Prentiss Riddle: Travel

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I'm back, and Mexican buses part III

I'm back from my whirlwind trip to the two Laredos, Monterrey and Zacatecas. I'll blog the fun stuff in the next couple of days, but first I'll do a brief followup to my previous posts on bus travel between Texas and Mexico.

The bottom line about bus strategies seems to be that you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't.

Going south I took my friend David's advice and bought a ticket to Laredo with the intention of walking across and catching an ejecutivo-class overnight bus to Zacatecas. But Greyhound managed to lose my bag in San Antonio (don't ask me how, as my bag should never have left the bus, but the baggage handlers in Laredo say it happens all the time). After much fumbling around on the part of Greyhound it did show up, three buses and six hours later, which made me miss the southbound overnight connections. I ended up spending the night in Laredo and breaking up my trip in Monterrey, about which more later.

Walking across into Mexico was easy and a pleasantly dramatic way to move from one country to another. It made me think of a half-remembered Graham Greene story involving the bridge that I must look up. The hardest part was trying to find an official on the Mexican side who would issue me a tourist card. Mexico is happy to have anyone enter its border zone, no questions asked, and the checkpoints further inland are spotty enough that you could easily end up days and hundreds of miles later discovering yourself to be an illegal alien, just because you didn't know to look for the obscure little Migración office when you first arrived.

Nuevo Laredo is hardly paradise but not especially scary; the red light district must be out of sight somewhere. A cab to the bus station cost me US$5 just as Lonely Planet said. There I caught an ejecutivo to Monterrey and it was as advertised, clean and comfortable with more legroom than flying coach.

Coming back north I tried the other strategy and booked an overnight ticket straight through from Zacatecas to Austin on Autobuses Americanos, one of the lines operating in both Mexico and the US. The bus was only first class, not ejecutivo, so no extra legroom, and it was packed full of families returning from Christmas with the relatives. I was squeezed in between a family of seven and a plus-sized grandma. That made for pleasant conversation and plenty of entertainment from the kids, but not exactly comfort. The bathroom was used so heavily that halfway through the trip the driver advised us to reserve it only for emergencies.

The worst part about the through ticket, though, was crossing the border back into the US. We spent three hours in a long line of buses waiting to get through customs, not as bad as the seven to ten hours I've heard of, but frustrating anyway. I kept thinking that in that time I could have walked across (there's never that much delay for pedestrians), had a nice meal, and caught the next bus north from Laredo -- assuming there were seats to be had. But it was because I didn't want to be at the mercy of Greyhound again that I chose a through bus in the first place.

The next time you hear Bush talk about increased funding for border security, laugh. The multi-hour backlog in Laredo was due to short resources and inefficient management at the border crossing. The facility was large enough to handle heavy traffic but configured for manual inspection of buses and luggage, and trying to work in a misconfigured space meant the buses had to make maneuvers like backing up through a crowd of people. There was only one airport-style scanner for our luggage but the real bottleneck was the inspection of the buses themselves. That required a large mysterious scanner or sniffer mounted on a truck which would slowly drive by each unloaded bus. There was only one such bus-scanner for the whole border station so each bus in series had to unload and get sniffed. Had there been more than one, and had the physical arrangement permitted buses to unload in parallel with other buses getting scanned, the process would have run several times faster.

(That wasn't the only misfeature of the border crossing, by the way. It also had the worst toilet facilities I saw during my trip. After sitting on the bridge for hours, we hundreds of bus passengers were greeted with a row of three overflowing port-a-potties and nowhere to wash our hands. I'd have expected better in Bangladesh.)

So anyway: there's no good and reliable way to travel by bus between Texas and Mexico. The best strategy seems to be to get to the border however you can and cross on your own, using ejecutivos on the Mexico side when possible; but even then fate in a form as simple as an incompetent baggage clerk can completely undo your plans.

travel 2005.01.02 link