VIDEO: Riding the Combi

One positive aspect of living in a city is the ready availability of public transportation. Katie and I don’t own a car, but that doesn’t stop us from getting where we need to go. Arequipa is full of taxis, and we occasionally ride those if we’re in a rush or if it’s late. Our main means of transportation, however, is the combi.

We’ve often talked to our families and friends about “riding the combi,” of which the closest approximation is riding a public bus. It’s such a part of our new day-to-day reality that we forget how foreign it is when we talk about it. So I daringly took my phone out of my pocket on a few combi rides to give you an idea of what it’s like to ride. I say “daringly,” because two years ago I had to chase down a thief who grabbed by iPhone out of my hand. It’s generally safe, but as is the case anywhere, it’s best to keep a hand on your belongings and an eye on your surroundings. 

I apologize in advance for the bumpiness of the ride—as steady as I tried to hold the camera, there’s just nothing I could do.

The best-case scenario is to know which bus you’re looking for. Otherwise, you listen for street names and landmarks being shouted by the “cobrador” (the person who works the door and charges the combi fare) and you can read the stickers on the front windshield and signs on the front of the bus. Ideally, you’ll get to ride one of the bigger “coaster” buses, not one of the small vans. 

As it approaches, you wave your hand frantically so that the driver sees you and will stop. It’s essential to have one hand free as you get on, because as soon as you step onto the bus, the cobrador shouts ¡Lleva! or ¡Jala! or ¡Vamos!—all synonyms for “Step on it!”

First up, Katie finds a seat at the front of the bus. It’s a makeshift, fold-down jump seat connected to the main front passenger seat. Notice her limited view because of the stickers advertising the bus’s main destinations.

Next, I pan to show you that a majority of the people on this bus are standing, not sitting, including a few people in the doorway and the cobrador hanging out the door so that he can still see people who want to flag the combi down.

Here comes a stop. A couple people get off (the cobrador yells ¡Baja baja baja!) and a couple people get on (the cobrador shouts ¡Sube sube sube! and ¡Lleva!)

A quick peak at Chachani with fields on either side of the narrow road that leads out of our neighborhood. 

Since the woman next to Katie got off, Katie scoots over and I’m in the jump seat. We’re getting off at one of the city’s biggest markets, of which you see just one small piece of our approach.

Tight spaces. Interesting sights and smells. Quick, unpredictable movements requiring the reflexes of a cat and the speed of a mongoose. Generally safe at all times of day. Music provided by Radio Arequipa. 

And best of all, you can make it across the city paying the equivalent of a quarter. 

Now, a couple time-lapse videos of the ride across town and the cobrador taking money and giving change. Not for the faint of heart: