Andrew Evans is hightailing it through Mexico and Central America in an effort to catch the Sea Lion, a National Geographic/Lindblad expedition that will take him from Costa Rica to Panama on his way to Antarctica. Here’s a glimpse of what he saw of Mexico from the bus window.
The acronym ADO stands for Autobuses de Oriente, which is just what I needed: buses of the east. As much as I love Mexico, due to its vastness, I needed to find the shortest point between two distances–Reynosa in the north, and the border with Guatemala.
I had a ticket as far as Coatzacoalcos, right at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. We left at 9 p.m. and crossed the no man’s land of northeastern Mexico where I slept on and off.
We stopped in Tampico at around four in the morning. I was impressed by what a clean and orderly bus station it had. Perhaps because it was empty. A cleaner polished the marble floor, two women sold Tampico souvenirs in a shop, and, in a corner, a young man tried to console his red-eyed and tearful girlfriend/wife.
Security was quite high–ADO bus lines advertise themselves as one of the safest bus lines in the country and before departing, a guard had come through the bus with a video camera recording each of our faces. Sticker seals were placed over all the luggage compartments underneath the bus and in Tampico, all reboarding passengers were kept behind a secure area. In many ways, the buses in Mexico were nicer than the ones in the United States. They all had more legroom and the seats reclined much further back so it was easier to sleep.
The Mexican buses also played movies, which was a mixed blessing. In the dark hours of night it helps pass the time. The next morning, however, I woke up to the beautiful green and misty landscape of Central Mexico accompanied by Disney Channel laugh tracks. I can only assume the bus driver had daughters because he played episode after episode of Hannah Montana in Spanish.
This was a new kind of torture for me, however the rule of the road is to suck it up and make the best of it–so I tuned in to Hannah and her friends and tried to eek out some Spanish from within the dubbed banter.
I learned a lot more from the woman sitting next to me since Tampico.
A tourist destination almost never looks like the posters that inspire us to go there in the first place. Some people are disappointed when the White House looks smaller than it does in the movies, or when some national parks feel crowded and developed. I had that same thought as we cruised along the edge of the Mexican coastline. Instead of sun, sea, and sand, I watched huge waves of gray ocean roll in and then crash onto a colorless beach marked by blackened palm trees. The sky was overcast and monotone, and the rain certainly didn’t make anything feel warm and inviting. Instead I felt like I was in some wild, obscure, and forbidden country.
I did enjoy the nature outside my window: the white egrets on the ground and the colorful purple-black grackles that flitted from tree to tree–the low mountain ranges that kept appearing in the distance and then disappearing behind the fast-moving mist and rain. We passed through wet towns painted in the brightest colors, and yet even cheerful Mickey Mouse murals and stoplight yellow apartment buildings didn’t change the mood that comes with constant rain.
After several more hours, the bus driver finally pulled over and announced our lunch break at Hostel José–an open-air cantina surrounded by car-sized puddles. All the passengers groaned. Like me, they were in a rush to get home and nobody wanted to stop at this dilapidated roadside restaurant.
Kickbacks work the same the world over, and it was soon apparent that bus drivers eat at Hostel José for free if they bring busloads and their wallets. A few other passengers decided to sit down and buy some food, but the majority of us waited for an hour while the drivers ate tortillas and steak in the corner.
I spent our break recharging my phone. Meanwhile, it rained and rained and rained. I guess that’s why they call it rainy season. Everyone seemed bored and tired, so for the next few hours, the driver just kept popping in DVDs (just like you do with kids having a tantrum). I think we watched six movies before getting to our destination including Surf’s Up. It was surreal to watch Rockhopper penguins speaking Spanish, but the movie focused my thoughts on my ultimate destination and the hope that I will get to see real Rockhoppers in the wild.
The bus station at Coatzacoalcos was a kind of semi-distinguished chaos, with shifting lines of a hundred or more people, each with their own pile of roped-up bags, suitcases, backpacks, and bundles. Try as I might to not be too conspicuous, I was not fitting in. A young Mexican man named Hector came up to me and tried to help out. He spoke English–had lived his whole life in the U.S. and had worked as a manager at Chick-fil-A back in my parents
suburb of Houston. It’s a small world and Hector helped me find the right ticket counter.
I was hoping to spend some time in Coatzacoalcos but because of the rain and reports of flooded roads, I was afraid of getting stuck and grabbed the first bus south. That bus was also late from the rain, but I still arrived in the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez at around three in the morning and actually got some sleep. In the station at Tuxtla, I discovered free Wi-Fi (hurray!) and also met Alfredo and Alberto. Both had very interesting stories of traveling back and forth to the United States illegally, one working construction in California and Seattle, the other milking cows in Pennsylvania. When I asked Alfredo if it was difficult or scary coming into the United States, he replied no, that all he did was drink a lot of Red Bull and walk all the way to San Diego. I thought of all those Red Bull advertisements (“Red Bull gives you wings!”) and laughed.
My next bus brought me to the quaint and cheerful mountain town of San Cristóbal de las Casas. It was still dark when we arrived and the station was empty except for four Tzotzil Indian women and their barefoot children. I tried talking with them but they didn’t speak Spanish and so we just smiled and all fell asleep sitting up.
When the sun came up, I realized how beautiful and different a place Chiapas is compared to the rest of Mexico: jungle-covered mountains with silhouetted evergreen trees and cornfields all around. I walked around the colorful streets, smelled the tamales cooking in pots over fires along the road. It was also in San Cristóbal that I ran into my first fellow gringos–some haggard-looking backpackers that likely thought the same thing about me. Running into your own kind on the road is sometimes good, sometimes disheartening. Travelers are snobs in that we all like to imagine we are the only one of our kind in a place. And yet they all headed north, and I headed south, alone, on a bus to the Guatemalan border, at Ciudad Cuauhtémoc.
And that, my friends, is how a 23-hour bus ride turned into something like a 48-hour bus ride. I confess that I rode the entire length of Mexico in one fell swoop, which is probably some sort of travel sin, but let me assure you, it did not make Mexico any less interesting.