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busacrossmexico: off the beaten path, Mexico - 2004-10-26

Learning Mexico's Bus System

Copyright 2004 Robert Berryhill

We couldn't help but smile at the stunned looks the other couple gave us. They had approached us in the sunny Mexican plaza because we were reading an English language newspaper. Clearly they were exasperated.

"We paid $250 for our flight from Mexico City to Morelia," the man sputtered. His wife shook her head. "And the plane," she added, "was two hours late in taking off."

They asked if we had flown in or rented a car. That's when we smiled and put the other travelers in shock.

"Neither," we replied in unison. Then I explained. "We made the four-hour trip by bus. It cost just $32 for both of us."

They gulped in surprise and looked at each other. The woman told her husband, "I've got to get my potassium fix." Then they hurried off.

It's a shame they didn't linger awhile and share our picnic lunch of roasted chicken from a nearby cafe. We would have told them that busing across Mexico has more benefits than just dollars and cents.

We didn't join the cookie-cutter crowd of tourists at airports, or cocoon ourselves in a rental car. We headed for Mexico's clean bus stations teeming with Mexicans from all walks of life. On plush, video-equipped first class buses, we met well-dressed business executives on their way to conferences. Other times we bounced on third class mini-vans with friendly farmers carrying baskets of produce to the next highway junction.

And scenery. Instead of blips from a high-flying plane, from bus windows we saw unmapped lakes, 18th Century architecture, and oxen pulling plows across fertile volcanic fields.

But we would have stressed the most important benefit. We met people who helped us practice our fractured Spanish, a small boy who proudly led us through a burro pasture to an untouristed ceramics plant, and proud craftsmen who showed us how to pound heavy slabs of copper into works of art.

By becoming part of Mexico's vast bus system, the largest and most efficient in the world, we were able to scratch beneath the surface of a wonderful culture. But because of the lack of solid information, it was scary at first. Did Mexico's more than 800 bus companies mesh together well enough to work?

What we found was a well-working, inexpensive way of traveling that is largely overlooked by tourists. For four weeks we roamed Mexico's countryside by bus, from the Texas border to the colonial city of Guanajuato with several stops in between. Now that we knew the system worked, we made a return trip. This time we flew from New York to Mexico City and then used buses to totally immerse ourselves in Mexican culture.

Every day was different. We ate the fabled native soup in Patzcuaro, watched copper artisans in Santa Clara del Cobre, hiked up the monarch butterfly sanctuary near Acambaro, and enjoyed several days in the silver capital of Taxco. As we met local people, we jumped on buses for sudden visits to places unaccustomed to tourists. Many the tiny mountain village with its marble-paved streets, home of the last Aztec emperor, wasn't the end of the earth, but we could see it from there.

Most travelers to Mexico aren't aware that bus travel is that extensive, dependable, safe, and inexpensive. Mexican bus companies don't readily provide printed schedules, and tourist guide books barely mention bus travel.

After extensive travel and research, our guide book Bus Across Mexico, www.busacross.com, now lists over 20,000 bus schedules.

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