If you bundle old news, riding the bus sounds very dangerous.
The toll from a bus crash outside Ciudad Juarez was 28 dead and 21 injured. Authorities said the driver was speeding when he collided with a tractor-trailer. The overnight between Guadalajara and Tepic veered off a bridge and plunged 330 feet into a ravine. Twenty-six died.
A mudslide buried a bus and as many as 60 passengers in Eloxochitlan, a remote region of Puebla. A would-be rescuer said they probably smothered or were crushed.
A bus carrying worshippers on a pilgrimage to the famous shrine in Chalma plunged into a valley, killing nine and leaving 38 injured.
In each case, we said thanks that none of those were our bus. We did get the message. Buses go everywhere in Mexico. Indeed, some encounter problems. There are natural, mechanical and human issues. Brakes fail. Weather is disruptive. Drivers doze. Fast buses smash into slow trucks. Dangerous curves are actually dangerous.
There is another side to the story. The bus is one of the intriguing success stories in Mexico. The system works. The bus offers a somewhat economical and effective means to explore the entire country. Routes are organized and connections are timely.
Buses go to prime tourist destinations — beach resorts and colonial cities — with minimum complications. You do not have to be in a tour group to go along. The advantage over air travel is, if you so choose, you get at least a glimpse of the pueblos along the way. Some are charming.
First-class buses are a travel delight. Comfort and service are much like flying business class – minus airport hassles, inconvenient locations and a more serious spillage of pesos.
Buses may actually go where you are going, from city to city and town to town, not 30 kilometers out in the countryside. Alas, you do miss the adventure of taxi rides. Bus seats recline. Armrests and attendants are functional. Individual TV screens and connections to plug in laptops were pleasant surprises the first time we saw them. Wi-fi comes and goes.
Beside seats are little storage pockets for your water bottle and the book you are reading. There is ample overhead space for carry-on luggage. Shades keep out the sun. A digital sign at the front provides information you can use — date, time, temperature and whether the bathrooms are occupied. Departures and arrivals are generally on time (un-Mexican). That does not guarantee clear cruising. There are some bumps in almost all roads. Topes are everywhere. Food service is friendly but more economy class than business. That is one explanation for reduced costs.
Ticket price usually covers a meal in a box, a simple sandwich, package of chips or cookies and a bottle of water or juice or a can of Coca-Cola. Stops are far between but at the next stop, a Mexican will probably hustle aboard to offer home made treats and cold drinks. Some stops are long enough to stretch your legs, take a short walk and purchase a snack.
The bus system does better than meet basic needs but it is not cheap, certainly not by Mexican standards. The ride from Guadalajara to Mexico City costs about $40 U.S. It takes about six hours. Mexico City to Guanajuato, four hours, costs about $30.
Local buses are another chapter. There are several classes that are very different. Large city buses routinely exceed speed limits, ignore traffic signals and occasionally run over pesky motorcycles and pedestrians on sidewalks if they are too close to the curb.
Those lingering in cross walks appear to be fair game.
Smaller buses that connect small towns are lifelines. Riding along is worthwhile simply for the experience of who and what you see. Although trips are often bumpy and the seats are far from plush, the bus will get you from here to there for not many pesos.
There was a time when rural buses were show biz. They had exotic names painted near the front door, sometimes Hot Streak or Shooting Star but more often the name of the driver’s wife or girlfriend – but never both.
The driver controlled entertainment, his pick of radio stations and how loud. Some drivers were almost always harried, some good-natured, some chatting with all the pretty women, some kind and patient enough with old gringos to point out the nearest stop to Jose’s Place on the plaza in Chapala. Some grumbled if you didn’t have correct change.
Declining in numbers are the ancient, rickety, overloaded vehicles swerving along dusty roads with people and animals bouncing from side to side.
There really were chicken buses that often hauled chickens. Most were in crates. On top. Goats and sheep were sometimes on the roof, legs tied together and roped to luggage rack bars, along with sacks of corn and potatoes, cardboard suitcases and backpacks for hikers.
You wouldn’t believe some of the boxes and truck tires that passengers brought on board and tried to push or drag or roll down the aisle. Nobody complained. Most didn’t even flinch.
Maybe it still happens in remote places but not as much where we live.
Recycled school buses have found second homes on Mexico backroads. Some still have “Blue Bird Co. of America” on the bumper and rear doors marked “For Emergency Use Only.”
Many are owned and fueled by companies to convey workers. School bus yellow is most often covered over by all colors of the rainbow, a Mexico tradition. It appears bus decoration might be a serious competition. The race is on for most chrome, biggest blinking lights, loudest horn.
There may not be stringent enforcement of safety or emission rules. Some old buses blow smoke. Some have cracked wind shields. Hopefully, most have emergency brakes.
The bus system is a crucial element of the Mexican way of life. Trains are gone. Cars are expensive. Millions ride buses. Most don’t ask or expect much beyond basic transportation. Now and then there are bonuses.
Years ago, on a bus from Jocotepec to the south side of Lake Chapala, a lad scrambled aboard with a young pig in a sack. The pig squealed to get everybody’s attention and establish the mood, then wiggled free and squirmed and skated in and out under seats.
Three women with beauty-shop hairdos and fancy attire lifted their feet and squealed.
The pig was poorly prepared for that. It stopped to assess the situation. The lad dived for his or her hind legs. Two gentlemen dressed as farmers helped the boy get the pig back into the bag. The aisle was crowded. There was additional squealing.
The women got off at the very next stop.