Mexico has the most amazing bus system I have ever seen, but it can also be the most confusing. Every city of size has a main bus station and they are called by many names: Centro de Autbuses, Cenrtal de Camiones, Terminal de Autobuses, Central Camionera, but use any of these phrases and everyone understands where you want to go. Leaving from any of these main stations was a simple process; I got in line, bought a ticket, and made my way to the correct waiting room (Sala). When I heard the departure announcement I lined up for my ticket to be checked, went to the correct bay, got a claim check for my luggage, boarded the bus, sat back, and relaxed.
However, when it was time to leave leave Bernal for Tequisquiapan, I had two choices: either return to Queretaro and catch a direct bus to Tequisquiapan, or find my way directly from Bernal to Tequisquiapan. With so much to see in Mexico it seemed senseless to repeat a route already traveled, thus I decided to try to figure out the bewildering system of taxi-vans, kombis, and colectivos that stream down the highways, hoping to end up in Tequisquiapan.
The manager of the hotel explained that there are no printed schedules and in many cases, no signs for bus stops; locals simply know by tradition where to stand and how often the buses pass by. But he claimed it was easy to get to Tequisquiapan.
“Take a taxi-van to “Ezekiel Montes. They pass by the hotel all day long,” he insisted
“Yes, and then in Ezekiel Montes you get a bus to Tequis.” Sounded simple enough.
Though I had hoped to get final instructions about the exact location of the bus stop, when I left the next morning the front desk was unattended. Instead, I inquired about transport to Ezekiel Montes at the first open shop I passed and was told I could catch a van at the next corner. Dutifully I waited. Twenty minutes. Half an hour. More. But not a single taxi van drove by. Fortunately, three local women had gathered outside the corner grocer and I put the same question to them.
“Oh no, you must go up to the highway to catch the van.” I groaned. Loaded down with my luggage, I plodded up the very steep hill to the main highway, not even sure which side of the street I needed to stand on. At the top, a lone man stood on the corner. Between gasps, I inquired where he was going. “Ezequiel Montes,” he answered. Excellent! Someone I could follow. Two or three mini-buses passed us by before he hailed one. Mystified, I asked how he knew which one to flag down. “The names are written on the front window,” he explained. Indeed, as the bus pulled up I saw the name Ezekiel M. painted on the front windshield, but I have no idea how he spotted it from such a distance.
I paid my $10 pesos, crammed my luggage into the narrow seat opening, and plunked down on a hard vinyl-clad seat. Two blocks later we turned off the highway onto a narrow rock-strewn street bordered on both sides by handmade fences cobbled out of local boulders. Beyond the fences, roofless walls jutting from one-room concrete block houses attested to unfulfilled dreams, standing in stark contrast to the precious architecture and pricey shops just a mile away in Bernal.
We soon pulled back onto the highway and 20 minutes later Ezekiel Montes came into view. The bus carved a path through choked streets and pulled up to a curb in the center of town. Apparently this town is too small for a bus terminal, but I’d spotted a large Flecha Amarilla (Yellow Arrow) coach parked just a block away from our stop. I confirmed this was the bus to Tequis, sprinted up the block, paid my $15 pesos, and boarded. Flecha Amarilla is one of Mexico’s “economy” bus lines (read sardine can), but it seemed like a rolling palace to me, and when we arrived in Tequis the other passengers helped me get off on the main highway on the street leading directly to the central square. I was getting good at this!
A week later, having thoroughly investigated Tequis, passed through Mexico City, and spent a few days in San Juan Teotihuacan to visit the Mayan ruins, I needed to take a bus back to Mexico City. The owner of the inn where I was staying told me to stand on the street corner, just half a block away. She even took me outside and pointed to the right corner. “They pass by every ten minutes,” she said. No problem! By now I was an old hand.
Determined to get an early start, I left the hotel at 7 a.m. the following morning. Within moments, a large coach approached. When I saw the words Mexico D.F. (Distrito Federal, signifies the capital city, like our Washington, D.C.), I stepped forward and waved. The driver slowed and seemed to pull toward the curb, so I reached down for my luggage, but just as I was straightening up he sped up, passed me by, and turned the corner to skirt the central plaza of the town. Three more buses approached, slowed when I hailed them, and then sped away at the last moment. Was it possible they just didn’t like my looks? I finally realized the buses were slowing down for a speed bump in the road at the exact spot where I stood, but that still didn’t explain why they would not stop for me. Perhaps I needed to keep my hand up in the air until the came to a full stop.
When the fifth bus came into view I raised my hand firmly and signaled the driver effusively. Not only did he pass me by, he honked and pointed at me! He negotiated the corner, slowed, and honked again! I could see his reflection in the giant side mirror; he was still pointing. It finally dawned on me that he wanted me to follow him. I grabbed my pack and ran after the bus but again he sped up. Assuming I’d been mistaken, I stopped. He honked another message: don’t stop, follow me. Around a bend, a passel of people waited at a real bus stop, complete with sign. In the nick of time, I bought a ticket from the agent on the street and hopped on board, stammering an embarrassed thanks to the driver before collapsing into a seat.
I may never completely figure out the bus system in Mexico, and it might not always be easy, but with the help of Mexicans, who are to a fault gracious and considerate, there’s little doubt that I could find my way to the most remote corner of Mexico on a bus, van, colectivo, publico, or kombi.