Travel in Mexico is something I do most years and I’m not talking about lounging on one of its many beaches. I go for the history, the arts, the food, and the people. Mexico oozes culture: #6 in the whole world for the number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Last winter I spent four weeks ‘riding the buses’ to outstanding colonial centres south of Mexico City. My route was Mexico City, Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Cuernavaca, Taxco and back to Mexico City for my flight home. I did it on my own and with almost zero knowledge of Spanish, although it is helpful to know these four words: Asiento: seat; Nombre: name; Destino: destination; Hora: time.
Mexico has an excellent bus system. Each ticket counter would have destinations clearly posted and I would choose my seat by pointing to an image on a computer screen. Luggage was always stowed securely in the undercarriage of the bus and I would need to show the luggage tag in order to retrieve the luggage at the end of the trip. Security precautions varied, with Mexico City’s being the most stringent.
At each station there was an authorized taxi stand where I would get an official taxi to my hotel for a fixed fare (Taxi Autorizado). Have the name, address and telephone # of your hotel written on a paper and consider getting directions to a smaller property in Spanish (B&Bs usually email this information to you when you make the booking).
Arrival Mexico City airport
My flight got into Mexico City well after midnight and since I was going by bus to Puebla the next morning I stayed at a hotel close to the airport. The hotel (Doubletree Hilton Airport Hotel) provided free shuttle service from and back to the airport and I must say that I was relieved to see the driver waiting for me at the prearranged gate.
The following day the shuttle took me to the rather modest Estrella Roya bus terminal located at the ground (arrivals) level of the airport’s Terminal 2. Security procedure: baggage checked, picture taken, name verified with official ID, pat down.
If your flight arrives at Terminal 1 and you are going to get the bus right away, then go upstairs to the bus ticket counter (over a catwalk at the end of the food court) and back downstairs to the bus departure area.
The ticket to Puebla cost MXN $260 (about US$18) one-way and took about 2 hours, passing the Popocatepetl volcano along the way.
Puebla is a very prosperous place and one of the most important Spanish colonial cities in the country. Few foreign tourists seem to know about it, though. At its centre is a marvelous zócalo and when I visited on Valentine’s Day it was filled with young couples making out. So it is a romantic city too.
There are more than 70 fine churches here and lovely buildings decorated with colourful tiles. Probably it is best known for the battle against the French that was fought and won here on May 5th 1862–so significant an achievement that the 5th of May/Cinco de Mayo is a national holiday.
Spend a few days feasting on Puebla’s world-famous cuisine (mole poblano, chalupas, chiles en nogada), admiring the hardwearing Talavera tiles and ceramics, visiting the world’s largest pyramid at nearby Cholula (really).
Puebla to Veracruz
Puebla’s main bus station is expansive and offers many services. After purchasing my ADO ticket to Veracruz (MXN $408), I found my gate in the departure area (passengers only), went through security, and waited until a bus with a “Veracruz” sign on it pulled up. The trip took about 3½ hours.
I went to Veracruz—a lively port with a strong Cuban influence—primarily because I had never been to the Gulf coast before. Veracruz is warm and wet but without a real beach, although boys were jumping off the pier into the rather polluted water far below just like kids do along the Malecón in Havana.
I missed Carnaval (carnival) by a couple of days and based on the pre-festival parades I suspect it is a lively and slightly scandalous affair. There were lots of people about, families gathered at outdoor markets and enjoying the fine weather and food at restaurants along the pier. Police rode around on motorcycles, lights flashing, each with an automatic weapon strung over their back. Cars, even taxis, gave way to pedestrians. The streets themselves were spotless, swept and washed down each morning.
My hotel, the Gran Hotel Diligencias, was right downtown on Independence Avenue and across from the zócalo where musicians and dancing couples entertained onlookers after the sun came down. Next door was the El Gran Café del Portal where they make a show of coffee service by dramatically pouring steaming milk from a kettle held high above the table.
I joined the Spanish-speaking tourists on a hop-on hop-off bus; the seats were just simple wooden benches soldered onto a platform.
Veracruz is a gritty rather than pretty place, welcoming and fun.
Veracruz to Oaxaca
The Veracruz bus station was a very busy place and I was glad that I had purchased my ongoing ticket in advance so that I didn’t have to stand in the long lineup the morning of my travel. Since the 1st class bus to Oaxaca only went at night I opted for a lower grade but it also travelled on the toll highway and only made a couple of stops. It was an 8-hour trip and I just about froze because of the air-conditioning. Loud movies were played non-stop. In other words, bring socks, a sweater and earphones in your daypack.
The city of Oaxaca (pronounced “wa-HAH-ka”) is located 550 km southeast of Mexico City in a valley surrounded by the Sierra Madre de Sur. It is Mexico at its best!
Oaxaca was once the centre of the Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations and its indigenous heritage is very much in evidence. Two archaeological sites (Monte Albán and Mitla) and indigenous markets (such as the Sunday one at Tlacolula) are nearby.
The Spanish arrived in 1533 and they left behind ornate buildings, the finest baroque church in the Western world and incredibly charming walkways and plazas, many of them restored. The best way to explore the colonial centre is on foot, starting with the lively zócalo.
Oaxaca to Cuernavaca
To get to Cuernavaca, I took a luxury bus from Oaxaca to the Central de Autobuses Oriente in Mexico City (6 hours) and from there a taxi to the southern bus terminal (Central de Autobuses del Sur) where I caught a bus south to Cuernavaca (1 hour).
A protest had closed down the highway outside Oaxaca so the bus took a back route for the first while and the poverty (and perhaps the reason for the protest) was quite revealing.
You can also fly from Oaxaca to Mexico City.
Wealthy people (many foreigners included) have been coming to Cuernavaca for ages, supposedly because of its perfect spring-like weather, making it one of Mexico’s best-known colonial cities. With their buckets of money they built these magnificent and massive properties behind very high walls that crowded out the locals. I stayed in one of those places, which is now a hotel (Hotel Casa Colonial) and felt a little guilty for doing it.
One of those rich foreigners was Robert Brady and his house and garden, across the street from where I was staying, is now a museum. He was an awesome collector of art and if you’ve ever wondered what to do with all the stuff you keep bringing home from trips then this place will stir your imagination.
There are many Spanish schools in Cuernavaca.
Cuernavaca to Taxco
This was my fourth visit to Taxco so I decided to do it as a daytrip out of Cuernavaca. (Alternatively, you can do Cuernavaca as a daytrip from Mexico City or Taxco.) It was all easy, with the local bus station in Cuernavaca being just a block from my hotel.The fare was MXN $80 each way and the trip took less than 2 hours.
The bus station in Taxco is a open, friendly sort of place, although the security guard was not thrilled when I took a photo of it. It’s a very steep walk from the station up to the charming zócalo so seriously consider hopping in one of the little white VW taxis.
You’ll know when you’re approaching Taxco (tass-ko) because ahead of you you’ll see white stucco buildings with red-tiled roofs perched on a hill. It is a fanciful place. The streets are steep and narrow and lined with shops selling works of silver. I spent most of the day finding out more about the town’s silver history. I also took a taxi up to the Cristo Monumental for a view of the whole area.
Taxco back to Cuernavaca and then to Mexico City
I stayed in Mexico City for a few days, taking a hotel right downtown (Holiday Inn Mexico Zocalo) by the zócalo so that I could walk to all the sites in the historic district. Mexico City is a favourite of mine. It’s a cultural treasure, a Spanish city built on top of the old Aztec capital, ‘the place where the gods were created’. There are more museums here than any city in the world, and many are simply outstanding. There are Diego’s murals covering government buildings, Frieda’s blue house, and on and on. The downtown area has been beautified and is stunning!
I will return to Mexico next week, this time travelling by bus to colonial towns north of Mexico City, with 8 nights in the capital itself. Can’t wait.
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How I travelled around the Yucatan by bus
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2015