We have taken quite a few Latin American buses in our time. We have crawled along green and steep and scary mountain slopes and admired 6000 meters high volcanoes in the distance. At the same time, inside the bus, music tortured by naked tin-can loudspeakers dangling from wires over the windscreen have cut into our ears like can openers, producing emotions as loving and gentle as a string of barbed wire being pulled thru the skull.
You never quite know what you get when you travel south of the Rio Grande, but there are a few things you can always be sure of. You will get to see colours like nowhere else. The Indian markets, the beautifully stapled heaps of fruits or textiles for sale, the decorations on the walls and the tables of the cafes you go to, the landscapes you see from the bus window and the bright facades of the houses in all the little towns you travel thru.
But you will also hear noise like nowhere else. Peace and quiet simply is not the Latin thing. There will be firecrackers in the streets rattling like gunfire. There will be music in the restaurants no matter whether the singers can sing or not. There will be loudspeakers screaming out a commercial or a political message from a passing van, and there will be TVs blasting at the back of bars making your bones and your beer bottles vibrate. There will be football commentators screaming GOOOOOOOOOOOLLLL for a full two minutes without drawing breath.
Our many dates with Latin American buses started in the early 80ties. You could always trust the stunning views, and you could always hear a Julio Iglesias song being tortured to death. Still, some things have changed. This year, passing thru villages and forests of Ecuador and the highlands and lowlands of Mexico, we realized that the sound systems had improved. However, instead of grinding and remodelling Latin love songs, the bus operators had switched to US American action movies. TVs in the ceilings were connected to rather good sound systems, but the noise was even louder and even more intense. Now it was all about guns firing, cars exploding, windows breaking, heroes cursing and women screaming. We had it from Quito to Otavalo and from Tena back to Quito in Ecuador, and later in Mexico from the big Ciudad down to Tuxla. We had it for as much as for 16 hours straight. The only reason we did not have it for the full 18 hours from Mexico City to San Cristobal was probably that the bus was running two hours late, and somebody had programmed the devilish machine only for the intended duration of the trip. So when the last bad guy met his hellish death as the last army tank exploded in the last supersonic battle, there was nothing left on the hard disk to take its place.
On the last of our long bus journeys however, a miracle happened! We did another 16 hours from San Cristobal to Merida, Yucatan. The screens were still there, but the bus company had introduced a high-end first-class price segment where people who wanted to follow the films had to bring their own headphones! The seat cost a few extra pesos, but it made it possible to sleep thru the night! We were not totally without some compensation though, we had a local four-year-old boy in the seat in front of us screaming with the full power of his body for a few hours, but we could live with that. He was, after all, practising skills he would need later in his life as a proper Mexican.
But by all means, travelling Latin America is still great. You just have to expect the unexpected. If somebody tells you the next bus leaves at 2pm you need to ask for a second opinion. You might find out it leaves at 10 am. If somebody tells you that you need to drag all your luggage to a terminal half a mile down the street to get to your next bus, then get a second opinion again. You might find out that the bus you want leaves from the terminal you are already at. Sometimes you might even discover that the first person you asked happened to be correct, because you never know. That is where the coincidence comes in.
In San Cristobal we took one of the city tours, one of these old buses disguised as little classic trains that you find in big and small towns the world over. See all the local sights in 50 minutes without having to do any walking! Very often this can be a nice little pastime if you have nothing better to do. We took the two front seats beside the driver, but as the bus pulled out from the parking, in comes a guide who positions himself standing on a bench right behind the front window. There he stood for the full duration of the trip, 30 centimetres from our noses, blocking every possibility for us to see any of the sights he was telling us about. Just brilliant!
On other occasions coincidence worked the other way and gave us exactly what we wanted when we had lost all hope! In Mexico City the two museums in the National Palace are amongst the best sights in town. You can see the private quarters of the 19th century president Benito Juarez, or you can do a tour of the Diego Rivera murals. Benito Juarez is the Mexican version of Abraham Lincoln and a very important character in the country’s history, and we were told we could get a tour there and then. We where more interested in the painter Diego Rivera however, but there was no chance. The building happens to be the home of the Federal Administration, the current president was in his office that day, and access was limited and strictly regulated. As for Diego Rivera both today, tomorrow and the next day was sold out. Sorry Sam.
We were about to give the place a miss, but after a short discussion we decided to hide our disappointment and take what we could get. We signed up for Benito Juarez. We joined the line, we were shepherded from the ticket office and into the palace building across the street, we entered thru three different security checkpoints and had our names ticked off on the list every time. And then we were given a one hour guided tour of…..The Diego Rivera murals! Just brilliant!
We gave up all intention of detailed planning after that. Starting a new day we knew what we would like to do, but we never knew if we would be able to do it. If not, we could always do something else. The only thing we knew, was that we loved travelling Latin America. We always have and we still do. We do not always love the noise, but we do love the colours. How much we get of one and how much of the other however, is very much down to coincidence!