January 26 – February 2, 2019
The first time we took a city bus was in Oaxaca. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a good city camping option in Oaxaca City so we ended up at a campsite that, although close to the city and many other attractions, was not in walking distance. There was, though, a bus stop right down the street on the main road.
Even though we took the subway almost every day when we were in Mexico City and have taken buses in many cities in the US taking a bus in Mexico is just a tad bit different.
There are no maps of routes or a schedule (at least not that we could find in the cities we’ve taken the bus). The bus system seems to me to be based almost entirely on local knowledge – which means using our limited Spanish to ask locals, hoping we are understood, and that the reply doesn’t come with too many words. Luckily this local knowledge doesn’t pertain to the actual bus stops which are well marked with big blue signs and an image of a bus. Once the bus comes and we ask the driver if he is going to our attended destination we hop on. The buses are usually packed which means no sitting by the time we board. As we work our way on everyone already standing inches further towards the back to make more room for us and all the other incoming passengers and together we all pack in like sardines. Unlike US buses there is no machine to take your money or scan a bus pass – but there is a guy with folded peso bills between his fingers and a palm full of coins. Sometimes he takes your money right away, sometimes he squeezes his way down the aisle (There must be a skinniness evaluation to get this job) and takes it during the ride, or sometimes he takes it when you depart but to my amazement he always seems to remember who has and hasn’t paid and is adept at making change even when the bus feels like it is going a hundred miles an hour and is packed to the gills. Only once have we gotten receipts for our bus fares. No doubt this was a new guy who hadn’t trained his mind into a steel trap that remembers every single face he’s ever met.
Getting off the bus can be a bit more complicated. There are no buttons to press or cords to pull to alert the driver that you want off at the next stop. From what I’ve observed one simply gets up and walks to the door to let the driver know to stop. Of course, this can be next to impossible for novices like us when the bus is beyond full. I suppose we could shout something but honestly, I don’t know what I should say and don’t want the bus to stop just because the Gringos are yelling something unintelligible. It is actually easiest just to get off where the majority of other people are getting off because that’s most likely where we are going anyways. Also, if none of this works out and the bus isn’t too crowded, the ticket taker can be a great help and will let you know where your stop is.
Generally getting to El Centro (or any other popular destination) is easy – pretty much every bus goes there. But getting the right bus to go home can be a little tricky. Bus destinations are listed on the opposite side from the driver on the front windshield but I never saw the location for where we were staying in Oaxaca listed on any bus. This meant, of course, stepping on to every bus and asking, “Va a San Francisco Lachigoló?” Bus riding tip: Do this enough times at a busy bus stop and some local will get tired of seeing it and let you know when the right bus comes.
Of course it is easiest to find the right bus if you go back to the stop where you got off but we tend to wander about and once after hiking a mile and a half down the road to look at some ruins we found ourselves a long ways away from the action standing alone at a stop wondering why buses were just zooming by. This is all complicated by the fact that there are lots of different types of buses on the road beside city buses – tour buses, express buses – and I can’t really tell what is what because unlike US buses that are all designed to look alike with big ol’ bus logos and ads for injury lawyers plastered on the side, there is nothing uniform or interesting about these city buses. “Perhaps we have to wave them down?” I said to Greg. A local couple joined us at the stop, perhaps they waved – I’m not sure – but the next bus stopped. We boarded, asked the ticket taker if they were going our way, the bus pulled out, and then stopped again almost immediately. We heard someone enter the bus and say, “Los Gingos!” Being almost always the only Gringos on the bus we turned around and saw our camp host (a petite Canadian woman who had seen us waiting but couldn’t stop in time before we got on), who whisked us off the bus and into her car. So apparently it isn’t that hard to stop a bus in Mexico – you just have to be a bit bolder and more determined than us.
Our best bus experience by far has been in the city of Guanajuato (I am jumping ahead here a bit – look for our Guanajuato post in the future). After waving a bus down between stops (Aren’t we bold now?) and jumping on we were immediately confronted by a street comedian made up like a clown. Upon seeing the huge white-haired Gringo (Greg) he began to banter with us for a minute or two in English before turning back to the rest of the bus and continuing in Spanish. I could only understand every third or fourth word but he had the whole bus rolling in the aisles.
I have always been a fan of public transportation. In Atlanta when I would take the train to work in the morning it felt like a great communal activity but then I would look around at the tired faces of my commuting companions and realize that is was more like the masses being carted off to a dark thankless world of toiling for the man. In Mexico, I think about the bus more like an adventure, a place to practice Spanish, or an opportunity for unexpected entertainment. And in between small towns when the driver gets heavy on the gas on a straightaway with no stops, standing there hanging on to the handhold of the nearest seat, packed in with everyone else, sometimes it feels a bit like a thrill ride.
* Click pics to enlarge and view in a slideshow.