In this section, we’ll look at how best to travel around Mexico. Bear in mind the distances between key destinations can be huge, and journeys by public transport can be very long. 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. Read on for your tips on transport options in Mexico.
If you’re travelling around Mexico on a budget, buses are the most efficient form of long-distance transport. 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. 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 (which can be fierce – you may want a jumper), 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 (sometimes a lot more). 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.
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 most bus stations – usually known as a guardería, consigna or simply equipaje. 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. Alternatively, try the operator’s website or an agent such as Ticketbus (miescape.mx/miescape). Prices are reasonable: a first-class ticket on the Cancún–Mérida route costs from M$370, for example. While 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, 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.
Terms to look out for on the timetable, besides local and de paso buses that originate in another destination), 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. A useful site for checking schedules is ticketbus.com.mx.
There are more than fifty airports in Mexico with regular passenger flights run by local airlines, plus several smaller airports with feeder services. The big company – formerly state-owned and with international as well as domestic flights – is Aeroméxico which connects most places to Mexico City, usually several times a day.
There are numerous other smaller and no-frills domestic airlines such as Aeromar,Interjet, Volaris , Mayair, Viva Aerobus and AeroServicio Guerrero, which also cover most major destinations. Competition between the companies keeps prices steady and relatively low: a one-way trip between Mexico City and Cancún, for example, can cost as little as US$40.
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, there are few discounts and the price of a ticket on a particular flight doesn’t normally vary from agent to agent.
Since Mexico’s railways were privatized in 1995, all passenger services have been withdrawn bar one suburban service out of Mexico City and a couple of tourist lines: the Copper Canyon railway in Chihuahua, an amazing scenic journey and one of the country’s top tourist attractions, and the Tequila Express from Guadalajara.
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 information on schedules and fares see mexbound.com/mexico-ferry.php. 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 more expensive than they once were, all these services are still pretty reasonable.
Driving in Mexico requires care and concentration, and almost inevitably involves at least one brush with bureaucracy or the law (for details on licences and insurance, see the section on driving). 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 is often an extremely good way of quickly seeing a small area that would take days to explore using public transport. Always check rates carefully to make sure they include insurance, tax and the mileage you need. Daily rates with unlimited mileage start at around US$50/£32; weekly rates usually cost around the same as six days. In some resorts mopeds, motorbikes and even golf carts 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.
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 M$13.50–15 per US gallon.
Roads and traffic
Traffic circulates on the right, and the normal speed limit is 40km/h (25mph) in built-up areas, 70km/h (43mph) in open country and 110km/h (68mph) on the freeway. Some of the new highways are excellent, and the toll (cuota) superhighways are better still, though extremely expensive (check prices online at sct.gob.mx, clicking on "Tarifas vigentes de carreteras"). 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 for them to overtake.
Every town and village limits the speed of through traffic with a series of topes (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. Any good road map should provide details of the more common symbols used on Mexican road signs. 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 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 should use a hotel with secure parking. In Mexico City, residents’ cars are banned from driving on one day of every week, determined by their licence number (see Coughs and robbers – Self preservation in Mexico City): 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 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 078 or on local state hotlines, or by email at email@example.com, 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.
Banditry: a safety 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. 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 mainly target cargo trucks rather than private cars, but it is nonetheless best to avoid driving at night, particularly in the north of the country, but also in Michoacán and Guerrero, on Hwy-200 along the Pacific coast from Jalisco to Oaxaca, and on Hwy-57 (Mexico City–San Luis Potosí–Matahuela). It’s always safer to use a toll (cuota) highway than a free one. The US State Department currently advises its citizens to avoid travelling at night on highways anywhere in the country.
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. The Yucatán peninsula, being quite flat, 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. Bicycle tour firms in Mexico include Bicicletas Pedro Martinez (bicicletaspedromartinez.com), ¡El Tours (bikemexico.com) and Backroads (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 excellent Metro system and there are smaller metros in both Guadalajara and Monterrey. Elsewhere, however, you’ll be reliant on buses (often a flat fare, though this varies from place to place). Wherever possible we’ve indicated which bus to take and where to catch it, but often only local people 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, and in Mexico City be especially cautious (see Coughs and robbers – Self preservation in Mexico City).