Image of bus in Lima

Your mileage may vary

On the face of it, I spent some days hopping between bus, combi and micro, trying to understand the realities of really moving around the sprawl of Lima. At points, I played the part of a clueless tourist. At others, the awkward role of a spectator sat in public transport with no real destination in mind. But I have to admit, among my motivations there was also a naïve intention to atone for years of copious taxi rides afforded by the pocket money of a comfortable Peruvian adolescence; a guilty feeling having now experienced the novelty of functional public transportation in Britain, the real luxury!

If I had to seek out the true transport used by the real people of Lima, at least in my mind, then this meant diving into the world of the ubiquitous buses, micros, and combis (minibuses and ‘coasters’) that make rounds of the city in the tens of thousands. These are privately owned and operated, with units ranging from new to ancient, plastered in bright colours, and even more colourful messages written largely in decal. Phrases like “I am your nightmare”, “they (women) all lie”, and “only ‘cuckolds’ overtake me” are commonly emblazoned across windscreens and bumpers. Thankfully, their myriad routes are also boldly painted in full on the side of the vehicles for ease of use.

The empire of the micro and its motley offspring is scarcely challenged; currently, there are one and a half lines of metro, a slim public busway that cuts across the city in a straight line, and you can count on non-descript cars as informal collective taxis for short distances. These have trademarked the assaultive use of the car horn to signal their clandestine business to potential customers and they will continue to insist until every seat is filled with a passerby.

Shockingly, the proposition “I’m writing for a foreign newspaper about the transport situation, would you mind if I ask you some questions?” was often met with ample scepticism and occasional derision from the few drivers I approached while they rested in the quiet shade of a side street. My queries were also given short shrift by the improvised ‘ticket officers’ who work to collect payments from incoming passengers as they hurriedly clamber onto vehicles always half in motion.

Augusta, a no-nonsense veteran taxi driver, had to shake some sense into me: “You won’t get anywhere with questions like that. They will think you’re after them! Convince them that you’re actually on their side.” I still didn’t follow. She explained: “What you need to say is that you are working to expose the government’s persecution of their livelihood, ask them about the ATU and these guys will not shut up.”

As I soon discovered, the Urban Transit Authority (ATU) was widely reviled by the enterprising drivers of Lima and recognised as an overreaching tentacle of the government intent on driving away the micros from their highly prized routes to be ultimately displaced by deficient publicly owned imitations. Well, maybe not in so many words.

What you need to say is that you are working to expose the government’s persecution of their livelihood

Still, hundreds of WhatsApp and Telegram chats buzzed with the latest ploys of the ATU. A subgenre of TikTok grew dedicated to recording the unwitting agents of the ATU in the wild – invariably dressed in their characteristic bright blue hi-vis uniforms and helmets – to inform fellow drivers of which areas to avoid. There was even the occasional tussle between both factions on video. Augusta revealed all of this to me via the phone screen fastened in front of her driver’s seat, only when we sat responsibly waiting for traffic to break of course.

Around noon, we approached a district built atop a slim peninsula on the far side of the bay of Lima, a common terminus for many micro routes. By the coast, there were several large buses sitting uncharacteristically vacant and inert around a small restaurant with men also sat outside chatting. They told me: “Yes, we work for Señor del Mar (Our Lord of the Sea), a transport company from around here” and yes, they had ample experience with the ATU.

One of them piped up: “Look, the issue is that the ATU is trying to squeeze us with unpayable tickets. If I stick my hand out of the window, I have to pay them like 5,150 soles for that.Or if I modify my route and take a shortcut to avoid traffic that’s another 5,150. If I don’t have an extinguisher, that’s 980. They’ll ask for anything. They want our cars to be perfect, no one’s perfect but they want it to be! Oh, they also impound your unit as punishment, keep it for 3 months and then you have to pay 10,000 to get it back.”

So, what do the authorities intend? He promptly replied: “Well, a monopoly. They just want to keep all the routes, but they can’t deal with the demand. And people prefer ‘conventional’ transport anyways, that’s what they call us, we are ‘conventional’ transport.”

Image credit: Enrique Normand Velarde