Taking the Bus in Merida
Editor's Note: Michael Ramos wrote these two articles for Yucatan Living. After 20 years as a journalist writing about everything from family reunions gone awry to the war in Iraq (yes, he was on the ground...), he moved briefly to Merida for awhile and wrote about what he learned about the bus system.
Buses in Merida
They dominate the city streets, moving in and around traffic with the dexterity of hummingbirds. They are as indispensable to Merida's economic and social life as chocolate is to mole sauce. Merida's vast inventory of buses will get you to just about any place you need or want to be in the city. This article is intended to give you the basic information you need to navigate the system, a system that runs almost flawlessly without the use of designated bus stops or easy-to-follow maps of the routes.
Perfectly Ordered Chaos
"Instead you're going to find a perfectly ordered chaos that works for most Meridanos who use the bus service every day," says the amazing Beatriz Echeverria, who, like most locals, learned the bus routes as a child.
Merida's centro is the main staging area for the buses. But you can take a bus to almost anywhere in the city, and many places beyond. From the central bus stops, buses deliver their passengers to all areas of the city either directly or through transfers. Despite how it might first appear, it is not difficult to navigate the White City. And believe it or not, often the best way to find out what bus will get you to your destination is by asking someone on the street. Not very organized and methodical, we know, but this is Merida and it works.
No one around to ask? Just asking the bus driver if his bus goes to your destination. That is the easiest approach in this culture where word-of-mouth is valued more than official publications. The city of Merida publishes a map of the routes, but the locals we showed it to for pointers declared it understandable only by engineers and people who hold doctorates in topography.
"I'd never be able to understand that map," Echeverria says when we show it to her. "There are just too many buses and too many routes. That map is trying to explain the theory of relativity in one paragraph."
We thought perhaps she made it sound too complicated, so we tried it ourselves and after much confusion, began to think that maybe she was right. Maybe asking, talking and just feeling our way around was a better approach.
Where To Find A Bus Stop
So if there aren't designated bus stops, how do you get the bus to stop? In typical informal Merida fashion, Echeverria reminded us.
"You just wave your arm so the bus driver can see you. It's better to wait on a far corner, so he has time to see you and stop. Then you pay your fare and enjoy the trip, listening to cumbia music, ranchera or Mexican pop, usually at a very loud volume."
The buses have their routes written in large letters on their windshields, but like most things in Mexico, the routes aren't written in stone. In fact, sometimes they might be nicely printed signs on their front windshield, and sometimes you'll feel lucky if you can read the handwritten scrawl.
Travel In Comfort... Sometimes!
The comfort level of Merida's buses varies. It is, remember, a country of extremes and a city of traditions. Some of the buses have probably been in operation for decades and are smoke-belching behemoth nightmares for the environmentally conscious, but they have probably seen a lot of interesting history. If only they could talk! Other buses are newer, some are run on natural gas and some even have air conditioning.
"Compared to the buses in the United States, the ones here aren't going to have all the comforts," says Maria Sanchez, another resident who rides the bus every day. "But what I like about our bus system is that we don't have to wait very long for a bus."
Sanchez is referring to the succession of buses that arrive at the stops regularly. Riders rarely have to wait more than 15 minutes for a commute in Merida. In the states, buses usually arrive at hourly intervals, and sometimes even less often. The short wait time for a bus is due largely to the number of bus lines operating in the city. According to the Catastro Municipal de Merida, twenty six companies offer city transportation services, and all of them are licensed to operate by the Municipio.
"And I think we're more polite here," Sanchez adds. "In Merida, people get in line to board the bus. There is almost never any pushing or shoving. You'll see people in a well-formed line at the stop waiting for their bus. I've ridden the buses in the United States, and people were pushing each other to get on."
While that information might seem trivial, it is an important courtesy to remember in this culture where politeness is valued and people still smile on the street when you walk by. Be polite and do not jump to the front of the line. Instead take your place behind the last person and wait like a well-mannered Meridano.
A combination of vans and buses traverse the city, all charging $7 pesos per person for regular fare and some charging a discount to students and INAPAM members (senior citizens).
If you are a student at a local school or university, a bus ride will only cost you $3.5 pesos, as long as you flash the driver your student ID card. Senior citizens over 65 also ride for only $3.5 pesos, as long as they can show their INAPAM card.
Best Times of Day to Travel on the Bus
The number of students using the buses can cause a snarl at certain times of the day, however, so you need to consider that when making your city bus travel plans.
"You want to avoid using the buses when students are leaving the schools," says Roberto Bustamante, a vendor near the Centro. "There are so many of them, and the buses will be full. You will probably have to wait longer for a bus during that time."
"Expect buses to be really packed during rush hours," she says. "Some buses will have a huge line of people waiting to board."
The peak times for bus riders are 6 AM to 9 AM, noon to 2 PM and 7 PM to 9 PM. Bus service in Merida usually begins about 5 AM and ends at midnight.
While On The Bus
Once you're on the bus, things start to get interesting. If you are lucky, be sure to enjoy the singers, clowns or other entertainers who board the buses to divert your attention from the driver who just careened around that slow-moving car. Try not to think about those lightpoles you've seen with big bus-sized dents in them as you listen to sweet trova music. If there are no on-board entertainers, you can surely entertain yourself watching the world go by outside your window. When you near your destination, you'll probably start wondering how to make the driver stop long enough to get off the bus.
Getting Off the Bus
"About a block before your destination, just say baja! (pronounced "BA-ha" and Spanish for "getting down!") and the driver will stop," Echeverria says. "If you don't know where you're supposed to get off, just tell the driver when you get on where you're going, and he'll let you know when it's time for you to get off."
Sometimes, even if you are totally on top of the situation, your bus driver might skip a stop to make up for lost time, stop to patronize his favorite taco stand or veer off on an alternate route to avoid a traffic problem. Or you might fall asleep or get deeply into your book and miss your stop. Don't worry, though!
"No problem," Echeverria jokes.
"You get a tour of the city as the bus completes its route, and then the driver will let you off on his way back to the centro."
When you finally do get off the bus, don't forget to tip the entertainers and thank the driver as you get off. He might have just given you a rollercoaster ride, but he did get you to your destination!
Next, read Part Two of Taking the Bus in Merida which breaks down the routes in an easy-to-follow format. It delves into routes, how to navigate them, how to use combis and taxis, and answers other pressing navigational questions. For the traveler who insists on a map, or if you want to be prepared to follow along next week, you might be able to find a map at the newsstands around the Merida Plaza Grande for $50 pesos, which occasionally have a few in stock. Otherwise, use the Force, Luca!
Here is the government's listing of where in Merida to catch buses to various places.