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Mexico By Bus: Bargain Hunters' Best Bet

Exploring the Mexican heartland by public transit.

You may have to share the ride with live chickens, but the bus is an excellent way to explore Mexico. More reliable than train travel and far less expensive than renting a car, a sprawling network of bus lines can bring travelers to virtually every village, town and city. In fact, there's a Mexican saying, "If the bus can't get there, neither can a mule."

Mexican buses are divided into first and second class. Although the cost difference is usually minimal, most first-class lines run only between terminals in major cities. If you buy tickets at the terminal about a half an hour before departure, you will generally be assured of a seat. Second-class routes go to both the larger cities and the small villages. They run frequently, are jam packed, and stop whenever someone hails them. Second-class and local buses may have advance tickets available, at least at major terminals. Otherwise, you pay the ticket man. He stands in the front of the bus and asks each passenger for their destination, then--arbitrarily and from memory--sets the price. If you have any choice, try to pick up second-class buses at their origination points--or expect to stand for a while.

In the month we spent in Mexico, we explored the capital district, the mountainous southern region of Oaxaca, the Pacific coast, and the central heartland region, depending almost entirely on the bus. We never felt limited to the larger communities, and knowing that each terminal offered a secure luggage storage facility made it easy to leave our bags until we found lodging.

Mexico City's 17 million-inhabitant metropolitan area is the largest in the world. The city is served by both an extensive bus system and the Metro, which is so crowded that during rush hour, women and children are separated from the men on the trains in order to keep them from being trampled. Even in off-peak hours, it's difficult to find a seat. But both systems are clean, far-reaching, and very efficient--and, at one peso for the Metro or three pesos for the bus, one of the best travel bargains in the world (1 peso = about a thirtieth of a cent).

The capital area's most famous attraction is the pyramids of Teotihuacán, just a short bus-ride away. While its full grandeur and elaborate decorations can only be guessed at, the architecture of this large and magnificent city--at its peak it hosted 125,000 people--has survived amazingly well since it was abandoned around 700 A.D. There are two major structures--the Pyramids of the Sun and of the Moon--and numerous courtyards, outbuildings and relics. One small fragment of a mural also survives, giving a tantalizing glimpse at how the city must have looked in its glory days. Buses run frequently from both Terminal Norte and Indios Verdes.

Another highlight within the city itself is the National Anthropology Museum in Chapultapec Park: a permanent home for thousands of beautifully displayed artifacts from the many pre-Columbian civilizations throughout the country. At the Zócalo (central square), we walked through one of the oldest ruins, Templo Mayor, butting up behind the main cathedral in the heart of downtown. A short distance away, in bustling Alameda Park, the famous murals of Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros and others fill the walls of the Fine Arts Palace (Palacio de Bellas Artes).

After a couple of days in the capital, we took a bus to Oaxaca, a city in the south central part of Mexico known for its crafts, ruins, and spectacular mountainous scenery. Much to our surprise, the bus arrived two hours earlier than scheduled­leaving our stomachs somewhere in the Sierra Madres as the bus hurtled through steep and twisty roads.

In the week we stayed in Oaxaca, we made four bus trips--to the historic ruins of Mitla and Monte Alban, to the village of Bartolemo Coyotepec, known for black pottery, and to Teotitlan del Valle, a hamlet whose inhabitants specialize in rug weaving. Buses ran frequently to all these destinations, though often we did have to stand. Sometimes we even had to let a bus go by, if it was so crowded even we--native New Yorkers--couldn't squeeze on. Often, the posted time of departure had little to do with reality; luckily a huge crafts and food market outside the second-class bus terminal kept us busy while we waited. And the trips themselves were spectacular. As each bus wound its way through the mountains, stopping at small villages with dirt streets and children leading mules through the fields, we were rewarded with stupendous views of the blooming desert.

Leaving Oaxaca, we took a short flight over the Sierras--we'd heard that this particular bus trip was difficult--to Puerto Escondido, a small beach town on the Pacific Coast, and home of the Santa Fe, a vegetarian restaurant with the best food we found in all of Mexico. After some rest and relaxation, we made our way back toward the heartland--starting with an eight hour bus trip up the coast to Acapulco. This "second-class" bus was basically an extended version of local transit, whose passengers almost completely turned over every hour or so. (Aside from us, only the driver and the ticket man--who took turns driving and collecting fares--made the whole trip.) So we watched the chickens get on and off, watched the bus swell and empty, and caught a few glimpses of the ocean between the small Mexican villages. Unlike first-class buses, there was no air conditioning, and we were glad when the bus suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere in front of an ice cream vendor's cart.

From Acapulco, we flew back to Mexico City, then took another ten-hour bus trip, this time on a first-class bus to Uruapán, in the state of Michoacán. A center for coffee and avocado growing, Uruapán boasts Michoacán lacquered furniture and plates, exquisite textile work, some of the cleanest and most pleasant cafes in Mexico (and good coffee to drink in them--in other cities, we switched to hot chocolate), and a spectacularly landscaped tropical National Park where we shared a perfectly ripe avocado and a half kilo of still-warm tortillas, sitting on a stone bench surrounded by blooming poinsettias, huge banana trees and various birds.

Nearby attractions include the Tarascan village of Angahuan, with its views of a volcano that erupted a few decades back, and the waterfall at Tzararacua. Guides at the overlook offer you the opportunity to climb the volcano on horseback. (Sorry--it's one of the few places the bus won't go.)

From Uruapán, it's only a little over an hour to Patzcuaro. Like many small, artsy American towns, Patzcuaro teems with craftspeople during its four-times-weekly market. Vendors offer copper work from nearby Santa Clara del Cobre, straw weaving, elegant clothing, caged songbirds, and woodwork, among others. The copper gleam is accented by the buildings, nearly all of which are brightly whitewashed. It's also worth examining the works of the artisans who show at the House of the Eleven Patios and the Museum of Popular and Regional Arts. The lake, about two miles from the center of the town, is the place to sample the famous local whitefish--direct from fishermen in picturesque "butterfly boats."

Perhaps the most interesting city in Mexico is Guanajuato, several hours north and east of Patzcuaro (change buses in Morelia). Of astonishing cultural richness considering its population of only 80,000, Guanajuato is home to the Cervantes Festival; every fall, world-renowned musicians descend upon its twisted alleys and cliffside pastel homes. And during the rest of the year, the plazas are filled with musicians, the numerous bookstalls are jammed, and an internationally known school of mime and clown arts attracts many students from the U.S. and Europe.

The tourist office, on Juarez, close to the bus terminal, gives out a great map of the city and surrounding craft villages, hot springs, and other attractions. Good overview tours (in Spanish or English) leave from the same location.

A few of the many "must sees" in Guanajuato: The view of the town below and the high ridges above at Pipila (a huge statue of freedom fighter José Barajas), the mummy museum, Diego Rivera's birthplace, the Alhondiga (which Barajas attacked during the Mexican Revolution), prosperous neighborhoods in the Lake District, and the downtown area with its parks, ornate church and theater facades, and old-world feel. There's also hiking in the mountains just outside town. (Click here for a more in-depth article on this jewel of the Mexican heartland.)

The traveling wasn't always easy, but riding the bus let us forsake our "hurry-up" culture for the more relaxed spirit of Mexico. Despite years of racing down subway stairs and grabbing jangling phones, it was easier than we thought to convert to the "soon come" attitude the locals managed to maintain while waiting for a long-delayed bus. In fact, some of our best conversations took place on bus lines--discussing politics or local culture in stammering Spanish. It was hard, when we returned, to switch again to conversing in English with telephone solicitors interrupting our dinner.

(1992. An earlier version of this piece appeared in Transitions Abroad.)

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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