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What It’s Really Like on the Road in Mexico

How to wander from deserts of Guanajuato to the lush Pacific Coast by bus and by car

Outside the car window, whirlwinds of sand sashayed across the desert haze. Miles ahead, the horizon disappeared into a shimmer; the windows were down and Blitzen Trapper played on loop. We were just a pair of fuzzy dice shy of the quintessential road trip.

Well, the dice, and the fact that Mexico probably isn’t the first place you think of when it comes to road trips.

While skipping the swanky resorts of the Mayan Riviera and opting instead to explore the country’s roads by bus and car may sound unconventional—and perhaps unwise for a solo female traveler—the result was entirely worth it: In addition to basking in those classic road-trip vibes, I managed to catch a glimpse of Mexico, unfiltered.

I have to admit, I started out a little unsure. Wandering through the hot airport just after my arrival, those lectures I’d sat though back home on every possible scary scenario started ringing in my ears. Contrary to what the guidebooks say, in those first moments most people’s English skills seemed comparable to my own in Spanish—that is to say, limited. But eventually I managed to locate the bus counter for the Estrella Roja, or “red star,” line (per the directions of my friend Katie, who I was visiting) and purchase a ticket for the next bus to Puebla. I settled somewhat triumphantly into a window seat and glanced around at the businesspeople and families with whom I’d be spending the next two Puebla-bound hours. Aside from the plot of Finding Nemo unraveling in Spanish on the small drop-down movie screens, the experience on board the air-conditioned bus wasn’t really all that foreign.

Outside, however, a chaotic, pulsing meld of movement and color unfolded. Rickety pickups puttered past, truck beds filled with people—giggling kids, grandparents, maybe some friends. Old Volkswagens zoomed down the highway, still functioning thanks to careful maintenance. As we wove out of the congested colonial city, a small brush fire lit up the grass alongside the highway. No other passengers even seemed fazed.

Combing through the markets of Puebla
Katie was waiting when the bus pulled into the Puebla station. The charming Spanish colonial city proved to be an excellent home base from which to explore central Mexico, made all the better for La Fonda de Santa Clara restaurant and its array of traditional dishes covered in mole poblano— the rich chocolate sauce for which Puebla is known.

On our first foray out of this home base, Katie and I hit the ruler-straight highway with her Puebla-native boyfriend Raul in his (new) red VW, en route to Cholula. The small city is just 40 or so minutes away and is best known for an odd landmark: a 16th-century Spanish colonial church planted atop a grassy pre-Hispanic pyramid. The Great Pyramid of Cholula is actually one of the largest pyramids in the world, and a marketplace winds upward from the base of the pyramid to the top, where the towers of a Catholic church are open to the public. 

After haggling over textiles and snacking on chapulines (toasted grasshoppers), we rounded out the day with La Casa del Mixote’s mole poblano, and mezcal (of course) at San Pedrito, a bar packed with trendy young Mexicans.

On another day, a quest for the Los Ahuehuetes natural spring somewhere in the Pueblan countryside led to a roadblock. Specifically, cows. Cows everywhere. Cows trudging in our lane on the road. A sharp honk only yielded scathing looks. To be fair, as Raul pointed out, such a scene is actually a rarity in Mexico.

After a short time back in Puebla, my exploration continued south by bus to Oaxaca City. A four-hour ride took us through craggy mountains, remote villages, valleys, and a pink-hued sunset. We saw weathered old men in cowboy hats clomping along on horseback while a cactus infantry stood rigid in the desert. During city transfers, I watched Mexican millennials moving down sidewalks with backpacks, en route to a college class or work meeting. Once in Oaxaca City itself, we explored the area on rented bicycles, tasted mezcal, and took a day trip to nearby Monte Albán, where the remains of a timeworn city sprawled across a flat-topped mountain. The archeological site is one of the oldest in Mesoamerica, dating back to 500 B.C.E.

Although it’s possible to drive from Puebla to Oaxaca by car, the nine-hour journey from Oaxaca to the Pacific Coast is best made by bus. I felt every bump in the road during the midnight ride along those many switchbacks, and at some point there was no road, just a dirt path. But we arrived safely at a transfer hub, Pochutla, by early morning light, hailed a taxi, and headed west into the jungle to Zipolite. There, along the coast, just about everything is open-air and organic. Bordering cliché, the beach village is still basking in its barefoot hippie glory days. Palm-roofed restaurants and hotels like our hillside bungalow, La Loma Linda, line the beach, camouflaged by sun-scorched browns, greens, and tans of the surrounding landscape.

The view of paradise from La Loma Linda
In contrast to the coast’s laid-back vibe, another bus ride and a few hours along the desert highway by car brought me to colonial San Miguel de Allende, which is all fiesta. I would be winding through a quiet street and suddenly be caught in a flash mob–like parade packed with costumed members pulling laughing pedestrians into the chaos. Everything in this ex-pat haven is safely walkable—from the French-inspired San Augustin Chocolates & Churros café to the performing arts at Teatro Angela Peralta. In a city known for its rooftop terraces, an evening drink at Mama Mia with a view of the city’s landmark cathedral, La Parroquia, was a highlight.

It can’t go unsaid that despite every safety lecture I received, and despite this being my first time in Latin America, I never felt threatened or unsafe as the trip unfolded from city to city. In fact, getting around Mexico alone on the road is easier than ever. Car rentals range from US$5  a day and bus tickets, which can be purchased online or at the station, range from US$10-$40. Uber is even becoming popular; paired with the readily available radio taxis, that makes getting around within cities a breeze. As I gained confidence, my short list of memorized Spanish phrases and road signs turned into sentences, and I found myself easily booking bus tickets and safely navigating the roads behind the wheel. On my final 3-hour bus ride from San Miguel to Mexico City, the window-seat view had become a portal to the country I was experiencing. It doesn’t exclusively reveal rich, or poor, or paradise, but from the window seat you’ll simply see Mexico, with all its wild colors.

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