The Wheels of the Combi Go Round and Round

By Danielle L. Krautmann

A Lima bus with a cobrador hanging out

Currently Lima, Peru has no public transportation.  This restricts Limenians to use either taxis, buses, cars, or “combies”.  Charlie and I don’t plan to get a car while we’re here because it’s easy enough for us to get from one place to another.  Plus, with the plan to stay for two or three years, it hardly seems worth it.

Every person you meet has either had a bad experience with a taxi or knows someone else who has. A Peruvian friend of mine took a taxi to get from one fairly safe neighborhood to another.  When he noticed the taxi wasn’t going in the right direction, he said something to the driver.  Sooner than he could stop them, three men approached the taxi, and the next thing he remembers is waking up in a bad part of town on the side of the road.  His money and cell phone had been stolen.  A guy Charlie works with got robbed at knife point in a taxi.  One time Charlie and I were taking a taxi and the driver fell asleep…while driving.

In most of my experiences, except for the frequent opportunist or pervert, the drivers are more or less harmless.  They either charge exorbitant rates to tourists and gringos who don’t know any better, or hit on me the whole time.  They like to ask me questions about myself, where am I from, how do I like Peru, where do I live, would I like to get coffee with them?  They tell me I’m beautiful or sexy (duh), and once, the driver drove along with an obvious erection.  Gladys says not to be friendly, smile, or even talk to the driver.  Wear your sunglasses and a frown.  Every time you get into a taxi, you take a risk.

The payment system is different than in the States.  Since taxis don’t have meters, you negotiate a price with the driver. Before entering the car, tell him where you’re going, all the while scoping out the cab to assess its safety.  If it’s a station wagon, check the back for people or weapons.  If you are a gringo, the driver will give you a price far higher than what you should pay.  “Dies soles,” he might say after contemplating for a few seconds.

Gladys and I with our serious riding-the-bus faces

At this point, you have three options. 1. Take his first offer and pay “el pricio gringo.”  If you’re strapped for time, this is your best option.  2.  Decline his offer and wait for the next taxi who is inevitably waiting nearby.  I often do this before negotiating to show the approaching taxi that I will not accept a ridiculous quote.  3. Negotiate the price.  I’m getting quite good at this.  I will say something like “normalmente yo pago tres o cuatro soles.”  Then he either accepts, drives off because he’s offended, or negotiates further until we come to middle ground.

Suggestions for a safe taxi ride in Lima include:

1. Speak as little as possible to the driver.  In my experience, conversations about myself often lead to the driver either trying to get more money from me, trying to convince me to go somewhere else, or asking me on a date.  I have heard predators will use conversation to distract tourists who want to practice their Spanish.  Meanwhile they might change routes.

2. When you do speak, use as much Spanish as possible to show the driver that you know what he’s saying…even if you don’t.

3. Know where you’re going and if possible, tell the driver what route you would like to take.

4. If you are alone, sit directly behind the driver.

5. Know where the lock to the door is.  Some taxis have auto locks and lock you in when you enter.  Just make sure you can undo the lock if need be.

A quiet day on the bus with very few passengers

In research for this article, I took my first “combi”.  These are mini-vans that go hurling through the streets at top speeds sparing no pedestrians.  They are infamous for hitting people and getting in accidents.  Initially I was not in favor of how close I was squished in between two men, one of whom insisted on making kissing noises towards me for the duration of my ride.  The last of the three combies I took was lacking a floor.  It had wooden boards nailed down along the cross rails between the tires.   I rode along with my feet suspended, fearing for my life as I watched the wheel turn round and round underneath me.  Although not my preferred option, they are the fastest and cheapest way to get around town.

Personally, I prefer taking buses whenever possible.  They are cheaper than taxis, somewhat safer, and far more entertaining.  The equivalent of 40 cents can get you close to anywhere you need to go in the city.  As I mentioned previously, there is no public transportation.  The buses are all private competing companies with no schedules, websites or monthly passes.  “Cobradors” stand on the first step of the bus calling route and street names rapidly like auctioneers.  “Javiar Prado, Prado, Prado, Todo Javier Prado, La Molina,  Molina.”  As the buses quickly approach, you have very little time to contemplate which one you want to take since they rarely come to a complete stop.

Three or four buses approach at the same time, trying their hardest to cut each other off in order to be the first to pull up.  I scan them quickly as they approach, hoping to view one with an open seat.  If there aren’t any, no worries, the cobradors stuff passengers in as tightly as they fit making each journey its own olfactory experience.  You may be lucky enough to be pushed up against the chest of an older woman with musky perfume that stays on you for hours afterward.  On an even luckier day, you have less than an inch of space between you and a sweaty construction worker on his way home from work.  Just make sure you push your way to the front of the bus several blocks before you plan to disembark since, like I said before, they rarely come to a complete stop.  Be ready to jump. As you ride along, you can watch as the standing people get thrown back and forth as the bus forces its way through traffic making brief stops when it gets cut off by other busses.  If you end up standing, your best bet is to keep your knees bent, feet wide apart, with a low center of gravity.  Focus and be prepared for a quick stop-and-go at any time.

While the bus sits in traffic, vendors approach the windows selling cold beverages, snacks and newspapers.  During peak traffic, you can buy sunglasses, wallets, lighters, large maps of Peru or South America, necklaces, pens, and various other trinkets all for sale at the convenience of your bus seat.  There’s a guy I sometimes see weaving his way through traffic selling beautiful handmade pirate ship replicas.  When there are few enough passengers, vendors board the bus and ride from one to three blocks.

First they stand at the front of the bus so everyone can see them.  They sell their pitch, “Hello, my name is Miguel.  I am selling these Pilot pens for a great price.  In a store you can buy them for no less than three soles.  Because you are such beautiful people, I will sell them to you for one soles per pen.”  Miguel proceeds to work his way from the front to the back asking each person individually if they would like to buy a pen.

If you’re lucky, Miguel might be a starving musician who boards the bus to play a song on his guitar, then walks through asking for donations. Despite his filthy attire, pathetic attempt at a performance, and drunken, stumbling gait, people donate!

If you plan to take a bus, hold your purse close to you, try to get a seat, and cross your fingers as accidents are not uncommon.