Contrary to stereotypes, Mexico's intercity bus service is modern and an affordable way to get around the country.
You can still find the fabled “chicken bus” in Mexico, but if you’re traveling between sizable cities, that’s a long-outdated stereotype. Mexico’s modern intercity bus lines are among the best in the world — and, by U.S. standards, quite affordable.
Traveling overnight back and forth last fall between Oaxaca and Chiapas, I compared two premium services offered by ADO (say “Ah-Day-Oh”), one of Mexico’s largest bus operators (ado.com.mx). The top-of-the-line Platino service, modeled after first-class airline comforts, has just about everything but a flight attendant plumping your pillow.
At Oaxaca’s shiny first-class bus terminal, I discovered the first difference when I made the mistake of trying to check my luggage at the “ordinary” bag-check counter. I was pointed around the corner to the private, guarded Platino waiting room with its own bag counter, private restrooms, big-screen TVs, water cooler and free coffee. As I boarded, I was offered a free soft drink or chilled water.
And don’t sniff that it probably cost the moon, because I didn’t pay through the nose: For an overnight bus ride, the fare was about $60 U.S.
The bus itself had only three seats across its width, in a two-and-one configuration. Traveling alone, I had booked one of the single seats, with the best of both worlds: both a window and an aisle. The down side, I discovered, was that the single row had significantly less leg room between seats than on the side with two seats abreast. Not fun when the big man in front of me reclined all the way back and the top of his head was under my nose.
But the good news came in two doses:
1. Because the Platino bus costs about one-third more than the next cheapest service (ADO GL), it may not run as full. So I was able to move across to an open pair of seats across the aisle.
2. Because the Platino bus makes fewer (or no) stops between major cities, I could switch seats without much worry about someone getting on an hour later to claim a reserved seat I had purloined. (Seats are usually assigned on intercity buses in Mexico.)
Other first-class amenities with Platino: The big wide seats not only reclined to almost horizontal, they came with a pull-down, cushioned support for your legs. All windows were tightly curtained, with a closed door separating us from the driver. It was quite the dark womb at night.
Airline-sized pillows and thin blankets were provided. Men’s and women’s lavatories were in the back, with lighted icons up front to tell if they were busy. Between the restrooms was a serve-yourself coffee bar with hot water and instant coffee. Video screens were in seat backs, with ear buds provided and a selection of music and movies (no English-language movies, sorry). They even provided a blackout mask for light sleepers.
One thing the fancy buses couldn’t provide: a smooth and quiet ride over some rough and winding Mexican roadway. Bring earplugs; there’s clattering.
Next step down
Platino service wasn’t offered the date I returned to Oaxaca, so I sampled the next step down, the “Ejecutivo” (like Business Class) bus, the ADO GL (about $44 U.S. for the same overnight trip).
This less-expensive bus was full. The seats were four across, in a two-and-two configuration — about 2/3 the width of the Platino seats. I had a window seat, which meant “holding it” in the middle of the night because I didn’t have the heart to wake my seatmate.
Seats still reclined quite a ways, and we still got a free soft drink, his-and-hers lavatories and the coffee bar. But no pillows or blankets on the GL (bring a sweater), and movies were shown on drop-down video screens (with earbuds provided), meaning you watched whatever they were showing. Sleep was more elusive on this trip.
In both cases, the quoted travel time was about 11 hours. Both journeys actually took 12 hours.
Brian J. Cantwell: [email protected] ___
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Photo credit: A file photo of an ADO bus in Merida, Mexico, in 2009. Appaloosa / Flickr.com