

I consider myself neither a writer, nor an expert on bus travel, but can only report what I have seen. My knowledge is based on 14 years of visiting Mexico, a month a year since 1989.

In 1998, I traveled over 150 hours by bus in Mexico, traveling from the border to Mexico City, and visiting family around the Central Highlands. I have traveled most classes of service, to a number of locations, except cattle truck.

Other sources of information are: Frommer's Frugal Guides to travel in Mexico. And, I understand there are several good personal books available about living and traveling in Mexico. Of course, Netiquette would suggest you first look at the URL where you read this to see what is for sale. That's how the bills are paid.

Bus service in Mexico is fantastic. Most people don't have cars, so there is a need for good bus service, and that service is met a number of ways, as I will describe below.

Bus stations
All Cities have a bus terminal. Small towns may simply have a bus stop, where you wait until the bus comes. Even there, a bus may be along every 15 minutes. In this situation, it is often third class service, and you climb aboard, and take a seat, or stand, and the driver's assistant comes by when he has time, and collects the money. (Dec. 1998 - this is changing as some 3rd class buses now require the driver to do it all.)

Bus stations in cities, due to the large amount of traffic, can be very large places. In cities of any size, there will be many ticket booths, for many lines. There will be small booths, for the elite buses, (lujos, or ejecutivo). Bigger booths for bigger lines, sometimes sell all the classes of service (lujos; primera clase; second class; direct, and with many stops.) On the busiest routes, there may be first, or lower, class buses leaving every 15 minutes. On higher price buses, such as UNO lujos class, direct between Cordoba and Mexico City, the bus leaves at exactly a stated time each way, perhaps only twice a day.

UNO, and ADO, at TAPO (see below) has its own waiting room, the buses park right outside, and security checks you at the door. At most terminals, and most bus lines, one must work out through security, and find the bus, marked by gate number, and the usual sign on the front of the bus. This can be harder than it sounds in a large, busy terminal.

ETN from Norte, in Mexico City, has buses every hour or so, lujos class, to Guadalajara.
ADO is also a good bus line, and covers a large area. See URL's below.
AU I call it the second class bus line from hell, but it covers a lot of the central highlands, even to small places. In 1999, I finally used AU again, from Cordoba to Puebla
CAPU, and it used the Cuota, so the trip was nice, with the only difference from first class being lack of bathroom and no movie. So, I must retract one or two of the hundreds of bad things I've said about AU in the past.

Due to obvious security problems, one passes through the same metal detectors that airlines use. Several years ago, when I went camping with Scout leaders, we had knives, machetes, hatchets, and even a pellet gun, and the detectors rang steadily as we walked through them. But, since we were in Scout uniform, with back packs, security stood there, smiling, and waved us through.

The terminals have food, restaurants, vendors, and pickpockets. In larger cities, there is a ticket booth to buy a guaranteed price ticket, for authorized taxis, which can be found in a line- up, just as at airports. You tell the ticket seller where you want to go, and he knows the correct price. The rates are perhaps double the rate of street taxis, but that's reasonable, because you are paying for a round-trip, of course, since the taxi returns empty for another load. Authorized taxis are no absolute guarantee of security from crime, but they are considered much safer than street taxis, since the drivers feel a need to protect their expensive authorization permits. If a stranger pulls a taxi in line, the other drivers will dispense with him quickly!

Guadalajara has had a new station for a while, but they still call it Terminal Nuevo, and it is farther in the country.

Puebla's terminal is also relatively new. All incoming buses stop at a round building in the center, and you must go up one of two ramps, and cross an overhead, covered walkway, then down to the main terminal. The center building has some pretty sorry, free restrooms. If one is alone with luggage, though, it might pay to use them because it is hard to take much luggage up the stairs to the nice 2 peso restrooms in the main terminal. I assume you all know to carry a small amount t.p. in your purse in Mexico? The 2 peso restrooms hand you a wad of t.p. when you pay, but the free ones have none.

Puebla's outgoing buses leave from the outside of the circle. Buses direct to the airport in Mexico City are at the first gates; the third class buses to small towns are a very long walk.

Mexico City - has 4 main bus stations. Norte, or terminal of the north; TAPO (the letters mean terminal to points east); Sur (south); and Terminal poniente, or Observatorio (west, but mostly Toluca.)

Sometimes, you can find service to a destination from different stations, which could help if you know what you are doing, and are closer to another station. For example, one can come from the north, and get an ADO bus to Puebla every 20 minutes from 4 am to 10 pm, without transferring; if someone has told you differently, they are uninformed. But, only the primary station will have the most lines and the widest choices of service.

PLEASE CHECK THIS LIST WITH ANOTHER SOURCE IF IT IS IMPORTANT! I COMPILED IT FOR PERSONAL USE, SO ERRORS ARE POSSIBLE. Note that each terminal will have buses to many locations, but I do not have access to a source of names that is not copyrighted. These are from personal knowledge.

TAPO (east)
Cancun, Cordoba, Ver., Cozumel, Ixta-Popo park, Jalapa, Merida, OAXACA, Orizaba, Palenque, Puebla (also direct from Airport maybe once or twice an hour in day hours) from Puebla, one can get buses east very handily, Tuxpan, Vera Cruz, Vera Cruz.

Terminal Norte (North)
Aguascalientes (best time to go, evening so you can sleep)Casas Grandes, Celaya, Lake Chapala, Chihuahua, Colima, Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Matamoros, Matzatlan, Monterrey, Nogales, Nuevo Laredo, (Puebla every 20 minutes from 4 am to 10 pm, by ADO, noted 5/99), Puerto Vallarta, Queretaro, Reynosa - McAllen, Teotihuacan *** (see note below), Tepic, Tijuana, San Luis Potosi, San Miguel de Allende.

Terminal Sur (South)
Acapulco, Cuernavaca, Taxco, Zihuantanejo (Be aware that tourist buses in Sur to Taxco are often labeled 'Luxury' in English. These are little more than school buses, and are not the buses we refer to as lujos or ejecutivo. They are okay for the distance and purpose, but do not judge lujos by these buses.)

Terminal Poniente (Observatorio) West
Ensenada, Mexicali, Playa Azul, Tijuana, Toluca, Uruapan.
***Note - for Teotihuacan, there may be some advantages in taking a tour such as Gray Lines, whose books are on a table in the airport before you get your luggage. If you go to terminal Norte, you can indeed get to Teotihuacan, but when you catch a bus, outside the park gate, on the return trip,it doesn't take you back to the terminal, but drops you by a metro station at a local stop for commuters. If you're comfortable on the metro (it is generally recommended that new tourists not go on the metro) or street taxi, fine.

Otherwise, you might want to pay Gray Lines to take care of you. Gray Lines brochures are available in a table as you come to pick up your luggage in the airport. Gray Lines are the wonderful folks who meet you at Holland Lines in Alaska. I have never used them in Mexico, but assume they have the same security and comfort as elsewhere.

Your other choice in Mexico City is to hire a day driver, from Gray Lines, or from a taxi sitio near your hotel, where only registered drivers are allowed to pick up passengers.

I am not an expert, and many of these destinations are derived from other sources, such as reading the boards in the terminals, asking my wife, or passing the city in a bus from that terminal. (The lists were long, but I have deleted all those I obtained only from copyrighted material.) I have used buses to Cordoba, Puebla, rural Pue., Queretaro, Celaya, Jocoqui, Guadalajara, Reynosa, and Cuernavaca, as well as local service in Mexico City, and can vouch those are correctly stated.

My favorite is Norte, because it's convenient to my house.

My least favorite is TAPO, because it's quite a walk from the taxi that gets you there, and when you leave, there can be a 30+ minute wait in line for an authorized taxi, though this year, the wait was only a few seconds. The authorized porters at the taxi stand are EXTREMELY aggressive.

An alert reader, Todd, reminded me to tell you smoking policies are completely different in Mexico. Lujos may or may not be smoke-free. And, lower classes of buses will often include plenty of smokers. There seems to be a evolving attitude towards smoke in Mexico, but you will find it very hard to stop someone from smoking if they choose to do so. If you are allergic to smoke, make this decision before you go to Mexico.

General thoughts
I am a survivor, and ALWAYS I take food, fruit, and lots of water, when I travel anywhere. (This requires planning, when one crosses the border and must leave all this stuff behind.) ALSO T.P., on my person. Even in lujos, they only give you one meal, and one bottle of water. Bottled water is sold almost everywhere, at very modest cost, like 50cents U.S. for a small bottle. Take plenty. They sell everything in most bus stations, but be aware that some buses leave immediately after you buy tickets, and you would have no time to buy goodies.

Here's another tip, perhaps a little indelicate. Some of the diarrhea you hear about is not necessarily Montezuma's revenge. The difference in food and water, the altitude, and stress of travel tends to 'loosen your system', and if untreated, you will get worse and worse. This tends to dehydrate you more, and worsen altitude sickness, so common in Mexico City. (I say 'more' because extreme dehydration is the first sign of adjustment to extreme altitudes. When we took Boy Scouts to Camp Alexander, CO, their lips would turn black from dehydration.)

IMMODIUM, or its generic equivalent, available in most Mexican cities as a white pill, not our green ones, is the answer. With your first sign of looseness, try maybe 1/2 of an immodium, and repeat each time you are 'loose'. I carry Immodium with me everywhere. This has completely changed my visits to Mexico. Of course, if you really do get Montezuma's revenge, you may need to see a doctor or buy an antibiotic at a pharmacy.

Note - some bus riders open windows, especially on lower class buses, which can be a nuisance. 'Anne' has seen it happen on ETN, and recommends selecting a seat near the front.

Classes of Service
1. Lujos, that is, luxury class, called ejecutivo by some lines. These buses are rather plush; the best are made by Mercedes Benz. There are often only about 25 seats per bus, 3 per row, 1 along one side, 2 on the other with the walkway between, and one by the restroom. The seats are obviously large, and comfy. They recline almost flat, and a leg rest comes down from the seat ahead of you. This permits you to relax and sleep. Usually, you have a little pillow, and a blanket. Usually, they give you a cold lunch, perhaps sandwich, and fruit, drink, and cookie. Lujos seems to always have a restroom in working order. First class usually has a restroom, but once in a great while, it will be out of order.

The windows are covered with nice curtains, so the sunlight is almost completely darkened. This isn't just to let you sleep; it's also to block out the view, (even out the front) which in Mexico, is not always conducive to relaxing.

For example, the old highway ( a new cuota is used by good buses) over the mountains to Cordoba, Vera Cruz is 2-lane, and no guard rails, and 1/2 mile drop straight down, like a horror movie.This isn't sight-seeing; it's pure terror, especially when you round a corner at 60 mph, and there are 3 trucks, side by side, coming at you in the 2-lane road.

Lujos has few or no stops. They sometimes make a trip hours faster than lower class service. Even lujos, on popular routes, except at Christmas season, seems to have available seats without reservations, MOST of the time.

Lujos, like primera clase, has TV sets, and they play one or more movies during the trip. (Actually, sometimes,the driver will ask if the riders want a movie, or prefer to sleep.) The bad news is, sometimes the movie is an Eddie Murphy movie,and these sweet Mexican women watch, as he says, "bleep, bleep, bleep" and the subtitle says "maldiccion" (bad language.)

The lujos drivers are the best. There are few panic stops or rapid swerves to avoid wrecks. They look, dress, and have the demeanor of true professionals.

Cost? In late 1998, direct, non-stop lujos bus tickets cost about $4 to $5 USD per hour of travel. (i.e. - DF to Reynosa costs about $60 USD one way, and takes 14+ hours. UNO, 4 hours Cordoba to DF is about $19 USD per person.) Guadalajara was a seven hour trip last time I did it.

ADO GL is not a true lujos, though they call it that. They just have a little more leg room than first class, thus a few less passengers. Also, they do give you a soft drink, or bottle of water, like lujos. The good news is they cost only a tiny bit more than first class.

First class runs about $3 USD an hour. (DF to Reynosa about $45 USD). Second class costs about 20% less for the same trip, but the calculation is skewed because second class stops at so many places, and takes so long, one cannot use the time figures.

These figures, in USD, seem to be stable even as the cost in pesos changes dramatically.

Top lines, like ETN, have computer terminals, personal attention at the booths, and can arrange return passage,sometimes at a discount.

Warning: the lujos buses tend to LEAVE ON TIME.If you are not there, you lose your money.

In lujos, as well as first class, there is reserved seating. You are assigned a seat, like on an airplane. If the bus isn't full, of course, no one will say anything if you move into another seat. (Unless you do stop at another terminal, and someone has bought that seat.)

On third class and local, it's standing-room only, first come, first served. In Mexico, in third and local class, usually men will stand up for old women, women with babies, and pregnant women. The big plus of macho.

Be aware that the buses to Taxco marked 'LUXURY' in English, are not lujos buses. They are adequate to your sight-seeing needs.

Long trips, like Mexico City to Reynosa, tend to leave at 5 or 7 pm, and drive all night, with 2 drivers, while you sleep, and in the morning, you are there.

Home pages on the Internet, effective 12/30/98: This URL is the current link center for UNO, ADO, ETN(Spanish only), and Flecha Amarilla links. (may be a different page than shown in differentworld links).

2. Clase primera, first class, is similar to Greyhound buses. They are good, if you need the savings from lujos,or if your trip is only a couple of hours. Primera clase is ordinary class, on most routes. On busy routes, they may leave several times an hour. Only during special times like Christmas, or days of special religious significance, such as the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, or Holy Week, is there a need to make reservations ahead of time. For sight seeing, go first class, because lujos has the curtains, and opening them to see out may be a nuisance for locals who want to sleep in the dark.

3. Second class. Some limited personal experience, as noted in other places. They stop everywhere, and AU is the bus line from hell between Cordoba and Puebla or DF. (1999 - if you take an AU bus that goes by cuota, that is, toll road, it is better than my previous experiences, except no restroom aboard, and no TV).

4. Third Class. This is sometimes, for out of the way places, the only choice. Third class buses are obviously old school buses, or old first class buses, patched together. (Some of them may have literally millions of miles on them. I asked a young mechanic in Cordoba, how long they last, and he looked at me, puzzled. When he understood what I was asking, he indicated they were fixed and driven forever, unless they are rolled into a ball by a train. His have been running, 7 days a week, 15 hours a day, in local service, for more than THIRTY YEARS!!)

First come, gets a seat. Others stand up. You climb aboard, the bus takes off, and an assistant to the driver works his way through the bus, and collects the fare. (In 1998, this changed, and some 3rd class lines require the driver to do all the work.) Usually, there is a radio or cassette player, playing loudly, typical Mexican music, and most drivers have a rosary and picture of Jesus or Mary hanging over their mirror.

There are, as I said, buses which go direct, and some which stop on the way, and others stop a lot. In third class, the bus stops at every grouping of humans, and the assistant jumps out, and runs over, and tries to recruit passengers. They stop anywhere to pick up, and they stop anywhere to drop off.

Third Class is inconvenient, and tiring, and of course, no restrooms. Ah, but the people you see. You will see little women, absolutely stereotypically Indian in appearance, with long braids, walk out of the dust, and they probably had to carry water a 1/4 mile to wash, and they'll have a baby in arms, and two in tow, and they will be wearing white cotton, and they and the kids will be spotless. And, sometimes, the husband will be there, and he will be the exact opposite, often drunk as unemployed men tend to be. And, the sweetest little kids,such beautiful eyes, remind me so much of my beloved daughter at that age. And, the grandmas escorting their teenage grand kids. And, women going to or from market for herbs, and meat, and rice. I love it.

Yes, sometimes, people stop the bus, and the assistant climbs out and helps put a car engine under the bus, or a bicycle. And, my brother-in-law, an attorney in Mexico City once had live turkeys over his head in the rack, and they pooped on his head.

5. Local - in the cities, there are combis (vans or small buses) and buses running local routes every direction, to and from every important point. Usually, they prefer you flag them down at corners. They cost almost nothing. The problem is you have to know which one to take for your destination.

I have ridden in the small, VW buses, in Puebla, with 16 or more people. You are like sardines, and you become more physically close to beautiful, young women than you would ever imagine. As long as you keep your hands where they should be, they accept it, as a cultural necessity. And, you hope no one has TB, or lice.

6. Cattle truck - no joke. I have seen, when going third class, in the country, drop-offs where there is a cattle truck waiting, and the commuters pay the driver and climb in back. The women move to the front where it's safer, and the men hang on the back 'by their teeth'. They are going to a town so small and isolated that even the omnipresent buses can't go. I'd like to go there sometime.

Checking luggage
Yes, you can check luggage on Mexican lujos and first and maybe second class buses. Reasonable amounts, about what you can take on an airplane, I think, are free. Larger amounts may have a small charge.

Lujos - there is usually a place to check your luggage by the ticket booth, and you pick it up at the other end.There is usually a time limit, so many minutes before the bus leaves, so they have time to load it. I think this is also true for first class. The problem with first class, on busy routes, a bus leaves so often there would never be time to check it - they just tell you to go now and get on the bus, it leaves in 10 minutes.

I usually do not check luggage, except at ADO in TAPO, where they make me do it. You can usually also check it at the bus door. (However, in April, 1999, for the first time, at ADO in TAPO in Mexico City, we were required to take our luggage to the counter, as we attempted to board, but only in DF. They seem to want to change rules a lot there. Ask when you buy your tickets.)

Warning - in 1998, ADO in Mexico City doesn't permit an airplane-carry-on size suitcase to go on the bus with you.If you have medicines, money, etc., in a carry-on, have them where you can find them when you board the bus, so you can dig them out. This is only in D.F. Other stations don't seem to care.

In 1999, they changed luggage check from by the bus door, to checking at the check window. This is a change from general practice, still used in most places in Mexico, where you check luggage as you board the bus.

The lower the class of service, the more crowded the bus, and the bigger problem luggage will cause. On the street, local buses, they tend to resist anything which takes much space or time to load, expecting you to get a taxi.

On third class, I do see people loading car engines and bicycles underneath. The overheads in the buses are, in lower class buses,totally inadequate to the number of people who ride. In lujos or first class, to give maximum headroom, they are only big enough for smaller carry-ons. In lujos, you can put larger carry-ons under the foot rest, when you have it put down. Mexicans are usually very mellow, and the higher the class of service, the more mellow the people are. If the bus is only partly full, no one will be surprised if you move to an unoccupied seat, or move extra luggage there. But, be aware, if the bus stops at another terminal, a person may have bought a seat that seemed to be empty.

Soldiers stopping the bus
As I write this, there is some debate on a well known Internet Forum about the dangers in Mexico. One man was frightened when his family was stopped, without explanation, by soldiers with automatic weapons, and searched.

Think, "Highway Patrol. Different guns. Different uniforms." And, relax, and act just as you would with armed and dangerous law enforcement people in the States - that is, extreme respect and obedience.

Just as we do in Southern Texas, the local law enforcement groups in Mexico, which includes the Army, will make random stops on buses and cars, and will look for drugs, firearms, and criminals. Some of this is driven by the U.S., with our demands for stringent action by the Mexican government to qualify for annual aid through certification.

Sometimes, a person who wouldn't be more than peeved at the delay caused by a sheriff or highway patrol random stop, in the States, will be totally frightened when the equivalent event in Mexico occurs, just because they are soldiers with military weapons.

Our system of government precludes routine use of military in internal affairs, but it's not that way in mexico. Remember - you are not covered by our Constitution while you are in Mexico. Obviously, the smart person doesn't carry weapons or drugs into, or in Mexico. At this time, one .22 shell can get you several years in prison.

Bruce McGovern, 1998

Bruce first went to Mexico in 1983 and says, "I consider myself to be an ordinary person in almost every sense of the term, and am often amazed when I realize how exotic many of my experiences in Mexico really are, compared to the usual tourist experience."

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