Travel | No comments yet.
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Boarding local Mazatlán buses for Mexicans is safe for gringos!
Many people have asked questions about taking the bus in Mexico. Is it safe? Is it reliable? Is it even half-comfortable? Well, it depends! This is what I have to say about buses in Mazatlán.
Surprisingly, the city does not publish a map of the bus routes. Instead, all buses, for locals and for tourists write their routes, or major points of interest that are accessible from a particular bus, on its windshield. It’s actually much easier to see and read than the Canadian method. Plus the buses come at least every ten minutes if not more often. It cost us 9 pesos (about 80 cents) to ride all over the city. Pulmonias (open air golf carts) cost by distance – but are more than buses, and less than taxis, and a whole lot of fun to ride in.
I always seem to have more time than money on my vacation. So, I’d rather use bus than taxi. In Mazatlán, public city buses provide good services and can get to just about any area you would want to go. There are a few marked bus stops where you will see people waiting, but for the most part you can just stand anywhere on the street and raise your hand when you see the bus you are waiting for. On each bus, either on the top or in the window you will see the name of the bus.
There are two types of buses that operate within the city of Mazatlán. The large green buses cater to tourists and are air conditioned. The smaller buses are not air conditioned and are more frequently used by locals. Vera and I boarded these buses more often than the other ones. The tourist buses cost 9 pesos per ride, while the smaller buses cost 6 pesos. All bus rides are one-way and you pay with cash each time you board. There are no round trip tickets or weekly passes. The buses operate between approximately 5:30 AM and 10:30 PM every day. They circulate frequently and you will rarely wait more than ten minutes for one.
Here are some of the most common buses you will see on the streets of Mazatlán:
It is a big green bus with air conditioning; fare is 9 pesos (80 cents). You will see the route name on a large sign on the front of each bus. As a tourist, Sábalo-Centro is probably the only bus you will need. It travels north and south between the Golden Zone and the central historic district downtown (referred to as ‘El Centro’). It goes all the way north to El Cid Marina and south to the central market and Plazuela Machado.
In the Golden Zone, the Sábalo-Centro goes up and down the main strip. You can catch it on either side of the street depending upon which direction you are going. If you wish to board the Sábalo-Centro downtown to go north to the Golden Zone, catch it on Angel Flores or on the east side of Benito Juarez near the cathedral and the Mercado. In fact, several of the local buses can be boarded on that stretch of Benito Juarez.
This is the bus that most local workers take and the heavy hours are before 8:00 A.M and 6:00 P.M the rest of the day it is normal traffic. As a tourist you will take this bus if you want to go to MEGA (grocery store) or SAM’S CLUB or Shopping mall GRAN PLAZA. Fare is 6 pesos.
This is also a big green bus with air conditioning and fare is also 8 pesos, this bus goes from downtown to golden zone and back but goes into town. Tourists will take this bus when they go to Soriana and Wal-Mart (grocery stores).
There are designated bus stops including many with benches, but you can hail a bus from most any corner. Simply hold your arm out as your bus approaches to indicate that you wish to board. The drivers will make change, but try to have coins or small bills in order to keep it simple. If you wish to pay for multiple people in your party, say “para dos” for two people, “para tres” for three people, etc. as you board. Each passenger will be handed a small ticket. The purpose of the ticket is to ensure that each passenger has paid for his or her ride. Occasionally, a city employee will board and walk down the aisle asking to see people’s tickets. Hold onto your ticket just-in-case you need to show evidence of payment.
When your stop is approaching, push one of the little red buttons that are on the poles throughout the bus. You can get up and move toward the front of the bus after pushing the button. There is also an exit near the rear of the bus. If you are new to riding public buses it may be best to go toward the front to ensure that the driver sees you and can help you if you have any uncertainty. Be prepared to walk a couple of blocks in the event that the next designated stop is slightly past your destination.
Cheap air-conditioned tour of Mazatlán (in 3 hours)
Here’s my favorite tip for all first time visitors to the Pearl of the Pacific, Mazatlán Mexico. Whether you are off a cruise ship for just a half day, here a week or longer, you can see a lot of Mazatlán on this three hour $5 tour!
Starting at the Hotel La Siesta, or anywhere close on the Blvd. Olas Altas, take the ‘SABALO CENTRO’ bus, big green air-conditioned for ten pesos until it stops thirty minutes later (no schedule, every twenty minutes). This will take you through downtown past the Cathedral, Mercado, and down the length of the Malecon to the Golden Zone, past El Cid and the Marina to the end of the Condo development at Sabalo and Cerritos beach. Get out, stretch your legs, get a drink, and then get on another green Bus, ‘Sabalo Centro’ to return to the dock areas. The bus driver will point out where to catch bus back to Olas Altas. You can get a map of the bus routes at the tourist info station next to the La Siesta on routes of the buses, but remember only the GREEN buses are air-conditioned. The other buses are cheaper and go to all the Colonia’s of Mazatlán… so do not be afraid to get off the bus, take another, and explore. You will always, during day light hours, be able to get a cab if you thing you are lost, or tired. If you go directly back on the Sabalo Centro, get off and enjoy, get back on, with on/off, four times, and a drink, its $5 US total. A pulmonia will charge you $400 pesos for the same trip! You will only miss ‘high’ view, which you can get on top of Hotel Freeman, which is at the start and finish of this tour. From the top of the Freeman you can see all of town and the port!
Crazy bus drivers
The dusty and pothole-riddled roads of Sinaloa are home for these remnants of the past buses, spared from the scrapyard thanks to too many repairs, now roaming the streets free from traffic laws or common sense, blasting narcocorridos and banda music through beefed-up loudspeakers.
Two guys will usually partner operating a bus: one will have the driving license, and the other will do as a helper, called garbanzo (chicken pea) in Culiacán. They were crazy… nuttiest bus drivers I’ve ever seen in my whole life. I am a cyclist and I’ve seen a lot of crazy driving around me, but witnessing how these bus drivers drive made me hold onto the ‘uh, shit bar’ inside the bus most of the time. They are just nuts! They go on the sidewalk to get around slower vehicles… they don’t use brakes when a car is making a turn in front of them. They just judge the distance and their own speed, and go for the near misses!! And they succeed! Well, most of the time. To me it appears, they only know for the accelerator pedal (pressing it all the way down!) and brake pedal – only when they must stop. There is nothing in between.
One bus driver even tried to pass a big truck in the other lane across a full double lane in the middle of the road, and almost crashed into three oncoming cars the other way! On many occasions bus drivers were making up their own lanes, and driving straight at our bus on the wrong side of the road, all while going really fast. We were fine, and nothing ever happened, but I could see that my hands were holding the ‘uh shit bar’ in the bus very tightly.
So, one day we wanted to go into the nearby Sierra Madre Mountains and see some colonial villages. In the morning we set off on the road to discovery. Our first stop was Concordia. From the ‘Centro Historico’ central market we boarded a local bus which took us to the outskirts of the city, along the Adolfo Lopez Mateo’s avenue, Mazatlán’s main artery to get out of the city. We asked the driver where should we get off and get on Concordia bus. Somewhere close to the Walmart at one of the regular stops he told us to get off there as this is where the Concordia bus would stop. After waiting only a few minutes Concordia bus arrived and we boarded with several other people. In the bus we watched the driver and other passengers.
These buses will stop at almost every corner, where the passengers want and the driver can… meaning just about anywhere. Occasionally vendors got on, selling candy which they placed in laps and then returned for payment. We and many others just gave them back. Other vendors selling roast corn, sweet rolls and lottery tickets boarded, sold their wares, and then debarked several blocks beyond where they first got on. Buses carry as many people as can be packed in, and in addition to these passengers, there can also be muggers, beggars and street hawkers. These last ones carrying from counterfeit DVDs to puppets for a live show between stops.
The buses go very fast on the highway, with sudden braking when someone is waving on the side of the road signaling drivers to stop. Outside of the city buses actually race each other, as to whom will pick up most passengers at the next stop. Because of these frequent stops and traffic jams around highway construction zones, it took us 45 minutes to get out of the city and another hour or so before we arrived in Concordia, distance of only ~40 km.
It was also interesting how they collect money from passengers. Within the city limits, passengers pay their fare when they enter the bus. These ‘long distance’ buses collect their fares when people are exiting the bus. I still don’t understand how the driver remembers when and where someone entered the bus and how much should they pay. We paid our fare at the end in Concordia, and it was only $30 pesos per person. Absolutely no other gringos on the bus. Where we noticed?? Women with children without fail were helped by other passengers, total strangers, who held the children or helped the family get settled.
Concordia offers a unique mountain village outing near Mazatlán for those seeking to experience authentic Mexico culture. Once known as San Sebastian, Concordia is set in the Sierra Madre Mountains just off the Durango Highway. In Concordia, delight in the talented hand crafted works of furniture makers and potters, many who still work in the ancient pre-Columbian style.
We walked around the ‘El Centro’, stopped at the local museum and had a satisfying lunch at ‘El Granero’ restaurant complete with a cold ‘Pacifico’ serveza. To see what we wanted to see here we needed only about 3 hours. It was time to make decision if we wanted to go back to Mazatlán or continue our journey and visit small mountain village of Copala, only 20 km up the road in Sierra Madre Mountains.
Copala by bus
We decided to continue, and to get on the bus that will take us to Copala, we had to walk from the main Concordia plaza back to the highway, where we first got off of the Mazatlán bus. There we asked people which bus will take us to Copala, and were advised to take ‘La Palmita’ bus. We were lucky and ‘La Palmita’ bus arrived within minutes. In the bus we asked the driver to stop at Copala, as we were not sure if he was planning to do that. Not only did he stop, he made an exceptional favor and turn from the main highway onto a cobblestone road a kilometer or so into the village center just because of us. We were the only passengers who got off in Copala.
Similar to Concordia, Copala is another charming colonial village set in the Sierra Madre Mountains. Soon after our arrival, several children surrounded us wanting to sell woodcarvings made locally in Copala. They even offered to take pictures for a tip, which we gladly accepted.
We took a breathtaking view on the mountain scenery around us. It was beautiful. Copala was a noted mining town hundreds of years yet is still beautifully preserved and its 600 residents lead a life that is little changed from the 16th Century. It was founded in 1565 and produced tons of silver in the late 19th century. Now it is a small, picturesque tourist town, with cobblestone streets and white houses on rolling hills.
Strolling charming cobblestone streets, we walked past brick factories, rustic bakery, San José Church and its tiny square, and Saint Sebastián Church. Among the inhabitants are some retired Americans and Canadians. On the way out of this village we met one American resident (Kent) who lives there. He was very friendly and even invited us into his house. Later on he helped us get a local taxi (Auriga), as the next Concordia bus was not scheduled to arrive in this unique remote village for next several hours.
Back to Concordia in ‘Auriga’
From Copala we traveled back to Concordia in the back of one ‘Auriga’ – small red pickup track. Aurigas are red pickup trucks that have covered roofs and benches on either side that can fit up to 8 people. With us on the bench for this short trip was a local woman and her young son. They didn’t speak English, but we communicated well as the lady was very pleasant and polite person. The cost was only 35 pesos per person, and within half an hour we were boarding bus in Concordia that would take us back to Mazatlán.
Who knew that there was so much to see around Mazatlán! I wonder how many fly in tourists are able to see a little bit of the real Mexico while they are here. Yes Mexico is a madhouse, but a fun-madhouse. People are friendly and joyful. Mazatlán has been a great experience!
Have a good and healthy season.
Follow Zdenko’s Corner on Facebook !