Tiny beads of sweat tickled my dusty brow. The grease accumulating in my hair could have fueled an SUV. The metallic grind of the engine drowned out all conversations on the jostling bus as we made our way from the airport to Cabo San Lucas. I had neglected to book a shuttle, and forking over $70 for a taxi seemed ridiculous beyond words. So, taking the Information counter agent’s advice, I hopped on the gloriously purple and orange Ruta del Desierto (Desert Route) bus and joined the locals on a $6 (90 Mexican pesos) public transportation adventure. And it was the best thing I could have done.
Counting on an hour’s ride, I used my time wisely to indulge in the scenic surroundings and to people-watch. Cacti cast long statuesque shadows, and peek-a-boo views of a sapphire sea occasionally appeared in my periphery. Sunset would soon be upon us, and the magic hour light stretched itself across the rugged Baja Californian terrain. From my elevated seat in the back, I watched the people whose seats faced rearward. Two friends spoke animatedly and laughed as they showed each other something on their phones. A couple sat silently and ignored each other until they reached their bus stop, holding hands as they exited. A young family entertained their young daughter. I couldn’t see her face but her pink hair ribbons danced with the rhythm and rumble of the bus. I wondered if she was as eager as I was to buy a fluffy cloud of spun sugar from the cotton candy vendor across the aisle from her.
Roadside dirt patches, an unsigned wooden post, a narrow bench whose paint had all but peeled away, and the occasional house or business functioned as makeshift bus stops. While few waited in the warm twilight to catch a ride, our bus became less full at every stop. As darkness fell and my destination grew closer, it occurred to me to wonder where exactly would my bus stop be and how would I know when to get out. I tried opening my phone’s GPS map so I could see that ever-so-helpful blinking blue dot indicating where I was and how much farther to the hotel. Disappointingly—despite T-Mobile guaranteeing that the significant sum I pay to them every month included coverage in Mexico—I had no service. Mild panic set in, my body stiffened, and I’m pretty sure my faced paled.
The Latino gentleman across the aisle from me must have noticed because he tapped my shoulder and asked (in impeccable English), “Do you need help figuring out where to go?” I felt my face soften into a smile, and (wanting to practice my rusting skills) I explained to him in Spanish, “Yes, please. I’m staying at the Riu Palace Hotel. They said I’d see it from the road and would know where to stop, but as dark as it is, I’m getting a little nervous.”
He looked around, scanned the environment outside, and told me that I still had about 20 minutes to go. He assured me that he’d help me get out at the correct stop.
Those 20 minutes flew by as we chatted. He told me his name was Óscar, and he shared how he had grown up in a small town outside of Puerto Vallarta and decided to move to Los Cabos for better opportunities. He worked at an all-inclusive hotel and told me that where I’d be staying was a perfect location. I learned that he often visited family in Los Angeles and Phoenix and that he loved to watch Game of Thrones. I had to tell him to change topics for fear that he’d reveal what happened in season 5—my GOT binge-watching had only caught me up through season 4.
Instead we talked about Hurricane Odile, which blasted Los Cabos about a year ago, and about how recovery was coming along. “Slowly but surely,” he said optimistically. “There’s lots of reconstruction but big projects that were waiting to be completed even before the hurricane are still waiting.” But he added that most tourists, especially if it was their first visit like mine, wouldn’t even know that there had been so much destruction. “We worked hard to make things better really fast. We need the tourism, and if there’s nothing for tourists to enjoy, there goes everyone’s livelihood.”
Óscar wondered why I had taken the bus. “You never see tourists on these. Wouldn’t it have been easier to take a shuttle or a cab?” I told him my situation. He laughed.
“There’s your hotel. You made it! You’ll get out at the next stop, cross the street and you’ll got straight to your hotel.” I thanked him profusely as I shuffled off the bus and into the darkness. As I got my belongings in order, I looked around for a cross walk, a signal light, or even a stop sign—someplace safe for me to cross. There was nothing but four lanes of fast-flying traffic and the neon red sign of my hotel so far off in the distance I could barely read it. All I could think was, “Umm…what now?”
Three teenage-looking girls fidgeted next to me at the bus stop. “Discúlpenme. ¿Saben ustedes dónde se puede cruzar la autopista? Necesito llegar al Hotel Riu.” Excuse me. Do you know where I can cross the highway? I need to get to Hotel Riu.
“Aquí,” they chimed in unison.
“What do you mean ‘here?’” I was supposed to cross four lanes of traffic? With luggage?
With the light of oncoming traffic, they must have seen my distressed face. Two of the girls told me to come with them. Adiosing their companion, my two new Mexican crossing guard friends led me from one dark side of the highway to the other. We didn’t bother to assume that cars would slow down for us, let alone even see us until it was too late. When a big enough gap opened up between the approaching cars, we scampered like Frogger across the potholed road. I felt sweat beads forming on my brow again, and this time it wasn’t from the heat.
Shockingly to me, we didn’t die. Once on the other side and at the start of a long, unlighted street that led to the hotel, I thanked the helpful locals and was about to say goodbye, but they exclaimed, “¡Venga!” and motioned for me to keep following them. We walked another 5 minutes or so together, past the hotel security gate guard and winding up the long driveway to the resort. They asked about my hometown, and they giggled about their mutual crush on Justin Bieber. They also told me that they had worked about 10 hours today. I felt incredible guilt for having to be accompanied by them. But they eased my worries with their warm smiles, genuine goodbye hugs, and a reassurance that a different bus would be passing by the guard’s gate soon. My little angels waved goodbye and disappeared back into the darkness.
Within two hours of landing in Los Cabos, I had more intimate and real connections with locals than most tourists experience down here in a week. And I’m pretty sure that the hospitality and compassion of three total strangers will be amongst my favorite and enduring souvenirs from this getaway to Mexico–all for the best six bucks I spent on this trip.