Public Transportation in Oaxaca: Hmmmm

The city of Oaxaca within the limits of the periférico isn’t very large.  After a week of walking around inside the “boundaries” of the city, I could navigate the streets here without much difficulty.  The streets are well marked and in grids, making it very easy to find one’s way.  Having figured out more or less where everything is, I decided to take a side trip out of the city.  It started with my new friend E., who suggested we visit a little town called Santa María Atzompa about 20 minutes northwest of the city.  There wasn’t much written about the place from what I could gather and that intrigued us both.  Since there wasn’t much I could find, I did a little bit of footwork in advance to see if I could figure out how to get there and back using local public transportation.

I’ve taken buses, taxis, and colectivos in other Mexican cities, but I found that things work a bit differently in Oaxaca.  To reach the smaller towns outside of the city, most people take buses or colectivos from the 2nd class terminal near Abasto market.  It puzzled me exceedingly when I walked over there though because I couldn’t actually SEE a terminal.  What I found there were just streams of buses and taxis that seem to be coming and going in all different directions.  I had to cross the busy periférico to get to where all the buses, taxis, and people were, which was rather chaotic.  I actually climbed up a pedestrian overpass to get a better view but honestly, it didn’t help me very much.

The maroon and white taxis serve as “colectivos” where up to 6 passengers share a ride to a specific destination.  You have to stand along this road and wait for the colectivo headed to the place you need to go (or at least in the direction of where you want to go).  If the car isn’t already full, you hop in.  Yup.  This scene = stress for me.

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Buses weren’t much better either.  Basically the same principal applies there where when you see the bus with the name of the destination written on its windshield, you flag it down and get on.  It looked like most of the buses had a guy who yells out the destinations as well, but if you’re not used to hearing the names of the villages, the way they refer to that particular town (how the villages are named and called are two different things), or if you don’t know which village is where, it’s rather daunting to figure out which bus to take.  My solution?  I asked a friendly police officer and stood there next to him until he pointed out the bus and colectivo headed to Atzompa appeared so that I knew what they looked like.  He told me that the bus to Atzompa was blue and green, and the colectivos to Atzompa could be found on the north side of the terminal. He thought I was headed out just then so he even hailed one down for me.  What a nice and helpful guy!  Of course I was only checking things out so after making a mental note of everything, I thanked him and left.

IMG_3627Things were slightly less “chaotic” up north by the baseball stadium.  One block east of the stadium, there is another terminal stop for the buses and colectivos headed east of the city.  Again, I was looking for a structure, something with signs or numbers but none could be found.  What I saw was a group of people with the identical tilts in their heads all searching for a glimpse of their ride.  Having already been to the larger chaos over in Abasto, my confusion by the baseball stadium was brief and quickly overcome.  I had plans to visit the small town of Tule and check out the tianguis in Tlacolula on Sunday, and this recognizance mission allayed my fears of hopelessly getting lost even before reaching my destination.  Always to be better prepared when traveling solo, you know?

As far as I can tell, there are no published timetables or routes for buses and colectivos in Oaxaca, and some bus companies don’t operate or stop at Abastos or by the baseball stadium.  They have their own garages somewhere in the city where they set off to various destinations, weaving out like a giant spider web.  With such lack of organization, the saving grace I suppose is how affordable it is to travel by public transportation here.  A ride in a colectivo to Atzompa was 8 pesos, which meant that my excursion outside the city cost me about $1USD round trip.  A bit farther out to Tlacolula on Sunday was 20 pesos one-way but the distance traveled was longer than Atzompa.  Buses are even cheaper than colectivos– a bus ride to Tule is 6 pesos vs. 11 pesos for a colectivo.  It feels like the system here is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from a place like Stockholm where last summer I marveled at how efficient everything was.  I could plan out my route in advance on the web, use a mobile app to predict when the next bus/metro will arrive and track its movements, easily bought and topped-off my transport card to pay for my rides.  Heck, I could even have my ticket texted to me.  But for that convenience and organization, I easily paid 5X what Oaxaca offers.

Is one better? Or worse? Well, had I been able to plot everything out by searching the internet, I would have never talked with a Oaxacan police officer for 15 minutes and get a great real-life Spanish lesson. I think maybe I would settle on “different” rather than comparing the these two vastly different places. I try to take them all without judgement so that they add up to the sum of my traveling and learning experience. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I can never say where my favorite place in the world is…

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