MEXICO CITY — By the time my fellow travelers had boarded, I was already lounging in a huge seat, my 6-foot-3-inch frame fully stretched out, ready for one of the feature films that would soon play on the plasma screen above me.
I had a variety of snacks to distract me before departure. A cold drink sat in my cupholder just below the window.
Yeah, I'm on a bus, but not just any bus. Rather, it's one of Mexico's now-ubiquitous "luxury" buses, which offer an inexpensive and cushy alternative to the nation's relatively expensive domestic airlines.
Luxury buses, or autobuses de lujo, are a step above "first class," which is pretty good anyway, and have service levels such as primera plus (first plus), diamanté (diamond) and uno.
A jaunt from beachy Cancun to culturally rich Merida takes four hours and costs about $35 each way. A trip from Mexico City to Acapulco on the Pacific Coast, or to Veracruz on the Gulf Coast, runs about five hours for about $38. Ciudad Juárez on the Texas border to Chihuahua City takes five hours for $25 in first class.
One bus company, Omnibus de Mexico, even has departures from Dallas.
Many trips are nonstop, or directo, but make sure you ask.
On a recent trip from the Mexican capital to Uruapan, Michoacan, I took a bus line that was a pioneer in the market, Enlaces Terrestres Nacionales (ETN). It even has a frequent-rider program.
ETN offers only luxury service and is one of the best, with just 24 seats. Down one side of the bus are two seats together; down the other side are singles.
Thick curtains block the sun, and a leg rest folds down like a long tray table, turning the reclining seat almost into a bed.
Uruapan is not a major Mexico destination, and I traveled there during very high demand, so the following comparison is not typical, but it is revealing. Round-trip plane fare for the one-hour flight would have been $700 (and that would have gotten me only to Morelia, still an hour away by land). The bus, six hours each way, was $75 round-trip.
One of my favorite bus trips is from Mexico City to Acapulco. Recently, I chose the diamond service of the bus line Estrella de Oro.
I reserved a single seat via the line's Web site, with the stipulation that I pay 30 minutes before departure. Credit cards are accepted. The cost: $70 round-trip. Comparable plane fare: about $250.
Before I boarded, my carry-on bag was quickly searched and a metal-detecting wand was passed over my body. I was asked to look briefly into a video camera.
I was then offered a soda or water and given a small box of snacks. (Often you get a sandwich and some chips, but carrying extra water and food is a good idea if the trip is longer than a few hours.)
The diamond service includes an attendant who comes by every half-hour or so with soda, water or coffee. The buses feature large, clean bathrooms and sometimes even separate men's and women's bathrooms.
Almost all of the riders of these buses are Mexican, so the movies are usually dubbed into Spanish. Individual overhead lights are great for reading
Beyond all the creature comforts, the greatest advantage of high-end buses is, perhaps, the tranquil driving. The drivers are limited to a speed of 95 kilometers per hour (about 57 mph). If they exceed that, which occasionally happens on a steep downhill, a buzzer sounds and a light flashes.
Also, Mexico is covered with multilane toll roads, with smooth curves and lots of straight pavement.
As a university student here in 1986, I had many harrowing bus rides, as drivers often raced each other along two-lane roads, making high-risk passes on uphill curves. No bathrooms meant brief stops on the side of the road. Mechanical breakdowns were common.
Modernization certainly has its advantages, and today's bus travel in Mexico is one of them. It has allowed me to take trips I otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford. Or, even if I were willing to shell out high fares, I often have found that there are no available seats on Mexican airlines as the weekend approaches.
On the buses though, you usually can get a ticket with just hours' notice, adding flexibility and spontaneity to any journey.
On the buses
Mexico City has four major stations, one each for east, west, north and south. You don't have to go to the southern station for a southern destination (but there are more options that way).
Some towns, such as Acapulco, have several stations for different classes of service. Cancun has service from the airport to downtown.
It's important to know from which station to leave and at which station you arrive. First-class lines have Web sites where you can check destinations and reserve tickets. The sites are in Spanish but are simple enough to follow with a dictionary.
Grupo Ado, www.ado.com.mx, serves numerous southern destinations from Mexico City. The toll-free U.S. number (operators speak Spanish) is 800-950-0287. Note: ADO has many lines; be sure you're going luxury (de lujo).
Estrekka de Ori, www.estrelladeoro.com.mx, serves touristy destinations from Mexico City, including Cuernavaca, Taxco, Acapulco and Ixtapa. Diamanté is the luxury service.
Enlaces Terrestres Nacionales, www.etn.com.mx, operates mostly in northern and central Mexico. It offers departures from Texas cities such as Dallas.
White Star Group, www.estrellablanca.com.mx, has northern departures (Ciudad Juárez) and travels to central Mexico. Ejecutivo is its luxury class.
Red Star, www.estrellaroja.com.mx, travels every 40 minutes from Mexico City to Puebla. Pullman Plus is its luxury service.
Primera Plus, www.flecha-amarilla.com, has destinations in the north and along the Pacific Coast.