During my travels to Mexico before my move, friends kept talking about taking the colectivo to get from one place to another. When I moved, I realized this was one of the first things I needed to learn how to do, and for good reason. In California, it was really common to take a plane between my home in the Bay Area and my family’s home in Southern California. Of course, you can fly between cities in Mexico, too, but for shorter distances it’s efficient, and really comfortable, to take the colectivo.
How that works depends on where you are and how far you’re going. The colectivo ranges from a camión (Spanish for truck) in rural areas to luxury bus lines between cities. My first stop as I moved to Mexico was for 2 weeks on the beach in Zipolite, Oaxaca, which has been my favorite off-the-main-tourist-map vacation spot for the past 5 years or so. Over the course of several visits, I heard a lot about a unique Zapotec spiritual experience in San José del Pacifico that I wanted to experience for myself. Since my birthday was a few days after I arrived, I decided that would be a good enough reason to trek up the Sierra Madre del Sur via the colectivo. My Zapotec friend Miguél offered to help me find my way there and back taking, so I took him up on it, and indeed had an amazing encounter with the Zapotec culture. (For more about that, check out A Zapotec temazcal in San José del Pacifico.)
The colectivo system is really interesting to me because it is unlike how bus systems work in the US, where public transit and a handful of private interstate and intercity companies, such as Greyhound, are more common. Colectivos operate differently in that the vehicle you ride in is usually owned by the driver. When the driver starts working for the company, the colectivo buys him his own bus, which is his to drive every working day. This provides the driver with the means to earn income to support his family from the start without the burden of the high cost of paying for a mini-bus up front. He profits off the rides he provides to passengers, contributing a share of his income back into the colectivo system to support other drivers. So it’s a wonderful collective system of drivers supporting drivers, who support the travel needs of the general public.
Since the first trip to San José del Pacifico in Oaxaca, I’ve enjoyed several other colectivo trips around central Mexico to cities including Guadalajara, Ajijic, León, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Querétaro, Toluca, Ciudád de México, and more. Next time you’re in Mexico looking to venture around, just ask somebody where you can find the “Central de Autobuses” in town. I usually take Primera Plus, but another company that comes highly recommended by others is called ETN.