Getting around in Mexico

Understanding and using local transport in Mexico, is really an experience in itself. The first rule about local transport is: there are no rules. The second rule is: ask several locals for each journey, as each will come up with a different solution. In this sense, we are both lucky to be fluent enough in Spanish to understand and be understood. The third rule is: there is always enough space to squeeze more people in!

Mexico City (or ‘DF’ as they call it), was easy: the metro/subway works like in any big city. Although we have both yet to see one as packed. People literally have to wrestle to get in and out, even outside of rush hour, which is probably why a few carriages are reserved for woman, children and invalids. Renaud’s rugby-playing skills definitely came in handy here.

For inter-city links over 2 or 3 hours, we usually took the ‘official’ buses from the bus stations. Although we soon learnt that some companies are more official or secure than others, and travel times and prices vary inversely by a factor of up to 3.

Taking a collectivo (or ‘combi’ or ‘chicken bus’ or ‘camion’) however, is a whole different ball game. In town, we usually always asked for ‘ADO terminal’ for the bus station, or ‘Zocalo/Mercado/Centro’ for the city center and would do the rest by foot. To get out of town we would ask the hostel, tourist info or locals the name of the destination of the collectivo to take, usually displayed on the dashboard (and more or less where to catch it, but this would vary by a few blocks according to the source of information). We also tried just flagging down random collectivos passing by, and if they didn’t go to our destination they could tell us where to get one, but this only works in smaller towns. The best solution was to get them from the bus station, if there was a collectivo stand nearby. And to know where to get off, we would rely on the other passengers or the driver. Also, every town was different, so our collectivo ‘knowledge-base’ had to be updated in every location.

Our first collectivo experience was in Puebla, 2 hours from Mexico, and unfortunately the worst! After comparing notes between our travel book and what locals were telling us, we soon realised that the latter are much more reliable sources. We were quite chuffed to have succeeded in getting on the right one (from the bus station to the Zocalo, or city centre), and knowing more or less where to get off. And that’s where Renaud got pick-pocketed: standing between 4 guys, his arms up to hold on, he reacted immediately when he felt his passport-holder slide out of his pocket. Meaning that fortunately his wallet and phone were spared. We both entered into panic mode as all 4 guys got off the bus and parted ways. It was chaos, grabbing our bags and jumping off the bus, Renaud catching up to one of the guys, who let us search him and told us it was the others. He even went as far as to say the ‘others’ had dropped the passport on the bus and we should go to the terminal to wait for it. We did that, obviously to no avail. Fortunately this happened at the beginning of our trip, and close to Mexico, making it easy for Renaud to get his passport renewed, and also giving both of us a lesson in ‘streetwising-up’.

Near Puebla, in Cholula, I never found the collectivo to get to the town closest to Popocapetl volcano, despite being armed with info from the tourist office in Puebla, many confirmations from the locals and having waited up to and hour in various locations in town.

In Oaxaca, we weren’t too successful either. Our vain attempt at trying to catch local transport cost us a good day of sight-seeing as we wanted to ‘bypass’ the official tours. We eventually just adopted the not so cost-effective ‘taxi there and collectivo back’ technique (as they are easier to find going from smaller to bigger towns).

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We finally had a breakthrough in the Chiapas region. Transportation here is cheap, abundant and easier to find as the towns are smaller. Our first success was getting 2 collectivos from Tuxla bus station to Chiapa de Corso, and then another 2 from Chiapa de Corso to San Cristobal, saving a lot of time and money in the process, and even avoiding being conned by a collectivo company that cost double the standard price. Our best collectivo transport day was getting from San Cristobal to Palenque, stopping over in Ocosingo to visit the little visited ruins of Tonina. Because it is hard to get to, it is off the tourist map, even though it is one of, if not the best, ruin we visited (big, cheap, explorable, surrounded by lush green farmlands and jungle, and no people!). Squeezing this visit into our 6h collectivo journey to Palenque was ambitious, but made sense in the end, as all the official bus routes bypass the mountains and actually take even longer to get there.

During our time in Palenque, the day we visited Agua Azul and Mizol-Ha rivers and waterfalls, was quite epic on the transportation front. It was plain sailing up to Agua Azul. From there we hoped on our first ever pick-up truck transport. Then a taxi from Agua-Azul to Mizol-Ha, wanting to save time, and splitting the cost by 3 (our travel buddy William from Kansas was with us that day). Little did we know that taking a taxi can be an adventure too. The tank was empty, so the driver filled up with a 1L bottle at the local ‘gas station’. This obviously didn’t last long and the car broke down. The driver adamantly insisted the cause of the failure was not due to an empty tank, and tweaked the motor with his wrench to prove it. This didn’t work and the battery eventually died. Renaud and William then volunteered to push the car to get it rolling again, which didn’t work either. Fortunately, in Mexico, a taxi or collectivo is never far away and the driver flagged one of his mates down, getting us to pay for his ride to the local mechanic. We had an interesting conversation with the driver of the pick-up, and his mate, who hardly spoke Spanish (they spoke an indigenous language called Celta), and even received a few marriage proposals!

Our stroke of bad luck with collectivos resumed in Merida, where we tried and failed to find one to get to Valladolid, opting for the bus instead (as there was no collectivo stand near the station). In Valladolid we got lucky as we got offered a ride to the cenote we were going to (avoiding us a 4km walk). As the back door of the van closed behind us, leaving us in the dark, window-less storage space, we wondered for a second if we should have listened to advise about never hitch-hiking in Mexico. Fortunately the drivers were very friendly and trustworthy as they worked at the cenote and were glad to have tourists coming. They even opened another door for us so we could breathe 🙂

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Our last experiences with collectivos were in Tulum. As with everything on the coast, they are much more expensive than elsewhere, so we soon opted for renting bikes instead. We did however have a laugh, along with all our fellow passengers, watching 2 guys in the collectivo who seemed to have consumed a significant amount of illicit substances, as they leaned -or fell- all over eachother, and the other passengers, and the floor, as they slept, and probably completely missed their stop.

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All-in-all taking local transport wherever possible is a very authentic and entertaining experience, a definite must-do in Mexico if you have time and patience, and are travelling on a budget!

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