Distances in Mexico can be huge, and if you’re intending to travel on public transport, you should be prepared for some very long journeys. Getting from Tijuana to Mexico City, for example, can take nearly two days nonstop by bus. Although public transport at ground level is frequent and reasonably efficient everywhere, taking an internal flight at least once may be worthwhile for the time it saves.
Within Mexico, buses (long-distance buses are called camiones, rather than autobuses, in Mexican Spanish) are by far the most common and efficient form of public transport. There are an unbelievable number of them, run by a multitude of companies and connecting even the smallest of villages. Intercity services generally rely on very comfortable and dependable vehicles; remote villages are more commonly connected by what look like (and often are) recycled school buses from north of the border.
The legendary craziness of Mexican bus drivers is largely a thing of the past, and many bus companies have installed warning lights and buzzers to indicate when the driver is exceeding the speed limit (though these are often ignored by the driver). In recent years the government has been trying to improve the safety record through regular mechanical checks and also with random alcohol and drug tests on the drivers.
There are basically two classes of bus, first (primera) and second (segunda), though on major long-distance routes there’s often little to differentiate them. First-class vehicles have reserved seats, videos and air-conditioning, though an increasing number of second-class lines have the same comforts. The main differences will be in the number of stops – second-class buses call at more places, and consequently take longer to get where they’re going – and the fare, which is about ten percent higher on first-class services, and sometimes a lot more. You may be able to get a discount with a student card, though it’s unlikely. Most people choose first class for any appreciably long distance, and second for short trips or for destinations not served by a first-class bus, but you should not be put off second class if it seems more convenient.
On important routes there are also deluxe, or pullman, buses, with names like Primera Plus or Turistar Plus and fares around thirty percent higher than those of first-class buses. They have few, if any, stops, waitress service and free snacks and drinks over longer distances, comfortable airline-style seating and air-conditioning that works – be sure to keep a sweater handy, as they can get very cold. They may also be emptier, which could mean more space to stretch out and sleep. Almost all pullman services have computerized reservations and may accept credit cards; these facilities are increasingly common with the larger regular bus lines too.
Most towns of any size have a modern bus station, known as the Central Camionera or Central de Autobuses. Don’t let the word “central” fool you, as they are usually located a long way from the town centre. Where there is no unified terminus you may find separate first- and second-class terminals, or individual ones for each company, sometimes little more than bus stops at the side of the road. There is some form of baggage deposit (left luggage) office in every bus station – usually known as a guardería, consigna or simply equipaje, and costing about M$40–100 per item per day. Before leaving anything, make sure that the place will be open when you come to collect your bags. If there’s no formal facility, staff at the bus companies’ baggage dispatching offices can often be persuaded to look after your things for a short while.
Always check your route and arrival time, and whenever possible buy tickets from the bus station in advance to get the best (or any) seats; count on paying about M$75–120 for every 100km covered. There are very rarely problems getting a place on a bus from its point of origin or from really big towns. In smaller, mid-route places, however, you may have to wait for the bus to arrive (or at least to leave the previous stop) before discovering if there are any seats – the increased prevalence of computerized ticketing is easing the problem. Often there are too few seats, and without fluent and loud Spanish you may lose out in the fight for the ticket clerk’s attention. Alternatively, there’s almost always a bus described as local, which means it originates from where you are (as opposed to a de paso bus, which started somewhere else), and tickets for these can be bought well in advance.
Weekends, holiday season, school holidays and fiestas also overload services to certain destinations: again the only real answer is to buy tickets in advance. However, you could also try the cheaper second-class lines, where they’ll pack you in standing, or take whatever’s going to the next town along the way and try for a local from there. A word with the driver and a small tip can sometimes work wonders.
Terms to look out for on the timetable, besides local and de paso, include vía corta (by the short route) and directo or expreso (direct/nonstop – in theory at least). Salida is departure, llegada arrival. A decent road map will be extremely helpful in working out which buses are going to pass through your destination.
There are more than fifty airports in Mexico with regular passenger flights run by local airlines, plus several smaller airports with feeder services. The two big companies, both formerly state-owned and with international as well as domestic flights, are Aeroméxico and Mexicana, which between them connect most places to Mexico City, usually several times a day. Their monopoly is being challenged by a handful of smaller airlines such as Aeromar and Interjet, which also cover most major destinations, as well as Mexicana’s no-frills carrier Click. The competition between the companies keeps prices steady and relatively low. Information about the independent operators is available online and through travel agents.
Internal airfares reflect the popularity of the route: the more popular the trip, the lower the price. Thus the flight from Tijuana to Mexico City costs much the same as the much shorter, but less popular flight from Tijuana to Chihuahua, but even the more expensive routes can be worthwhile for the time they save. While the smaller airlines might be cheaper, the price of a ticket on a particular flight doesn’t normally vary from agent to agent. There are few discounts, and it’s usually twice as much for a round-trip as a one-way ticket.
Mexicana and Aeroméxico offer a multi-flight airpass, available only outside Mexico.
Since Mexico’s railways were privatized in 1995, all passenger services have been withdrawn bar one suburban service out of Mexico City and two lines run especially for tourists: the Copper Canyon railway in Chihuahua, an amazing scenic journey and one of the country’s top tourist attractions (see Rail practicalities), and the Tequila Express from Guadalajara to Amatitán.
Ferries connect Baja California with a trio of ports on the Pacific mainland: Santa Rosalía to Guaymas, and La Paz to Mazatlán and Topolobampo (for Los Mochis). For detailed information on schedules see wwww.mexconnect.com/mex_/mexicoferryw.html. There are also smaller boats to islands off the Caribbean and Gulf coasts: from Chiquilá to Holbox, from Cancún to Isla Mujeres and from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel. Though not as cheap as they once were, all these services are still pretty reasonable: see the relevant chapters for current fares.
Getting your car into Mexico (see “Getting there”) is just the beginning of your problems. Although most people who venture in by car both enjoy their trip and get out again with no more than minor incidents, driving in Mexico does require a good deal of care and concentration, and almost inevitably involves at least one brush with bureaucracy or the law. Hitchhiking is possible, but due to safety concerns, the scarcity of lifts and the vast distances involved, it’s not recommended.
Renting a car in Mexico – especially if done with a short, specific itinerary in mind – avoids many problems and is often an extremely good way of seeing quickly a small area that would take days to explore using public transport. There are any number of competing agencies in all the tourist resorts and major cities; the local operations usually charge less than the well-known names. Always check rates carefully to make sure they include insurance, tax and the mileage you need. Daily rates with unlimited mileage start around US$20/£12; weekly rates usually cost around the same as six days. In some resorts mopeds and motorbikes are also available for short distances, but most of the large, international companies don’t deal with them because of the high frequency of accidents.
Licences and insurance
Drivers from Australia, Canada, most European countries, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK and the US (but not South Africa) will find that their licences are valid in Mexico, though an international licence (available from the motoring organizations listed) can be useful, especially if your domestic one has no photo on it. You are required to have all your documents with you when driving. Insurance is not compulsory, but you’d be foolhardy not to get some sort of policy ( for more on motor insurance).
The government oil company, PEMEX, has a monopoly and sells two types of petrol: Magna Sin (regular unleaded), and Premium (high-octane unleaded). Both of these cost slightly more than regular unleaded north of the border, at about US$2.50 per US gallon.
Roads and traffic
Mexican roads and traffic are your chief worries. Traffic circulates on the right, and the normal speed limit is 40kph (25mph) in built-up areas, 70kph (43mph) in open country and 110kph (68mph) on the freeway. Some of the new highways are excellent, and the toll (cuota) superhighways are better still, though extremely expensive to drive on (check prices online at wwww.sct.gob.mx/autotransporte/index.htm). Away from the major population centres, however, roads are often narrow, winding and potholed, with livestock wandering across at unexpected moments. Get out of the way of Mexican bus and truck drivers – if you signal left to them on a stretch of open road, it means it’s clear to overtake. Every town and village limits the speed of through traffic with a series of topes (concrete or metal speed bumps) across the road. Look out for the warning signs and take them seriously; the bumps are often huge. It’s wise to avoid driving at night, not only for road safety reasons, but also because of the threat of hold-ups (see Banditry: a warning). Any good road map should provide details of the more common symbols used on Mexican road signs, and SECTUR has a pamphlet on driving in Mexico in which they’re also featured. One convention of note: the first driver to flash their lights at a junction, or where only one vehicle can pass, has the right of way – you’re not being invited to go first.
Most large towns have extensive one-way systems. Traffic direction is often poorly marked (look for small arrows affixed to lampposts), though this is less of a problem than it sounds: simply note the direction in which the parked cars, if not the moving cars, are facing.
Parking in cities is another hassle – the restrictions are complicated and foreigners are easy pickings for traffic police, who usually remove one or both plates in lieu of a ticket (retrieving them can be an expensive and time-consuming business). Since theft is also a real threat, you’ll usually have to pay extra for a hotel with secure parking. You may well also have to fork out over on-the-spot “fines” for traffic offences (real or concocted). In Mexico City, residents’ cars are banned from driving on one day of every week, determined by their licence number: the ban also applies to foreign cars, but rented vehicles are exempt.
Breakdowns and accidents
Unless your car is a basic-model VW, Ford or Dodge (all of which are manufactured in Mexico), spare parts are expensive and hard to come by – bring a basic spares kit. Tyres in particular suffer on burning-hot Mexican roads, so you should carry at least one good spare. Roadside vulcanizadoras and llanteros can do temporary repairs; new tyres are expensive, but remoulds aren’t a good idea on hot roads at high speed. If you have a breakdown on any highway between 8am and 8pm, there is a free mechanic service known as the Ángeles Verdes (Green Angels). As well as patrolling major routes looking for beleaguered motorists, they can be reached by phone on t 078 or on local state hotlines, or by email at e [email protected], and they speak English.
Should you have a minor accident, try to come to some arrangement with the other party – involving the police will only make matters worse, and Mexican drivers will be just as anxious to avoid doing so. If you witness an accident, you may want to consider the gravity of the situation before getting involved. Witnesses can be locked up along with those directly implicated to prevent them from leaving before the case comes up – so consider if your involvement is necessary to serve justice. In a serious incident, contact your consulate and your Mexican insurance company as soon as possible.
Mexico is not big on cycling, and with its vast size and the heavy and inconsiderate traffic in big cities, not to mention the danger of banditry, few tourists travel the country by bicycle. Nonetheless, there’s now a free bike hire scheme in Mexico City, and Guadalajara’s main youth hostel, the Hostel Guadalajara Centro, rents out bikes for free. The Yucatán peninsula, being quite flat, also lends itself to cycling, and bicycles can be rented in Campeche, Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen, Isla Cozumel and Tulum. So does the area around Oaxaca, where you can also rent bikes (see Information). Bicycle tour firms in Mexico include Bicicletas Pedro Martinez (w www.bicicletaspedromartinez.com), !El Tours (w www.bikemexico.com) and Backroads (w www.backroads.com).
Public transport within Mexican towns and cities is always plentiful and inexpensive, though crowded and not particularly user-friendly. Mexico City has an extensive, excellent Metro system (M$2 per journey), and there are smaller metros in Guadalajara (M$5 per journey) and Monterrey (M$4.50 per journey), but elsewhere you’ll be reliant on buses (usually around M$5 per journey), which pour out clouds of choking diesel fumes; often there’s a flat-fare system, but this varies from place to place. Wherever possible we’ve indicated which bus to take and where to catch it, but often only a local will fully understand the intricacies of the system and you may well have to ask: the main destinations of the bus are usually marked on the windscreen, which helps.
In bigger places combis or colectivos offer a faster and perhaps less crowded alternative for only a little more money. These are minibuses, vans or large sport utility vehicles that run along fixed routes to set destinations; they’ll pick you up and drop you off wherever you like along the way, and you simply pay the driver for the distance travelled. In Mexico City, combis are known as peseros.
Regular taxis can also be good value, but be aware of rip-offs – unless you’re confident that the meter is working, fix a price before you get in. In the big cities, there are often tables of fixed prices posted at prominent spots. At almost every airport and at some of the biggest bus stations you’ll find a booth selling vouchers for taxis into town at a fixed price depending on the part of town you want to go to – sometimes there’s a choice of paying more for a private car or less to share. This will invariably cost less than just hailing a cab outside the terminal, and will certainly offer extra security. In every case you should know the name of a hotel to head for, or they’ll take you to the one that pays the biggest commission. Never accept a ride in any kind of unofficial or unmarked taxi.Read More
Banditry: a warning
Banditry: a warning
You should be aware when driving in Mexico, especially in a foreign vehicle, of the danger of bandits. Robberies and even more serious assaults on motorists do occur, above all in the northwest and especially in the state of Sinaloa, though for private motorists and buses the problem is nothing like as bad as it once was. Robbers may try to make you stop by indicating that there is something wrong with your vehicle; they’ve also been known to pose as policemen, hitchhikers and motorists in distress, so think twice about offering a lift or a helping hand. On the other hand, there are plenty of legitimate police checkpoints along the main roads, where you must stop, and increased security (to combat the drug cartels) has very much reduced hold-ups of buses. Robbers nowadays mainly target cargo trucks rather than private cars, but it is nonetheless best to avoid driving at night on the worst-affected roads, notably: Hwy-15 (Los Mochis–Mazatlán) and express Hwy-1 in Sinaloa; Hwy-5 (Mexico City–Acapulco) in Guerrero; Hwy-200 along the Pacific coast of Jalisco, Michoacán, Guerrero and Oaxaca; Hwy-75 (Oaxaca–Tuxtepec) and Hwy 175 (Oaxaca–Pochutla) in Oaxaca; Hwy-150 (Mexico City–Veracruz); Hwy-57 (Mexico City–San Luis Potosí–Matahuela); and near the border, in particular on Hwy-2 (Mexicali–Agua Prieta) and Hwy-40 (Matamoros–Monterrey). It’s always safer to use a toll (cuota) highway than a free one. The US State Department nonetheless advises its citizens to avoid travelling at night anywhere in the country.