By Amy Thibodeau
I'm nearing the end of six weeks on the Pacific Coast of Mexico in the Nayarit province. I haven't wandered too far from my home base in San Blas, but have visited Tepic, Puerto Vallarta and some of the neighboring villages in the region. The country roads and highways in this area are of variable quality; some are modern with paved double lanes while others are little more than winding dirt roads overlooking lush jungles and rivers.
Long distance bus travel in Mexico is cheap, relatively comfortable and mostly reliable. There are dozens of bus lines that cross the myriad of provinces with a few hubs in the larger cities. From these hubs, you can transfer to longer distance buses that will take you almost anywhere in this vast, wide country. Generally, you don't need to book travel in advance and there is really no great benefit to doing so - the price is the same whether you book in advance or two minutes before boarding; however if you wait until the last minute to book your seat, on a busy route you might end up standing for your journey.
Bus journeys here are really an experience, peppered with interesting characters, music, food and the amazing scenery of the Mexican countryside; but there are a number of things that I didn't know before taking my first long distance bus, details that would have made me feel a little bit more comfortable on my first journey. I've listed them here for you:
- When you book a seat on a long distance bus, it will most likely have your seat number written on it. This will be the number next to the word asiento on your receipt. On the trips I've been on, people have been pretty casual about sitting in their assigned seat but if the bus fills up, things can get a little bit complicated. We didn't realize we had assigned seats and were almost kicked out of them by the rightful ticket holder. This would have been a problem because someone else was sitting in our assigned seat. If you can sit in the seat assigned to you, it will avoid potential complications later and will ensure you don't end up standing on a crowded bus.
- Buses are almost always air conditioned but this isn't a fool proof system. Make sure you bring plenty of water and dress in layers so that you can cover up if it's too cold or take something off if the air conditioning breaks down.
- Almost all buses have seats that recline quite far back. Most people are aware and respectful of the people behind them and don't recline all the way back on a full bus, but there are no guarantees.
- If you are expecting a quiet, peaceful ride you are probably in for an unpleasant surprise. Many of the long haul buses show films that are broadcast quite loudly over the speakers. On other buses it isn't uncommon for people to play radios quite loudly. This doesn't even touch on the many people who will get on the bus at various stops and try to sell something by shouting their story loudly from the back of the bus, or the occasional busker who will sing and play guitar at the top of his lungs without any regard to sleeping passengers. Some people would say that this is part of the charm of traveling in Mexico. If you are not easily charmed, make sure to bring ear plugs or an iPod to block out noise.
- If possible, store your luggage on the bus with you, either on your lap, the seat next to you or in the overhead compartment. Buses in Mexico stop frequently to let people on and off. There is no guarantee that your luggage is secure when stored under the bus.
- Frequently people will get on the bus selling food and water. Feel free to haggle if the prices seem too high. Occasionally someone will get on with a bag of nuts or candy and will hand one to everyone on the bus; these are not complimentary snacks from the bus company. Once every passenger has received one, the vendor will stand at the back of the bus and tell a story - usually a sad one - about his or her life and why they need money. They will then come around and you must either give them back their nuts or pay them. Although many people will pay them, don't feel that you have to. This will often happen multiple times in one journey.
- The bus will stop frequently to pick people up and let them off. Rarely do the bus drivers announce the locations before carrying on. If you are staying in a larger center with a formal bus station, the bus will probably stop and park giving you time to get your bearings. If you are staying somewhere smaller, the bus might just stop for a minute and then carry on. Do not be afraid to ask your fellow travelers where you are and when you need to get off. People are generally quite friendly and are happy to help. Note that some larger cities like Tepic have multiple bus stations - make sure you are at the right one before alighting.
- If you are at all prone to motion sickness, bring a plastic bag with you in case of emergency and if possible take an anti-nauseate. As mentioned above, the quality of the roads is variable and you can expect a lot of bumps and jerking turns.
- There are usually bathrooms on buses but occasionally, for trips less than a few hours, there aren't. Make sure you use the facilities in the station before getting on just in case.
- It is often difficult to work out a bus schedule online and they can change frequently. We found it easiest to visit bus stations in person and look at their board listing departures and departure times or to inquire about times at the ticket counter.
- Buses tend to leave on time, or fairly close to it so don't be late or you might get left behind.
Local city buses in Mexico are a horse of a different color entirely; they are usually not air conditioned and feature a menagerie of characters carrying boxes and in some cases even animals. Each locality has its own bus system and from our experience, there aren't a lot of common themes except that destinations are usually painted on the front window of the bus. When in doubt, ask a local for assistance.
Hopefully this list is helpful while not completely eliminating the excitement of disorientation, which can be part of the fun of experiencing a new place. If you have any additional tips or experiences you want to share, please put them in the comments. We would love to hear from you.