Oaxaca is a beautiful city and a there are lots of reasons why it’s a major tourist attraction: the colonial beauty, the indigenous influence, the landscape, stunning ruins at Monte Albán and Mitla. The list goes on and on.
An additional benefit is the ease with which you may get around not only the city but the surrounding villages. Oaxaca, you see, has this great system of cabs called colectivos, or collective cabs.
Each goes to one particular village and the idea behind them is that strangers share a cab for a very modest fee. I’ve never paid more than 8 pesos and I’ve traveled in them for up to 45 minutes.
There are two sitios, or taxi stands, in Oaxaca near the Abastos Market with (relatively) clear signs indicating to which village the colectivo goes. In addition to these signs, the destination is painted on the door and the top of the windshield and there’s usually another sign on the dashboard.
However, problems may arise when, instead of the name of the village, a cab has the driver’s name, his girlfriend’s name, someone’s nickname or (often) simply “Jesus” on the dashboard and/or windshield instead of, or in addition to, the name of the village.
There may also be multiple village names on the dashboard for no apparent reason. For someone as linguistically-challenged as I am, it can be difficult to differentiate between a cab’s destination and the name of the driver’s sweetheart. It’s always best to ask.
Colectivos are easy to recognize. They’re these smallish red and white cars which can fit four people comfortably. They fit six or seven uncomfortably and cabs rarely pull out of the sitio with less than the maximum load. If they do, expect them to make sudden stops along the way until the cab’s filled up.
It’s anyone’s guess exactly when that might be. It sort of depends on the driver. I was in one that already had six people in it when the driver pulled over to pick up two more fares. The driver sheepishly apologized to the gringo stuck in the back with the slightly overweight kid who had just been crammed in next to him but I had the feeling if there had been another fare along the way, he would have picked that one up too.
Like most gringos, I went for the front seat the first time I had a chance. Turns out this is a bad idea. My thinking was as follows: there were already two people in the back seat and I knew there would soon be a third. There are only two seats in the front so there won’t be more than two people up there.
Wrong. There are always three people crammed into the front and the absolutely worst seat in the house is the one between the two front seats which, of course, really isn’t a seat at all. Did I mention that all colectivos are stick shift? Reverse and fourth gear are the most painful.
One of the most interesting things about colectivos, in addition to the opportunity to make new acquaintances in very close quarters, is that unlike the buses, there are no fixed routes. Oh, there are generally agreed upon routes and you’ll eventually make it to the village advertised but you never get exactly the same trip twice.
I didn’t know this in the beginning and, of course, only learned it when I was taking a colectivo home one night through some of the rougher parts of Oaxaca with which I had been happily unfamiliar. Visions of headlines appearing back home of how I turned up dazed (or dead, even) on the outskirts of town played in my head until we hit the main highway out of the city.
Riding in a colectivo, like riding in any vehicle in Mexico, is more than a little unnerving. I’ve never seen more reckless driving, disregard for traffic lights, pedestrians or approaching trucks than I’ve seen here. I’ve also never seen fewer accidents.
Colectivos don’t have seat belts; at least I’ve never seen any. Personally I think they’d be worthless. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a colectivo that cut in front of a truck or bus and in the moments between the reassessment of what I was doing with my life and the expected impact I came to realize that seat belts would be of little use anyway.
And when there is the (rare) seat belt option, I never take it. If I’m ever in an accident in Mexico, I’d prefer not to survive it.
And getting splattered by a truck would have at least one benefit: I’d no longer be assaulted by the music the drivers play. Now the music may not actually be bad but you can’t tell because the volume is set on ear-shattering and these radios apparently have two controls found nowhere else in the world: static and extra static.
Somehow, in spite of all this noise, people carry on what appear to be normal conversations. I’m not really sure because I can’t read lips in Spanish.
Colectivos aren’t for the faint of heart but I think they’re great. They provide good transportation for people who, like me, are on a tight budget. I’ve had nothing but good experiences with the drivers who are unusually patient with nervous gringos who don’t speak much Spanish.
And unlike other cabs here and in the United States, I’ve yet to be ripped off by one. At least as far as I know.
Joseph Sorrentinto is a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. This piece was written before the coronavirus pandemic appeared so travelers may want to take into account the chummy close quarters that come with colectivo travel.