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Taking the bus in Puerto Vallarta

When I arrived in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, our trip organizer advised that there were two ways to get from the airport to the Zona Romantica, where I’d be staying. We could take a taxi (at least 300 pesos, or $18USD). Or we could take the public bus for 10 pesos. (Less than $1.)

Being me, a thrifty (ahem, cheap) traveler, of course I decided to take the bus. Did I know how to take the bus in Puerto Vallarta? Not really. Did I have the Spanish skills to ask local Mexicans how to take the bus to the Zona Romantica? No way, José.

Despite my utter lack of understanding of the public transportation system in Mexico, the state of Jalisco or the city of Puerto Vallarta, I went for it. I rode el autobus. And I did successfully arrive at my Zona Romatica hotel.

Eventually.

Step 1: Acquire $10 (exact change) to pay the bus fare

I wasn’t sure if Puerto bus drivers make change. (Later when I boarded the bus and saw that the driver had a coin organizer by his seat, I got the impression that they would make change. But I wanted to be ready for anything.) So I went to a small shop in the airport and made a purchase that gave me a 10 peso coin as change. Ready!

(This was also my first clue that some of the pesos I’d brought from the United States were no good.)

Step 2: Locate the public bus stop outside the airport

I arrived at Puerto Vallarta International Airport at around 3 p.m., and by the time I had cleared customs and immigration, changed into a short sleeved shirt and gotten change, it was probably around 4 p.m. The hall outside the customs area was crowded with people offering rides and tours. Of course, I brushed all of them off. I was a seniora with a bus to catch!

This is how you find the public bus stop at the PVR airport: Exit the main doors, then take a left. Struggle past the crowds and vendors on the sidewalk until you get to the end of the building. You will be facing a fence that separates you from a busy road. Turn left again, and walk toward the base of the pedestrian bridge that allows people to walk across the busy road from the aiport.

The bus stop is on the busy road, right past the footbridge. It has a small sun shelter and a bench, and of course, a bus stop sign. The fence ends right at the busy road, so you can walk from the airport property to the road side bus stop. The bus stop and the sidewalk around it has plenty of space for waiting, and feels safe.

According to Google Maps, this bus stop is at the intersection of Francisco Medina Ascencio and Calle Albatros. But I didn’t need to know that to find it, I just looked for the pedestrian bridge. If you want to go to the Zona Romantica or the Hotel Zone, you need to stay on the airport side of the road to board the bus in the right direction.

Step 3: Figure out which bus to board

For me, this was by far the hardest part. There were plenty of people standing around waiting for buses. If this wasn’t my first day in Mexico, I would have immediately asked one of them for help. At the time, I didn’t realize how incredibly helpful, friendly and patient most people I met in Mexico would be toward foreign visitors.

I needed to go to Hotel Posada de Roger in the Romantic Zone, aka Old Town Puerto Vallarta. My trip organizer, Christina of Deep Travel, had told me to look for a bus labeled El Centro. Google Maps told me I could board buses labeled T01, PT26BC, PT35C, C24 or PT35T. Keeping an eye out for all these possible numbers was difficult! I was also confused by the fact that the many buses that stopped at this stop looked different. Some looked like standard city buses, white with smart green markings. Others looked more like minibuses. Maybe those were private operators? I never found out.

Most buses had a lot of different stops and destinations written on the windshields. Often I couldn’t see a bus number.

I’m sure that many buses that would have gotten me to the Zona Romantica passed by. Each time a bus approached, I searched its windshield for the words “El Centro” (and for good measure “Zona Romantica”). I searched for the numbers Google Maps told me to search for. And none of the buses looked right. Eventually most of the people waiting at the bus stop were gone. Another foreigner got dropped off, boarded a bus and asked the driver “Zona Hotelera”? The driver told him yes, so I approached and asked, “Zona Romantica”? He said no. I hadn’t even realized until then that these are two different places.

Finally, after at least half an hour, a bus pulled up with “El Centro” on the windshield. I didn’t see what number it was, but I put a foot on the stairs and asked the driver, “Zona Romantica”? He said si, so I jumped on.

Step 4: Pay your fare and take a paper transfer

I handed the driver my $10 coin, but I didn’t take a transfer. Later I would regret that.

Step 5: Find a spot and enjoy your ride

This bus was not crowded, and it was comfortably air conditioned. Great! This was supposed to be a 20-minute trip, so I watched the scenery and my Google Maps screen, prepared for a pleasant rest.

If the bus is crowded, look for two luggage areas near the front, with short rails around them. You can put your bag up on there and either get one of the limited seats near them, or stand facing the window so that new people getting on can brush by your butt instead of your face.

Step 6: Be prepared for the unexpected

We had only progressed for about 5 minutes when the bus driver pulled over and left the bus without saying anything. The other passengers all got up and left too, so of course I followed. Everyone was boarding a bus that had pulled up behind us. I didn’t see the destinations listed on this bus or its number. But I did ask the driver as I boarded if he was headed to the Zona Romantica and he said yes. Then he held out his hand for my transfer. I had noticed other passengers handing him their transfers, so I had been afraid this would happen. I pointed to the other bus and showed that my hands were empty, and he let me on. This is why I say you should get a paper transfer even if you don’t think you’re going to be changing buses. Who knows what will happen?

The new bus was completely full, so this is where I learned about hoisting my suitcase onto the luggage area.

Step 7: Use Google Maps to keep track of stops

My stop was at the end of the bus line, so I had no risk of missing it. But I still kept Google Maps open so I could track our progress and be ready to get off.

Conclusion: I would totally ride the bus in Puerto Vallarta again. In fact, I did.

I ended up riding three buses during my time in PV. All were clean and relatively comfortable. In fact, when I finally took a taxi for the first time, I realized I preferred the bus. My taxi driver scared me too much by darting in and out of traffic. Buses are more like calm schooners of the road, rumbling along their path without any hurry.

Of course, one of the joys of taking public transit anywhere is meeting local people. Despite not speaking Spanish, I had a pleasant exchange with an older man who was curious about my trip. (Obviously I never give out information about exactly where I’m staying, etc., just generalities.) He had a mustache that reminded me of my late Uncle Bob, so I thought of him as “Bus Uncle.” Bus Uncle felt that one week was too “poquito” (little) time to stay in Mexico (agree!). When I told him I was staying in the Zona Romantica, his whistle needed no translation. Yep, it’s expensive there! When Bus Uncle’s stop came up, he gave me his seat next to the luggage rack.

I was also surprised to see several other foreigners on the buses. All of them appeared to be expats who live in the area. When I rode the bus on a different day, I met a couple from the San Francisco Bay Area (like me), who have a condo near PV. They told me what stop to get off on if I wanted to walk to Costco (which I did the next day). I also met a jolly older Canadian man who showed me photos of his boat and a local fancy international grocery store on his phone. At times the bus felt like a rolling cocktail party.

I wouldn’t attempt to take the Puerto Vallarta public bus if I’d been carrying more luggage than my roll-aboard and backpack. The luggage area is small and the buses sometimes get crowded, so that would be difficult, not to mention inconsiderate to the other passengers. And speaking of luggage! When I got off the bus, another foreign woman also disembarked. When I lifted my suitcase because the cobblestones in the Zona Romantica prevented me from rolling it, she commented, “Just one week!” Apparently she had been listening to my conversation with the nice man on the bus and felt I had overpacked. Hmph! My Bus Uncle would never judge me like that.