Monday, September 30, 2013

Flying down Mexico's highways in a first-class bus

Flying down Mexico's highways in a first-class bus
Posted by Brian J. Cantwell

Modern Volvo buses are used by ADO, a prominent Mexican intercity bus line. This is the GL-class bus, akin to Business Class. "Platino" is the top-of-the-line service. (photos by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

OAXACA, Mexico - You can still find the fabled "chicken bus" in Mexico, but if you're traveling between sizable cities, that's a long-outdated stereotype. Mexico's modern intercity bus lines are among the best in the world - and also quite affordable.

Traveling overnight back and forth between Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas, I compared the two premium services offered by ADO (say "Ah-Day-Oh"), one of Mexico's largest bus operators. The top-of-the-line "Platino" service, modeled after first-class airline comforts, has just about everything but a flight attendant plumping your pillow.

The first-class bus terminal in Oaxaca is new and shiny, not unlike a modern air terminal in the United States.

At the modern and shiny first-class bus terminal on the northern edge of downtown Oaxaca, I discovered the first difference when I made the mistake of trying to check my luggage at the "ordinary" bag-check counter. I was pointed around the corner to the private, guarded Platino waiting room with its own bag counter, private restrooms, big-screen TVs, water cooler and free coffee. As I boarded, I was offered a free soft drink or chilled water.

The bus itself had only three seats across the width of the vehicle, in a two-and-one configuration. Traveling alone, I had booked one of the single seats, with the best of both worlds: both a window and an aisle. The down side, I discovered, was that the single row had significantly less leg room between seats than on the side with two seats abreast. It was an unhappy situation as soon as the big man in front of me reclined all the way back and the top of his head was under my nose.

Aboard the ADO "Platino"-class bus, there are only three seats across the width of the bus. The interior resembles a first-class airline compartment.

But the good news came in two doses: 1. Because the Platino bus costs about one-third more than the next cheapest service (ADO GL), it may not run as full. So I was able to move across to an open pair of seats across the aisle. 2. Because the Platino bus makes fewer (or no) stops between major cities, I could switch seats without worry about someone getting on an hour later to claim their reserved seat that I had purloined.

Other first-class amenities on the Platino: The big wide seats not only reclined to almost horizontal, they came with a pull-down cushioned support for your legs. All windows were tightly curtained, with a curtained and closed door separating us from the driver, so it was quite the dark womb at night. Tiny airline-sized pillows and thin blankets were provided. Men's and women's lavatories were in the back, with lighted icons at the front of the bus to tell if they were busy. Between the restrooms was a serve-yourself coffee bar with hot water and instant-coffee packets. Video screens were in the seat backs, with ear buds provided and a selection of music and movies (no English-language movies, sorry). They even provided a black-out mask for light sleepers.

One thing the fancy buses couldn't do: Provide a smooth and quiet ride over some stretches of rough and winding Mexican roadway. Bring earplugs; there's clattering. In addition, you'll hear beeping from other riders' cell phones getting text messages all night long. Nonetheless, I arrived feeling relatively rested and needed only a two-hour nap during the day to feel revived.

Platino service wasn't offered the date I returned to Oaxaca, so I sampled the next step down, the "Ejecutivo" (sort of like Business Class) bus, the ADO GL (570 pesos, compared to the Platino's 762 pesos - about $44 vs. $59 U.S.).

This less expensive bus was packed full. The seats were four across, in a two-and-two configuration - about 2/3 the width of the Platino seats. I had a window seat, which meant "holding it" in the middle of the night because I didn't have the heart to wake my seatmate so I could get to the restroom.

Seats still reclined quite a ways, and we still got a free soft drink, his-and-hers lavatories and the coffee bar. But no pillows or blankets on the GL (bring a sweater), and movies were shown on drop-down video screens (with earbuds provided), meaning you watched whatever they were showing. Sleep was more elusive on this leg of my journey.

In both cases, the quoted travel time was about 11 hours. Both journeys actually took 12 hours.

All in all, it's not a bad way to get around Mexico, especially to some places without big airports. You might not get to make friends with a chicken along the way. But knowing a few Mexican towns as I do, you'll find chickens easily enough once you're there.

A few logistical tips:

A website,, is useful for checking schedules and prices. It gives users a choice of Spanish or English. But when I went through all the laborious steps to reserve a ticket, the website responded with an "error" message. I heard from another traveler of a similar experience. So you might do best to use the website for schedule info (and seating charts, even) but actually purchase your ticket at the bus station. If you're concerned about getting a seat, purchase a day or two in advance at your departure station.

These deluxe buses don't necessarily stop for food, nor do they always have vendors come aboard as you might have experienced on other Latin American bus trips. Bring snacks.

All seats are reserved on these buses. When you reserve, choose a seat far enough away from the restrooms that you don't get the odor from them if they get overused on the trip.

NOTE: We have personally traveled by bus from Acapulco and Taxco - it was a comfortable and interesting trip. I highly recommend bus travel when available... Anne & Patrick Mullen

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