The image of old, rickety Mexican buses chugging two-lane roads in Hollywood films might have rung true in another era. But in modern Mexico, the bus system is an efficient, comfortable and inexpensive way of getting around the country.
I first traveled long distance on Mexican buses more than 10 years ago, when my husband and I flew from Phoenix to Mexico City and, after spending some time in the capital, hopped on a bus to Querétaro and Guanajuato in the central region. On each leg of our trip, we encountered a luxurious bus with comfortable reclining seats, air conditioning, several screens to watch movies and ample overhead space. We gave kudos to our travel agent.
The country's bus system is even better now, though safety concerns linked to organized crime are now part of the traveling equation. But Mexico is a big country, something the State Department now acknowledges in travel warnings that point to specific trouble spots.
With that in mind, in early July I boarded a bus with my 12-year-old son bound for the Guanajuato state capital, which I fell in love with all those years ago. We were the only members of our family with the time and inclination to go on a long bus ride from the border town of Nogales, Sonora to colonial Mexico. We usually travel south of the border by car or plane, so this would be an adventure.
My son, who had been exposed to the more basic US bus travel at least once before, was impressed to discover Wi-Fi and a screen right in front of him when we got on a bus headed for Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora state. Much to his delight the familiar "Iron Man 2" was the featured movie.
As Robert Downey Jr., rambled on in Spanish, my thoughts wandered to the story about the Arizona woman who spent several days in jail after being accused of smuggling marijuana under the seat of a Sonora bus headed for the border. Although we were going in the opposite direction, I instinctively checked under our seats. All clear.
Three hours of riding and a couple hours' waiting at the central de autobuses in Hermosillo later, we transferred to another bus that would take us to Guadalajara, Jalisco. This was the longest part of the trip, about 850 miles.
I started to wonder if traveling through Sinaloa at night would be a good idea. The state is, after all, home to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán's powerful drug-trafficking organization. Even before leaving Arizona I had mulled over the idea of staying overnight in Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city. I decided against it. After all, incidents involving Mexican buses in recent years had happened in the northeastern region, not on the west coast.
My son and I slept through most of Sinaloa as the bus rolled through toll roads, considered safer both for buses and cars. Sinaloa's cornfields gave way to Nayarit's majestic mountains and about 22 hours later, the vibrant sights and sounds of Guadalajara came into view. Buses leave so frequently in this major hub that we quickly found a connection to Guanajuato, about 180 miles away.
This, according to my son, was the "best bus ever." Here, passengers not only got lunch but also had access to the Internet and individual screens where each could watch various movies or listen to music in English or Spanish. Oh, and you could play video games, which explained my son's pleasant mood after so many hours on the road - and a few more at bus terminals.
Some 1,200 miles and 30 hours after leaving Nogales, we arrived safely in Guanajuato and handed a bus attendant the ticket we'd been issued for our luggage.Though I'd heard the infrastructure is dismal in some parts of Mexico, the roads we traveled were robust. Bus drivers were courteous and professional.
In all, the fare for both of us totaled about $220, with my son getting the usual 50 percent discount for minors. Our Guanajuato host picked us up, but bus terminals throughout the country are centrally located and finding a cab nearby is easy.
Two sites to explore long-distance bus travel in Mexico: