¡Al Fondo Hay Sitio! – La Cultura Combi
How is it possible that I leave tomorrow morning? It feels like these last four months have flown by and I’m not sure if I’m ready to leave yet. Lima just started to really feel like home, plus spring is here and I have to go back to blizzard conditions in Chicago… but I’ll be happy to get home to my friends and family for the holidays.
I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to take a adequate video of a combi ride, something that would capture what it’s like to travel on Lima’s makeshift public transportation system. I have to say, there is nothing like a combi ride. The combis developed out of necessity. In the last few decades, Lima’s population has grown exponentially with many people from the sierra migrating to the coast and the outskirts of Lima. These people needed a way to get from their homes to the more established areas of Lima and the government didn’t step in. So, private enterprises took on the challenge.
The streets of Lima are covered in combis of 3 sizes: bus, micro and combi (these are the size of a full-size van). There are 2 important people on a combi, the cobrador and the driver. The cobrador takes your pasaje or fare. He also yells out the door to let you know the combi’s route and lets the driver know when people want to get on and off. There is no website where you can find the different routes of the combis, so the only way to find out is to ask a Peruvian. The drivers tend to be pretty crazy, as it is in their best interest to pick up all the passengers before any of the other drivers can. This leads to many terrifying combi races. It also leads to absolutely packed combis. For example, I ride a to La Católica on a route called the “S” which is comprised of the smallest combis. Around 6pm, there are probably upwards of 20 people squished into those tiny things half of whom are standing, bent over.
Perhaps the best way to describe a combi ride is to got through the steps. Plus, if you’re ever in Lima you can use these helpful tips.
1) Find a stop or paradero or just stick out your hand on any busy street and 10 will stop for you.
2) Either read the side of the combi or ask the cobrador to make sure that it goes where you’re going. Usually if it doesn’t, the cobrador will tell you which one does.
3) Hop on before the driver speeds off. The cobrador will encourage you and let the driver know to wait by saying “¡Sube sube sube!” Hold on to something because when they do start moving you will go flying into someone’s lap if you’re not holding on.
4) Sit and enjoy the lovely 80s jams or salsa music that the driver has on full blast, the smell of gasoline and the sob stories of all the vendors who climb on board to sell you hard candies. Hold on tight to your belongings and be careful not to bang your head on the seat in front of you when the driver stops. If your standing, you have to keep your balance. The cobrador will also probably yell “Avanza por favor, al fondo hay sitio.” which means that there is room at the back. There is never room at the back.
5) The cobrador will come down the aisle clinking his change and asking for pasajes. You pay him, usually 1 sol and he gives you a ticket that lets him know you paid and gets you your money back in case the combi crashes.
6) When you want to get off, you let the cobrador know by saying “¡(Insert your stop here) baja!” For example, “¡Paradero baja!” or “¡Esquina baja!” The cobrador repeats this to the driver and you must squish through the people to get to the door in time for your stop. The cobrador will let the driver know to stay put by shouting “¡Baja baja baja!” but you should hop off quickly because they will start moving…
It’s a crazy way to get around but it’s cheap and convenient. In some ways, I will miss my crazy combi rides. I remember being scared to get on them in August, but now I find them easy and feel comfortable getting around by combi.
My bags are packed and goodbyes are said and I’m feeling so many different things at once. I hope one day I can come back to Lima and to my wonderful host family. It has truly been a once in a lifetime experience.