The bus is the king of the Oaxaca road. A host of lines connect virtually every town and most villages in Oaxaca. Three distinct levels of service—luxury or super-first class, first class, and second class—are generally available. Luxury-class (usually called something like Primera Plus or Ejecutivo, depending upon the line), super-deluxe express coaches speed between major towns, seldom stopping en route. In exchange for somewhat higher fares (about $50 Oaxaca City–Puerto Escondido, for example, compared with $40 for first class), luxury-class passengers enjoy rapid passage and airline-style amenities: plush reclining seats, air-conditioning, on-board toilet, video, and aisle attendant.
Although much less luxurious, first-class service costs less, is frequent, and always includes reserved seating. Additionally, passengers usually enjoy soft reclining seats and air-conditioning (if it is working). Besides making regular stops at or near most towns and villages en route, first-class bus drivers, if requested, will usually stop and let you off anywhere along the road.
Second-class bus seating is unreserved. In outlying parts of Oaxaca, there is a class of buses even beneath second class, but given the condition of many second-class buses, it usually seems as if third-class buses wouldn’t run at all. Such buses are the stuff of travelers’ legends: the recycled old GMC, Ford, and Dodge school buses that stop everywhere and carry everyone and everything to the smallest villages tucked away in the far mountains. As long as there is any kind of a road to it, such a bus will most likely go there.
Now and then, you’ll read a newspaper story of a country bus that went over a cliff somewhere in Mexico, killing the driver and a dozen unfortunate souls. The same newspapers never bother to mention the half-million safe passenger trips the same bus provided during its 15 years of service prior to the accident.
Second-class buses are not for travelers with weak knees or stomachs. You will often initially have to stand, cramped in the aisle, among a crowd of campesinos. They are warm-hearted people, but poor, so don’t tempt them with open, dangling purses or wallets bulging in back pockets. Stow your money safely away. After a while, you will probably be able to sit down. Such privilege, however, comes with obligation, such as holding an old lady’s bulging bag of carrots or a toddler on your lap. But if you accept your burden with humor and equanimity, who knows what favors and blessings may flow to you in return.
Tickets, Seating, and Baggage
Oaxaca bus lines do not ordinarily publish schedules or fares. You have to ask someone (such as your hotel desk clerk) who knows, or call (or have someone call) the bus station. Only a few travel agents handle bus tickets. If you don’t want to spend the time to get a reserved ticket yourself, hire someone trustworthy to do it for you. Another way of doing it all is to get to the bus station early enough on your traveling day to ensure you’ll get a bus to your destination.
Although some first-class bus lines accept credit cards and issue computer-printed tickets at their major stations, many reserved bus tickets are sold for cash and handwritten, with a specific número de asiento (seat number) on the back. If you miss the bus, you lose your money. Furthermore, airlines-style automated reservations systems have not yet arrived at the smaller Oaxacan bus stations. Consequently, you can generally buy reserved tickets only at the salida local (local departure) station. (An agent in Tehuántepec, for example, cannot ordinarily reserve you a ticket on a bus that originates in Oaxaca City, a day’s travel down the road.)
Request a reserved seat number, if possible, from numbers 1–25 in the delante (front) to medio (middle) of the bus. The rear seats are often occupied by smokers, drunks, and general rowdies. At night, you will sleep better on the lado derecho (right side) away from the glare of oncoming traffic lights.
Baggage is generally secure on Oaxaca buses. Label it, however. Overhead racks are often too cramped to accommodate airline-size carry-ons. Carry a small bag of your crucial items on your person; pack clothes and less essential items in your checked luggage. For peace of mind, watch the handler put your checked baggage on the bus and watch to make sure it is not mistakenly taken off the bus at intermediate stops.
If, somehow, your baggage gets misplaced, remain calm. Bus employees are generally competent and conscientious; if you are patient, recovering your luggage will become a matter of honor for many of them. Baggage handlers are at the bottom of the pay scale; a tip for their mostly thankless job would be very much appreciated.
On long trips, carry food, drinks, and toilet paper. Station food may be dubious and the sanitary facilities ill-maintained.
If you are waiting for a first-class bus at an intermediate salida de paso (passing station), you often have to trust to luck that there will be an empty seat. If not, your best option may be to ride a usually much more frequent second-class bus.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition