Cruising in a Combi
That title should actually read stuck in traffic in a combi, which is much more typical. Despite being a massive metropolis, Lima’s public transportation “system,” system being a generous term here, looks, feels and sounds totally unique.
Every day innumerable beat-up, old microbuses, repurposed school buses and a few more modern buses that compare to those in the United States race throughout the city, abruptly jetting between lanes and braking hard at street corners to pick up and drop off passengers. The combis are manned by the driver, who will often start to pull away from the corner as people are still boarding or disembarking, and the “cobrador,” who is responsible for persuading new customers to board the bus. The cobrador also collects “tarifas,” or fares, from passengers and, in exchange, gives out little, thin paper tickets to prove a customer has paid.
Especially for newcomers, it can be confusing to figure out which combi to take. There are no schedules, but the combis run everday from about 5 a.m. until at least 2 a.m. in the morning. They tend to show up in clumps at “paraderos,” or stops, every few minutes. Combis can be differentiated by their paint colors, which denote certain routes but I have yet to memorize the correlation. More importantly, the names of the major streets the combi goes to are also posted on the side. As the combi approaches a stop with people waiting, the cobrador bellows out the names of these streets or major locations on the route, shouting for example “Todo Arequipa,” “Universitaria,” “Larcomar,” or “Todo Benavides.” Some cobradors also have signs with the destinations that they hold out the door or in an open window.
The system is most chaotic at rush “hour,” which runs from about 7:00 a.m. or so until about 9 p.m. on weekdays. Instead of traffic flowing smoothly, the roads turn into a parking lot with sometimes as many as eight lanes of traffic stopped with no place to go. Police officers control the major intersections as the stoplights cannot control so many cars effectively. When busy, which is most of the time, the cobradors work to fill the combi with as many people as possible. People jam into the aisle and hold onto the bars that run along the vehicle’s ceiling. When standing, it is difficult to balance as the driver favors speed, including weaving through traffic, over all else. When the combis are busy, it is especially important to guard one’s belongings because pick pocketing can be common. This includes the always in vogue trick of wearing a backpack on your front so you can see it at all times instead of your back.
Though there is great variation of size, cleanliness and quality, the biggest plus of the combi is that they are all cheap. One-way rides usually cost me between S/. 1.00 and S/. 1.50, which exchanges to between 40 and 60 cents. Compared to the $2.25 it costs to ride the ‘L’ in Chicago, it’s a steal!
In addition to the combis, Lima has recently opened the Metropolitano, a rapid-transit bus system that runs down the middle of the Vía Expresa, one of the city’s major thoroughfares. The Metro, as we call it, is much faster than the combis as it has its own lanes and stations. However, the Metro only includes a few routes and does not reach all of the destinations I need to frequent each week.
The combis and Metro are far from perfect. Yet, they get me where I need to go, usually without incident. Yes, I was on a combi that broke down in the middle of the road once, but it was fine because another came along two minutes later. If nothing else, I’ve found a rollercoaster-like combi ride to be one of the simplest ways to get an extra jolt of energy to wake me up before class each morning. After all, it’s cheaper than a cup of good Peruvian coffee.