Thinking about riding the buses in Mexico and don’t know the language? Here’s how an “older” female, travelling solo, with no Spanish, did it last month. I hadn’t planned to go there. In fact, I had just come back from Asia and my travel fund was low. But winter was lingering here in Canada so I impulsively decided to wait it out someplace warm.
I do know some Spanish and here it is.
– Hello. Hola. (o-la)
– Goodbye. Adiós. (a-dyos)
– Good day. Buenos dias. (bwe-nos dee-as)
– Good afternoon. Buenas tardes. (bwe-nas tar-des)
– Good evening. Buenas noches. (bwe-nas no-ches)
– Coffee with milk. Café con leche. (ka-fe kon le-che)
– Red wine. Vino tinto (vee-no teen-to)
– The bill please. La cuenta por favor. (la kwen-ta por fa-vor)
– How much is it? Cuándo cuesta? (kwan-to kwes-ta)
– Thank you. Gracias (gra-syas)
– Sorry. Perdón. (per-don)
These few words and lots of gestures worked just fine.
I’ve travelled around Mexico but never to Merida and that city has been on my travel list for some time. There is a TV show here in Canada called House Hunters International where house hunters buy real estate in foreign countries. Two episodes were based in Merida and I really liked what I saw.
The cheapest way for me to get there would be to take a West Jet flight from Ottawa to Cancun (CDN $535 return) and then a bus to Merida. I would arrive in Cancun around noon Mexican time so would travel overland during daylight hours. I googled buses and sure enough I could catch one right from the airport to the downtown Cancun station and on to Merida.
I decided to stay a week in Merida followed by time in Isla Mujeres, an island north of Cancun that I visited a decade ago and really liked. Using Trip Advisor and Agoda I found a charming place in historic Merida at 35% off the regular rate and an inexpensive room in one of the original hotels in Isla. And off I went.
I landed at terminal 2 in the Cancun airport and found an ATM when I went through customs. I was told to turn right when I left the terminal and keep walking until I saw the “ADO” red/grey bus ticket booth and buses, and there they were. I understand it’s a similar setup at terminal 3.
The bus to Cancun’s downtown bus station is non-stop, takes 35 minutes and costs 56 pesos (USA$4.59). You can also catch a bus from the airport to Playa del Carmen (65 minutes).
Downtown Cancun terminal
The bus terminal is very clean and well organized. They put your name on the ticket and you choose your seat. Your suitcase is tagged and stored in a compartment under the bus. The cost to travel to Merida on a first-class bus going along the toll road was 312 pesos (US$25.58).
Bus to Merida
The bus made a short stop in Valladolid, which is half way between Cancun and Merida. It’s known as the “Sultan of the East” because of its colonial buildings. Valladolid is only 40km (28 miles) from Chichen Itza, which is perhaps the best-known Mayan archeological sites and recently named one of the “New 7 wonders of the world”. I’ve visited Chichen Itza but I would be interested in seeing more of Valladolid on a return visit.
The trip took almost 4 hours. The bus wasn’t fancy but adequate and the loud movies they play drove me crazy but others seemed to enjoy them.
There is a taxi stand inside the Merida bus station and in a matter of minutes I was at my hotel, in time to have a swim in the small pool before heading out for supper.
Merida is a gorgeous colonial city that surpassed all expectations (more about that in May). Both the state and the city do an admirable job assisting tourists with advice, maps, brochures and a free walking tour. I took the hop-on hop-off bus that leaves from the central plaza and even though the commentary was only offered in Spanish it was well worth the price for a ‘high’ view of the city.
Renting a car to explore the area is certainly an attractive option and something I would have done if I were travelling with others. The Yucatan Today tourist publication provides helpful suggestions for day trips, from caves and haciendas to Mayan villages and colonial churches. There are over 6,000 sinkholes or cenotes in the Yucatan and some near Merida are ideal for swimming.
I took a tour bus to the Celestun Biosphere Reserve, 96 km from Merida, and another to Uxmal, the “thrice built city” and the most “manicured” of the Mayan sites.
Bus and ferry to Isla Mujeres
You can buy a return ticket to Cancun at the bus office in Merida’s central plaza. My bus was direct, not stopping in Valladolid. From the Cancun bus station it’s a short taxi ride (60 pesos) to Puerto Juarez where you catch the ferry to Isla Mujeres.
The ferry terminal and ferries have changed a great deal since I was there 10 years ago. Ferries leave about every half hour and cost 140 pesos round trip. When you arrive on the island, there are lots of taxis but if you’re staying in El Centro you can probably just walk to your hotel for the area is so compact.
Along the Mayan coast
A young Danish woman I met in Merida told me she had just spent a month on Holbox Island and really liked the place, camping most of the time she was there. She described it as the sort of place where you can still have a piece of beach all to yourself. I have been to Holbox, which is north of Isla Mujeres, and I would have gone again based on what she told me but it would have been necessary to stay there overnight and I didn’t have enough time to do that. So it is another “next time” destination.
On a previous visit I had also been down the coast as far as Tulum, where there is a rather modest Mayan ruin in a spectacular setting. So my day trip from Isla Mujeres was to Cozumel, an island I had never been to that is 19km (12 miles) from Playa del Carmen. Cozumel was once a pilgrimage site for the moon and the fertility goddess. Today it’s a diver’s paradise because of the coral reefs. People also go there to snorkel and deep-sea fish. A taxi driver wanted $70 to take me around the island and based on the beach, restaurants and stores near the terminal I decided it was not my sort of place so after a quick lunch I returned to Playa.
Playa was another fishing village that exploded into a big-time resort. It’s not like the Cancun hotel zone, though, and I would consider staying there for a few days and getting to know it better.
There are frequent shuttle vans that run between Cancun and Playa. The trip takes less than an hour, costs 30 pesos, and the vans are air-conditioned. What more can you ask for! The shuttle station in Playa is at Calle 2 Norte around Av. 15.
Next time I will travel further south to Mahahual, still a fishing village that is described in Yucatan Today as being one of the last frontiers of the Mexican Caribbean. They say that if you visited Cancun 35 years ago or Playa del Carmen 20 years ago, then that is what Mahahual looks like today. Appeals to me!
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How I travelled to colonial towns south of Mexico City by bus
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013