Even before I started college, I knew I wanted to study abroad. I had recently finished a brief two-month homestay program in Santiago de Chile and found myself wanting to explore a new South American country. During my freshman year I took a Latin American Culture class taught by a woman who is still my favorite professor to this day. My semester long project consisted of writing essays about different topics in the context of Peruvian society (i.e., politics, family composition, stigma and discrimination, etc.). After finishing this class I had a basic idea of the organization of Peru in terms of its political, cultural, and international relations. Halfway through my sophomore year when it came time to apply for my year abroad I knew exactly which country I wanted to visit.
My year in Peru was undoubtedly the most important life experience I have had thus far. It taught me about the rich culture that exists in Peru and heavily influenced my interests and future career aspirations.
Lima is a bustling city of wonder, street vendors, and traffic. In this gigantic city of 10 million people, public transportation is a staple in the lives of many Peruvians, and understanding how to use it safely is key to living in Lima.
So how do most Limeans get around the city?
In Lima, the fastest, cheapest mode of transportation it to take las combis (buses). There are 3 types defined by their size:
‘Combi,’ while used to refer to all types of buses, more specifically refers to the smallest type of bus. These tiny buses are slightly bigger than a minivan, and often the person driving is also taking the bus fare, meaning that he has to multitask between driving and handling money. While there are more of these circulating the city, they’re often very cramped and unsafe because they provide no protection in a crash.
The next size is called a ‘couster.’ In a couster, typically the ‘cobrador’ (person who collects bus fare) and ‘chofer’ (person driving) are two different people which means you’ll arrive at your destination quicker.
All of this, combined with having to speak Spanish to get around, can make Lima’s public transportation overwhelming at first. So here are some of my key safety tips for surviving the combis:
1. Ask the route of the bus.
Typically the combis, cousters, and buses all have writing on the sides that tell a passenger where the bus is going. However, sometimes the bus has two routes that it alternates throughout the week. Just because a place is written on the bus, doesn’t mean the bus is going there that day. ALWAYS ask the chofer or cobrador where the bus is going before you get on. Sometimes the cobrador will have a sign that says the route for that day, but often he will yell out the window of the bus as it pulls up to the curb something like, “Javier Prado! La marina!” indicating the general route of the bus.
2. Have your money ready when boarding.
Always have your sol (Peruvian currency) ready in your hand or pocket as you wait for the bus. This prevents you from holding up the line, and also protects you from needing to take out your wallet. You don’t want to display yourself as a target for pickpockets if you are carrying a lot of cash with you.
3. Always keep an eye on your belongings.
When on the bus, wear your purse or backpack on your front and keep your possessions in sight at all times. This also includes when you’re walking down the street and in restaurants or other public places. Pickpocketing is very common in Peru and other South American countries and often done in a way that you don’t notice the stolen item is missing until the thief is long gone.
4. Avoid rush hour traffic.
Rush hour, or ‘la hora punta,’ happens around 7:30 am – 10 am and 5:30 pm – 9 pm. During la hora punta, it can be impossible to arrive on time to your destination. I once sat in a couster for half an hour on the same block. If you can avoid taking public transportation during these times, you’ll save yourself a lot of waiting! Even going to the bus stop half an hour early can help you avoid hours of traffic. Plan accordingly! Know how long it’ll take you to get to your destination and give yourself at least 15 additional minutes depending on the time of day.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions. Befriend the ‘serenazgos’!
Whether you’re just walking around in the city, or planning to get on the bus, always ask for directions! The ‘serenazgos’ (the tourist police) are very helpful and patient with tourists. They are paid to field direction questions and patrol public areas to ensure your safety. While it may feel easier and more comfortable to avoid speaking in Spanish, if you know any Spanish at all, use it! Most people will appreciate your efforts and respond positively. When you arrive to your hostel or place of residence, always ask for the numbers of the serenazgos in your district. Have these numbers on you at all times in case of an emergency!
6. Always walk with a friend at night.
Robberies at night are common, especially if you look like an easy target (e.g., tourist clothes, speaking English loudly, using an expensive smartphone). Be safe and always use the buddy system! When walking late at night, stay on well-lit streets where you can see people; it will deter petty thieves from targeting you.
7. Don’t hail a taxi from the street.
This is one of the most important lessons to take away from living in Lima. Most of the time, 40% of the cars on the road are taxis. It’s hard to determine which are safe just by looking at them. Always call a company to get a taxi. If you have a smartphone, there is a fantastic app called EasyTaxi you can use this to call a taxi ride whenever you have WiFi. It will give you a description of the driver, their car, and the license plate number. Other safe taxi companies you can call if you have a local cell phone include Taxi Satelital, Taxi Seguro, and Tata Taxi.
While this is just a brief overview of Lima’s public transportation system, it summarizes a lot of the safety tips I found most helpful to navigating safely around the city. I spent my first few months in Lima arriving at my destinations through trial and error. I was too nervous to ask for directions for a solid part of my first semester and ended up lost and trying to retrace my steps on my own. After many months of being there, I finally realized the importance of asking for directions, something seemingly obvious but surprisingly difficult in a second language.
If I hadn’t been so afraid of how my Spanish was perceived, I could have saved myself a lot of time wandering around the streets of Lima. I would encourage any future travelers, traveling to Peru or otherwise, to always ask for directions and attempt to speak the language of the country you’re in! Lima is a wonderful, marvelous place, so enjoy it! Take these steps to stay safe and you’ll be set to take in all the sights, sounds, and beauty it has to offer!
Lily Zmachinski is a Psychology and Spanish student at Tulane University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú in Lima, Peru, in 2015.