Mexico was the first country we would travel to when we embarked on what we call our never-ending journey, and when it was finally time to plan our trip we were ecstatic. Our original plan for travel in Mexico consisted of reserving a series of plane tickets as we went along from city to city, since we had heard they were fairly cheap at around $50-$80 per person.
We would begin in Mexico City, work our way down through Oaxaca and towards the coast, then we would simply move east across the country whenever and wherever we felt like going until we hit Tulum. In just one week shy of two months, we did just that. As it turns out, with the exception of just one flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca City for the Dia de los Muertos festival, all ten cities we visited throughout Mexico we reached by bus. The bus system there is just that good.
We quickly realized how astonishingly efficient the bus system in Mexico actually is, and just how well-priced. Not only does Mexico’s bus system put the United States’ Greyhound system to utter shame (though that’s not very difficult), it put every other bus system we had ever been on in our travels around the world to shame as well. There are both first-class and second-class buses available, but the quality and comfort of them both is fabulous.
There’s nice leg room, room to recline your seat all the way back without disturbing the passenger behind you too much, and most of the first-class buses have lavatories in the rear that are reasonably clean in public bus terms. All the buses are air conditioned and have working outlets, and also have movies playing at all times on the flip screens overhead. These are usually in Spanish but occasionally you’ll get one with English subtitles.
On one of our rides, the bus had hard wood floors, cup holders, and padded tops on the seats to rest your head. They’re so nice in fact that you just may feel under dressed! Needless to say, this became our primary method of travel between cities and saved us a lot on plane tickets and airport stress.
THE STATIONS AND THE TICKET SYSTEM
There are two major companies who operate the buses throughout Mexico. There’s the ADO (first class buses) and the OCC (second class buses, but just as nice). There are smaller less-fancy bus companies like Occidental that can take you to places less reachable, but you can buy tickets for any of these lines at the ADO station in any given city.
Literally, there is an ADO or OCC station in every town that’s of any interest to people. Also, these buses go everywhere. They run frequently and the drivers are punctual, so you can practically choose your own departure time on any day of the week. It’s unlikely that you’ll have delays either.
Buying tickets is super easy. Lines are fairly organized, and even if the attendant doesn’t speak much English they’ll hand you their keyboard through the window so you can type in your names. You’ll also be able to choose your own seats most of the time too. They’ll even show you a chart of the specific times available for your ride, which run basically every hour from most places. Usually, you don’t even have to make a connection in another city.
For longer distance tickets, we always visited the station the day before to buy them just to be safe. Depending on the destination, it’s possible for tickets to sell out if you get there last minute, so it’s always best to plan ahead when necessary, especially on the weekends.
LUGGAGE AND DETAILED SEAT CHECKS
One of our favorite things about the buses in Mexico was the organized system for seat checking and bag check, and you don’t even have to pay extra for these perks. As mentioned, you often get to pick your own seats, and directly from a map of the bus. The drivers keep detailed lists of all passengers, and do seat counts regularly to make sure everyone is a paying customer and that no one is left behind at pit stops.
Even in a small town like Valladolid, there was a baggage check booth where we could safely stash our backpacks with a live attendant and wander about without lugging them around. The baggage check system on the buses is very well organized – you get a ticket with a number, and your luggage gets tagged and stored. When you arrive at your destination, that station’s employees in uniform double check your ticket and retrieve the corresponding bag for you.
Since passengers are monitored regularly you never have to worry about shady characters jumping on unnoticed. The drivers will personally let you know if it’s time to board at a pit stop, and they won’t leave you behind. The service the ADO and OCC companies offer is exceptional, and we never felt unsafe at all.
TRANSPORTATION COSTS AND WHAT TO EXPECT
For all of this great service and comfort, the most we ever paid for a ticket was only 15 USD. The most expensive for an overnight ride from Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas – a 13-hour trip! On average, we only spent 5-10 USD each for first class tickets, and most of our rides were over three hours long. On longer rides, the driver stops at a pit stops, usually at a restaurant or cafe with all of the needed facilities.
Rest assured, if you don’t feel like hopping off for a snack the goods will come to you! Vendors will hop on the bus briefly and walk through the isles to announce what they’ve got – and very loudly for that matter. You can purchase anything from toys, fruit and veggies, popcorn and fried plantains, juices, empanadas, you name it – they probably have the hook up for just a few pesos.
All this is great and convenient, but in our opinion it’s not a great sales tactic to hop on an overnight bus and wake everyone up yelling “FRUTAS!!! EMPANADAS!!! CAFÉ!!!” at 3AM. Thankfully, we didn’t feel it was so frequent we were extremely bothered by it. Kudos to them for trying! The frequency was moderate and to be honest it was kind of hilarious. Aside from this, you can expect the buses to be clean, comfortable, and dare I say – relaxing.
THE ALTERNATIVE: COLECTIVOS
Colectivos are the local way of getting around for cheap. You pay by cash, and the bus collects passengers until all seats are full. These buses come in only minibus size and look just like an airport shuttle. Also, there’s no official stops. They’re pretty much flagged down in the same manner that taxis are. There are collectivo “stations” in just about every city too, but be aware that they are disorganized and can be super crowded.
Drivers will try to battle each other out for your business as well. However, these buses go everywhere, leave frequently, and are usually only 1-4 USD for your fare. Your bags will be strapped to the roof with the other passengers’ groceries, there’s sometimes not much air conditioning to be had (which is pretty much at the driver’s discretion), and you’ll share the bus with curious locals staring into your very soul. Basically, if you’re riding one of these and someone farts… you’re done for. It’s best to get a window seat if you can.
If you’re unlucky, there may also be some shady characters on board with the potential to be pick pockets. Don’t let all this change your mind about the colectivos though – some of the best areas in Mexico are only reachable this way. Everyone should have at least one “chicken bus” experience if they visit Mexico after all.
We used colectivos frequently throughout our trip, and we truly enjoyed mingling with the locals and had some very friendly encounters on them. Since they are so common and run on the hop-on-hop-off strategy, you can flag one down at any time to get across town or to points of interest that are just outside the reaches of the city. Just keep your belongings secured and tucked away under all circumstances, keep a good look out, and enjoy the ride.
To date, the official bus system in Mexico is the most efficient we have ever experienced. The ADO and OCC buses are comfortable, safe, cheap, and extremely well organized. How do they school it so well? We haven’t the slightest idea.
However, I did have to rub my eyes and do a double take once, when I could have sworn I saw a guy in uniform roll out from a compartment under the bus to converse with the current driver. When it was time to hit the road again, the driver walked away and the bus goblin opened the compartment door and rolled back in, shutting it securely behind him.
How peculiar… but maybe that’s how the system is world-class efficient and so frequent, but we may never know! All we know for sure is, the sheer sophistication of the bus system in Mexico allows you to spend less time worrying about plans and budgets, and more time enjoying your travels comfortably.
Have questions on bus travel in Mexico? Leave a comment below or contact us directly and we will be more than happy to help 😊