Published: February 2002
Choosing Bus or Plane
I always seem to have more time than money for my vacation. After having figured out that flying to Mexico would be impractical (storing my house trailer, Nellie Belle for two weeks at the airport plus working out a complicated series of transfers just to get to the airport and back), I came to the decision that,"This is the year to take the bus". Rancho Isore (where I live) is located in the U.S., just three short miles from the bus terminal in Tecate, Mexico. So, the stage was set.
A few weeks before my trip was slated to begin I perused the ticket counter at Transportes Norte de Sonora, a major bus line serving México's northwest coast as far south as Tepic. Three buses depart daily. Because I planned to stay at least one night in Mazatlan, I chose a nine o'clock morning departure from Tecate. According to the schedule this meant a marathon ride of slightly more than twenty-four hours. (To continue on to Tepic, however, would have meant arriving there after dark.)
As any experienced traveler knows, arrival time is at least as important -- if not more so -- than the hour of departure. For that reason I did not consider taking a more luxurious "Elite" bus, which arrives in Mazatlan near midnight.
Armed with fares and schedules, I returned home to hammer away at a calculator. A combination of daydreaming and shrewd planning which focused around my tiny budget allowed me to arrive at numerous options. The first point was that I shouldn't commit myself to a round-trip ticket, even though it meant passing up a ten percent discount on the fare.
I had to really compromise on baggage as my existing luggage consisted of a huge double suitcase and two tiny gym bags. The suitcase was out of the question -- even when empty it weighs more than I was willing to lug. That left the gym bags. I managed to stuff a couple changes of clothes, medicine, and a tiny single cup drip coffeemaker and accessories into these small bags. Because it was the middle of winter, I would wear suitable clothing to and from Tecate.
I hitched a ride to the bus station and managed to have enough time to visit a panaderia (bakery) to stock up on pastry snacks for the marathon ride. I lugged my bags to the bus station ticket counter and checked in. The bus arrived on time and I was soon ensconced in a seat about five rows in front of the toilet. I was quick to appraise that a bus with forty or more seats has marginal legroom for someone of my stature. Thank goodness the bus was less than half-filled. I sat in an aisle seat and found legroom by twisting to one side. Individuals under six feet in height should find a forty seat bus adequate, however.
With a roar, the engine started and almost immediately a subtitled, action-packed video appeared. A quick glance revealed that I had my choice of not watching three monitors -- one was green hued, the second red, and the third, black and white. I chuckled and turned my attention out the window. The chilly familiar northern Bája desert was flashing by and I saw nothing to hold my interest. Two sweetbreads and a large coffee later, I opened a thick novel that I had been saving for the journey.
With a start I raised my head off of my chest and realized the bus was traveling at a walking pace. I had fallen asleep and we were approaching the Mexicali depot. I stretched and arose, heading for the handy onboard baño.
The buses' bathroom door was locked. About that time the relief driver sauntered down the aisle and informed me that the baño was "fuera de servicio" (out of service). I gave thanks as the bus approached its parking bay.
After paying three pesos to use the station's facility, I resolved to exit the bus at every stop in order to stretch my legs and lose some of that cramped feeling in my back and neck.
Back aboard, I began to notice a pattern that was to prevail throughout the trip. Few passengers were in it "for the long haul". Most boarded at one station and departed the next. Unlike the unruly and frantic atmosphere that I observed on many "chicken bus" adventures in past years, the passengers were conservative and talked very little.
As the hours passed I began to realize that a major component of bus travel is.... boredom. Unlike in an automobile where I could gaze through the windshield and focus on something that would hold my interest for a while, objects and scenery flashed by the side window of the bus in a blur, leaving nothing but a nondescript horizon to focus on. There were just enough jiggles in the quality of the ride to permit a half-hour of reading before my eyes tired. I decided that eating sunflower seeds would be a most suitable activity as it required a lot of labor and concentration for very little effect.
Our arrival in Sonora was greeted by the setting of the sun. Twelve hours had passed and I realized that the halfway point was yet to be reached. The aircraft style "reading lights" were just about bright enough to make out the type in my novel, so with a sigh, I closed the book and decided to start daydreaming about the perfect beaches that lay ahead of me.
My seat reclined to an admirable tilt and I found my shoulder inexorably shifting little by little toward the window and sill beneath. This is when I discovered that the most comfortable position for my waist on down was not necessarily the most ideal from that point on up. My shoulder kept jamming into the sill and my head invariably came to rest on the glass, the former chilled my "hombro" to the bone while the latter acted as a crude sounding board, magnifying otherwise subtle mechanical and road noises to a level approaching that of feeding time at the zoo. I extracted one of my bags from beneath the seat and removed a clean tee shirt and shorts. I used them as a makeshift pad, but I vowed to obtain a small inflatable pillow for my next bus vacation.
Mexican Bus Stations
The various bus stations along our route ranged from rustic to quite modern. None were heated and most had a nippy early hours draft. Sleepy-eyed passengers stared at me, the only gringo on this particular bus. For the most part, the stations were empty and the toilets lacked seats. Years ago I learned that the handiest way to tote toilet paper was not in a roll but rather in a wad of large folded napkins that are dispensed in U.S. fast food hamburger joints.
The time spent at each station varied from "cinco minutos" to "media hora". In actual practice, the five minutes were never less than seventeen minutes and the half hours lasted up to forty minutes. I decided early on to always ask the driver or his alternate "¿Cuantos minutos tengo?" This was done both for a time estimate and as a gentle reminder to "please remember the gringo" in case they decided to leave early or even on time.
Bus station food is never something to brag about, but in the late evening hours, meal counters were closed, and the ubiquitous ladies selling tamales were absent. This left bagged snacks, wrapped sandwiches, and canned pop. This stuff didn't come cheap. A simple egg sandwich cost two dollars and a can of colored water, a buck. This added another point to my list of suggestions: take a prepackaged picnic bag with at least one full meal plus assorted cheeses, nuts, and condiments. Perhaps the best choice would be ingredients that require a lot of preparation (to help pass the time).
The southeastern horizon was just a shade lighter than pitch black when we pulled into the brand new bus terminal in Culiacan. This was no cramped alcove on some back street, but rather a gigantic complex set in the midst of acre upon acre of open pavement. Roll up doors gave the appearance of a huge grocery distribution warehouse. I decided to seek the restroom before embarking on the final three-hour leg to Mazatlan. The complex was so new that the facilities weren't quite finished and I had to hike a full ten minutes along a maze of interior corridors before I encountered a large bathroom sign with arrow.
An unexpected stop
I had planned to arrive rested and refreshed in Mazatlan, but as the sun rose in the east, my energy level seemed to sag. Even though the bus was scheduled to continue all the way to México City, I was the only passenger for the last hundred miles into Mazatlan.
After we left the Maxipista toll road (and before Mazatlan), the second bus driver approached me. Earlier we had conversed briefly about the weather and the road, and he knew that I spoke Spanish.
He grinned as he stood beside my seat and asked, "Have you ever been to Sinaloa?"
I replied in the affirmative.
"Do you like la cocina Sinaloense?"
"Oh, si" I answered respectfully.
"How about chicken?" he continued "pollo al carbon?"
"Barbecued chicken?" I patted my stomach and smiled "Me gusta!"
Without another word the man turned and yelled "Si!" to the driver, who instantly jammed on the brakes and skidded the near-empty bus onto the shoulder. The driver and assistant bailed out through the door and I wondered just what the hell was going on. When I exited, half in wonder and the other half in anticipation, I spotted the pair sitting at a table. We had literally parked on the edge of the dining area of a roadside open-air restaurant. I laughed aloud as I caught the familiar scent of chicken roasting over glowing mesquite coals.
The drivers were soon sipping an ice-cold cerveza while a thin man with even thinner gray hair stood impatiently tapping his order book with a pencil. From the look of triumph on the faces of driver and accomplice I realized that this stop was a coveted respite not ordinarily granted in the course of the normal schedule.
"I'm sure glad that you said 'sí'." the driver remarkedas he bit into an enormous steaming thigh.
We arrived in Mazatlan about two hours late. "Bus trouble," quipped the assistant.
Before I parted company with bus number 4443 I asked the driver to suggest a bus line that serves Puerto Vallarta.
Local and Short Haul Buses
A day of rest and relaxation in Mazatlan did wonders for my energy level and zest. By the time I found the ticket counter at "Estrella Blanca" I was looking forward to the five-hour trip to Puerto Vallarta. I did not purchase a round-trip ticket, sensing that to do so would commit me to a schedule that I was ill prepared to keep. Thanks to a curious departure schedule I wasn't due to arrive in that tropical paradise until suppertime. I really didn't feel like overnighting in Vallarta so some thought had to be given to the hour of my arrival and subsequent departure on the third and final leg of my journey.
I figured I should take the very last bus leaving Puerto Vallarta for Manzanillo, Colima. I would then arrive at my destination, a tiny beach village, after midnight. This would be too late to get a room, so the best I could do would be to hope for warm evening weather.
To my everlasting joy the first class Estrella Blanca bus from Mazatlan to Puerto Vallarta offered six inches more legroom than the TNS coach from Tecate. This bus was the same size but had fewer seats -- thirty-six versus forty-two to be exact. The restroom aboard the bus was also functioning which was a definite plus.
Again, I found myself alone on much of the journey and was more than a little dismayed to see the televisions light up with yet another violence movie. I was wrong. By a stroke of luck, however, my driver was an intellectual. His surprise movie choice was a little-known modern classic by the name of La Ley de Herodes (Herod's Law). Winner of an international film festival, the utterly black, hysterically funny Mexican comedy pokes fun at the PRI political machine, corruption, the clergy, police and just about every other group in México. It had me in stitches for the next two hours. The driver was grinning from ear-to-ear and remarked that most American tourists had the same reaction that I did to this amazing piece of cinematography. Needless to say, I was in fine spirits when the bus rolled into the PV bus station.
I spent the four hour layover in PV eating a brace of fish tacos from a curbside vendor, and washed them down with a liter of fresh squeezed vegetable juice. I also discovered an internet café with a promotion price of U.S. $1.50 per hour.
Transportes de Cihuatlan is the local bus line between Puerto Vallarta and points south. The bus was quite modern and to my surprise had as much legroom as the last bus. This bus had one passenger, me. I spent the next three hours gazing about the darkened interior. When at last it rolled up a deserted street and stopped in front of the village bus stop, my journey was over. With bags in hand I watched the bus roar off down the street. It was not quite three a.m. local time.
Luggage note: I really wanted to use my coffeemaker and use it I did! Upon awakening in the early morning hours, I brewed a tasty Caribbean blend that had me whistling as I rustled up breakfast. Perhaps when my inheritance comes through from a yet unknown rich relative I will search for luggage with wheels that can take abuse from rough cobblestone streets.
Epilogue: True to form I miscalculated the cost of living and found that I would have to cut short my planned two-week stay by several days. However, upon my return to Mazatlan, I discovered that Transportes Norte de Sonora had a surprise fifty percent discount fare for my return home. This reinforces my opinion that it is best not to commit too heavily on a schedule when you find yourself with more time than money. Upon my return to "La Linea" (the U.S. border) in Tecate I found that a recent storm had left air temperatures in the forties. I cried aloud in relief when a neighbor spotted me walking on the shoulder of the highway and gave me a ride almost to my front door.
Lessons learned: Take an inflatable pillow "bolster" for use between shoulder and window; allow sufficient time to recuperate after a marathon bus ride; do not assume that the toilet is in working order; plan ahead.
And finally, unless one has a great spirit of adventure, a good deal of extra time, and plans to visit several intermediate points of interest, it's hard to beat an airplane ride on this a journey of this length (1,500 miles each way). For the record, my bus fares amounted to U.S. $220 (it would have been $270 had it not been for the half-price sale on the last return leg). At the time I did this trip, round trip air fare was $290.