As a carefree, adventurous GI Bill student in Mexico City 40 years ago, I probably contributed to the lore about sharing rides with chickens on rickety Mexican buses as I explored the country on a shoestring budget. Things are much better now, and on my many trips back I've run into countless Americans my age seeing Mexico on a budget by bus--but in comfort and safety. All it takes is flexibility, patience and some rudimentary Spanish.
Mexico has dozens of companies providing four distinct classes of service, inexpensively blanketing the entire nation from Tijuana to Cancun. Most of them offer deluxe and first-class service, as well as second and third class.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 13, 1999 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Mexico--Due to an editing error in the story on bus transportation in Mexico ("Easy Going by Bus," June 6), the name of a Mexican city was misspelled; it is Pachuca, not Pachuco.
Clase de lujo (deluxe class) is sometimes called servicio executivo, Pullman or plus. These buses usually are late-model Mercedes Benzes or Dinas built in Brazil, similar to scenic tour buses in the U.S., with big windows, restrooms, air conditioning and individual reading lights. They are designed to carry up to 50 passengers but usually have seat configurations for 36 to 39; the seats are airline-first-class style, reclining, with considerable leg room. Free snacks and beverages are served, and three or four overhead closed-circuit video screens play recent movies.
Typically, these buses depart and arrive on time, offer advance reservations and seat choice, and as much as possible run on toll roads nonstop between cities.
Good examples of lines offering such service include ADO (Autobuses Del Oriente), serving the Gulf coast of Mexico from Matamoros and Reynosa, south of Texas; Omnibus de Mexico, Turistar and TN (Transportes del Norte), serving other regions south of Texas; ETN (Enlaces Terestres Nacionales), serving the central region; and TTUR (Transportes Turisticos del Bajio), operating out of Queretaro and Leon.
Clase primera, or clase 1a--first class--buses also use newer equipment on fixed schedules, but carry up to 50 passengers in a configuration of slightly narrower and closer reclining seats. These buses usually have an on-board restroom and videos and sometimes provide a skinny sandwich and a soft drink on departure, usually from the same camionera central (central bus depot) as deluxe buses.
On longer routes, first-class buses make rest stops every couple of hours (sometimes, it seems, at the driver's cousin's cafe). Reservations are not usually possible, but seats are assigned. Departures are frequent, and a competing bus line's counter is always just down the row in the terminal.
Clase segunda, or clase 2a--second-class--lines are the workhorses of Mexico's national fleet. They tend to use older equipment, sometimes even with school-bus bodies, and carry at least 50 passengers plus occasional standees. There's no restroom or air conditioning.
On most routes, these buses make numerous stops, and travel time between major cities can be twice that of deluxe and first-class buses.
Passengers are typically campesinos and working-class men, and women with restless babies, often carrying immense bundles on board. Drivers allow street peddlers on at stops to sell ice cream, fruit, tacos, souvenirs, lottery tickets.
Once, on a bus between Pachuco and Queretaro, a guitar-and-squeeze-box duo boarded and serenaded us, the captive audience, with off-key ranchera music. After half an hour of this, they passed a sombrero from back to front, deducted their fares (or a cut for the driver) and jumped off at the next little town to cross the highway and catch the next audience heading back to their starting point.
Tickets for second-class travel aren't available more than half an hour before departure time, which may be delayed while waiting for a full load or expected late-arriving passengers.
Clase tercera, or clase 3a--third class--buses, although not so labeled by their operators, are the majority in Mexico. These are mostly very old, sometimes ancient, equipment with no amenities, operating mostly between small towns. They take on everybody with an outstretched finger along the road in rural areas, along with all their produce, handicrafts or poultry, leading Mexicans with typical good humor to jokingly refer to them as polleros ("chicken buses").
Tarifas (fares) differ between classes, but even the de lujo service preferred by most Americans is comparatively inexpensive: A two-hour trip, about 100 miles, usually costs $10 to $12, lower classes even less. (A 10% to 15% overall increase is expected this year.) Last fall, I completed a 1,400-mile journey visiting 14 cities for a total of $74.40, using a mix of clase de lujo, 1a and 2a buses. Compared with auto rental rates or the cost of driving one's own car, traveling by bus is a true bargain for the budget minded.
However--and this is the bane of U.S. travel agents--schedules and fares are generally unavailable. But departures are frequent at major terminus cities like Tijuana, Nogales (south of Tucson) and Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, on the Texas border, with several lines and times to choose from.