For Semana Santa 2013, F and I decided to do what I have since called the Magical Mexican Mountain Town Tour. As most readers know, Mexico is blessed with numerous charming colonial cities and towns, many not too far from Mexico City. Despite my extensive travels around Mexico, there were three spots I had wanted to visit for a long time, and a fourth that I wanted to revisit: San Luis Potosí, SLP; Zacatecas, ZAC; Aguascalientes, AGS; and San Miguel de Allende, GTO, which is always a charmer, along with its blogging inhabitants. By the way, Santiago de Querétaro (more commonly known simply as Querétaro) really belongs on such a tour. But we had been there before, and only had a week to spend, so we just passed through. Semana Santa is high travel season in Mexico for good reason. Many people take the week off, and most cities have lots of festivities and events to celebrate the holiday. So while you’ll not find too many bargains on hotels, you will have lots to do and see that week wherever you go. In the towns we picked, there was plenty to see.
In true Mexican tradition, we decided to do the tour via bus, which is a terrific way to see Mexico. The buses go from Centro to Centro, often allowing you to walk or take a very short taxi ride to your hotel, and provide a terrific view of the often-fascinating countryside you are passing through. Contrary to old stereotypes, Mexican buses are new, comfortable, and luxurious, with plush reclining seats, and in-flight movies. Unfortunately that latter bit sometimes utilizes the bus’s PA system for the audio, but it’s easily enough blocked out with an iPod if you’re like me and prefer to look out the window. At night, it helps to while away the hours on board. If you travel first class (which I’d recommend) you also usually get a sandwich or something similar (at least in the bus line’s view) and a soft drink or fruit juice. The buses also have lavatories.
Also contrary to stereotypes, you can book tickets online, select your seats, pay with a credit card, and then download the boarding pass to your smartphone. Both F and I were a bit suspicious about how well iPhone boarding passes would be received at the bus station, but we had no problem, and got five or ten percent discount on the ticket for doing so. If you prefer to do things the twentieth-century way, you can buy paper tickets at the bus station, or at many Oxxos or other stores. Generally you need not book farther than a few hours in advance in order to get a seat, and runs are frequent, so you should pretty much be able to travel at will without too much planning. We didn’t book any ticket more than about 12 hours in advance, and most of them we booked a few hours before we left. If you happen to be traveling with a teacher (as I was), they get a special discount, as do students, seniors and children. Be sure to have documentation of your discount status to show upon boarding.
The only limitation of the Mexican bus system is that there’s no site where you can book tickets from point A to point B where you change buses and bus companies at some intermediate point. So it’s up to you to figure out which bus company goes where. For us, this meant that we had to do a bit of work to figure out our itinerary from Aguascalientes to San Miguel de Allende, as no single bus company runs that route. Our initial reaction was, “Oh, my God, you can’t get there from here.” But since León is a large-ish city in between, F figured that we should try to pass through there, and that did the trick. We had a layover just long enough to have lunch and do some shopping in between buses. And we were able to leave the luggage in the station for a small fee. (León is famous for its leather goods, and there’s plenty to buy around the bus station.) And unlike the pinches airlines, you can show up at the bus station 15-20 minutes before departure and sail right onto the bus. The most elaborate security measures consist of passing through a metal detector, and being videotaped in your seat immediately before departure. Even those measures aren’t followed on all routes. The other interesting thing we learned is that several of the Mexican bus companies now offer service from Mexico to places like Houston, Dallas, and other Southwestern cities. So you could conceivably even start such a tour stateside without ever setting foot on an airplane. And the bus stations in Mexico are generally nice, clean, and usually have convenience stores, and sometimes restaurants.
The big Mexican bus companies include the below. Note that I basically copied and translated the list from this link. And of course I added a few comments too.
Autobuses de Oriente ADO – Bus service to various cities of the Southeast. Website only in Spanish.
Enlaces Terrestres Nacionales ETN – Comfortable and luxurious buses with destinations around the center of the country. We used this one a lot and the website is available in English.
Estrella Blanca – Bus service to various cities around Mexico. “Estrella Blanca” means “White Star,” but don’t worry about comparisons with The Titanic; there are no icebergs on Mexican highways. The website appears to be available only in Spanish. Sencillo = one-way, Redondo = Round trip. Amusingly enough, “Estrella Blanca” is also the name of a famous Mexican luchador enmascarado, a random fact I just learned.
Estrella de Oro – Destinations to Oaxaca, Estado de México, Veracruz, Guerrero, Morelos and Mexico City. I believe we once took this line from DF to Oaxaca. On the way back, the driver made frighteningly good time on the twisty mountain highway. ‘Nuff said. Website only in Spanish.
Ómnibus de México – Bus service to various cities around the Republic of Mexico, often abbreviated to simply ODM. The website is available in English.
Omnibus Mexicanos. This line offers a surprisingly wide range of service between US cities as far north as Indiana and Ohio to the northern parts of Mexico and DF. Website is in Spanish, though they do appear to have a US 1-800 number. If you’ve always wanted to visit Mexico, but are afraid of flying, this may be for you.
Primera Plus – Bus service to various cities around Central Mexico. We rode this company’s buses several times and were generally happy with the service. Website is available in English too.
TAP Transportes y Autobuses del Pacífico: Bus service to the Pacific Northwest (of Mexico) leaving from Mexico City up through Tijuana. Website only in Spanish.
Turistar – First Class Service, ample coverage and comfort. This is now part of ETN, and it’s not clear there’s any difference between the two lines. Website (basically ETN’s) available in English.
Reserbus – Destinations, timetables, and reservations on line. I haven’t tried this site, but it appears to contradict my paragraph above about the lack of an Expedia for Mexican buses. Only available in Spanish.
Coming up, I’ll write at least one post about each destination, with lots of photos, and perhaps some additional commentary. We’ll begin with San Luis Potosí. If you’re interested in Mexico’s highland colonial cities, this is the tour for you.