Getting Around Lima: For Noobs

Bus, micro or combi? There is, in fact, a method to the madness.

View of the Chorillos neighbourhood from Moro Solar, Lima, Peru. © Emily Ding.

So how do you figure out which bus, micro (a mini-bus, also called a “coaster” — though the locals say it like cooster), or combi (a mini-van) goes where and which to take?

The first time I was in Peru, I spent only a few days in Lima. So I took a backseat and let J., my boyfriend at the time, who was born and bred here until his early twenties, be my tour guide. Although we did ride the more modern Corredor Azul and Metropolitano buses (see below), we rode mostly on the chaotic criss-cross of dusty buses, micros and combis — and it seemed to me, as I watched him navigate, that one only learned how to do it with practice, and that there is a certain element of trial-and-error involved and a generous allowance of time built in when you’re going somewhere you’ve never been before, even for those who call the city home. It crossed my mind that you couldn’t even talk about the “system” being impenetrable, because there wasn’t even one in the first place.

But I wasn’t quite right. There is, in fact, a method to the madness, and it’s actually fairly simple — though it depends on your being willing to be more vocal than you usually are on public transport (so no head-down reading like on the London tube and yes, some very basic Spanish would be immeasurably handy), and being willing to maybe not get it exactly right (i.e. you might have to walk a little further than you thought from where the bus stops to your final destination, or the bus might take a different route than you had expected). You’ll also need to have a rough idea of what the city looks like — what’s north, south, east and west, the names of the main neighbourhoods, and the arterial roads.

So by simple, what I mean is that it’s simpler than what you might be used to in New York or London before apps like Citymapper existed, because here in Lima (and similarly in many Latin American cities), all you really need to know is the name of the neighbourhood and the main public-transport artery closest to your intended destination, and ask the cobrador — the man/boy (or, very occasionally, woman) hanging out the door of the vehicle — whether it indeed goes to XX, or XXX. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bus, micro or combi; you do the same. You can also tell for yourself where a vehicle is headed by the sticker or sign above the windscreen indicating the starting and final point of its route, with the names of the main roads it’ll pass along the way displayed on its sides. But in any case, it’s always best to also confirm it with the cobrador.

And although it’s not strictly necessary, try to have small change when you board — I usually have S/. 0.50 or S/. 1 coins with me (the Peruvian currency is soles, and it’s about S/. 3 to an American dollar). Unless you’re going to travel a considerable distance, say, more than two or three neighbourhoods apart, this should suffice. In the beginning I always asked how much the fare was before paying, but a local friend here told me not to bother. “Just give the cobrador one sol,” she said. “If it’s more than that, he’ll tell you.” I’ve gone from Miraflores to Pueblo Libre, or to Barranco, for one sol. The cobrador won’t usually ask you to pay right away. You’ll get in, sit or stand, and then he’ll come around and collect, and issue you a stub in return. It might seem useless, but keep it in case you’re asked to show proof of payment.

Corredor Azul

A fleet of new blue buses called the Corredor Azul also runs among the aforementioned buses, micros and combis. They were inaugurated in July this year by the municipal government, seeking to introduce more formality and safety to Lima’s public transport, with proper designated bus stops (marked by blue stands on sidewalks) — unlike the informal buses and combis, which tend to stop at any point along the way to pick up additional passengers, though the government has started discouraging this practice with video surveillance and fines. There are just three routes right now — 301, 302 and 303 (unlike the normal buses, micros and combis, there’s actually official information available online) — plying north-south Lima from Rimac to Barranco, so they won’t take you everywhere you’d like to go, and you’d still have to depend on the informal system. At certain busy stops along these routes there will be staff in blue vests standing at the blue stands, who collect bus fares before the arrival of a bus in the event of a long queue; you can check with them to confirm which bus you should take. Fares cost S/. 1–2.

Metropolitano and Metro

The Via Expresa highway in Lima, Peru. The inner lane is dedicated to the Metropolitano bus. © Emily Ding.
The green Metro electric train winding through Lima, Peru. View from Cerro San Cristobal in the Rimac neighbourhood. © Emily Ding.

If you’re looking to save precious travelling time, however, you should first check if there’s a Metropolitano bus or a Metro electric train that will take you where you want to go, or close to where you want to go — because the Metropolitano buses run on special bus lanes with dedicated platforms and the Metro electric train runs on an elevated railway line, avoiding Lima’s notoriously bad traffic. They are fairly new — the Metropolitano was inaugurated in 2010, the Metro in 2012 — so they currently only cover a small section of Lima and, as you’d expect, get really crowded at popular stops and during la hora punta (rush hour), so you’d likely still need to depend on the informal buses, micros and combis to get around (yes, there’s no escaping them).

Think of the main Metropolitano route as a north-south trunk going from Comas to Chorillos; if you want to branch out from the trunk, then you’ll have to take another bus, micro, or combi further on to your destination. There are also orange buses called alimentadores which form part of the Metropolitano, and serves to get you from east or west of Lima to the Metropolitano stops. As for the electric Metro train: it currently serves one route from San Juan de Lurigancho in the north of Lima down south to Villa El Salvador. Both systems have more routes planned for construction, but for now, this is it.

You’ll need a card to travel on the Metropolitano. Every stop has a ticket machine from which you can buy a card for S/. 5, then top it up; there should also be a human-manned booth. A one-way journey costs S/. 2.50. However, a good thing here that’s different from say, the Oyster card in London, is that someone else can swipe you in on their card too, and vice versa. In fact, it’s nothing out of the ordinary to pay your passage to the stranger in front of you and ask them to swipe you in. As for the Metro train: I’ve yet to ride it, but I imagine it works similarly.


Fruit carts and taxis in the Rimac neighbourhood, Lima, Peru. © Emily Ding.

If you’re only in Lima for a couple of days, maybe you can’t be bothered taking the bus. It’s easy to take a taxi here because there are so many of them. The national daily El Comercio reported in 2011 that Lima has double the number of taxis it actually needs. You won’t even have to flag them down; they’ll flag you. Some of them will even stop directly in your path and honk at you, sometimes just as you’re about to cross the street. As of July this year, there are, reportedly, an estimated one hundred and twenty thousand illegal taxis compared to ninety thousand registered ones in the city. These “pirate” taxis are a concern because of previously reported incidents of taxi muggings.

Reportedly, registered taxis must have black-and-yellow checkered stripes on their side panels and a lighted “TAXI” sign on the roof of the car, but it’s said that isn’t really a deterrent as anyone can buy the stripes, and presumably the “TAXI” sign too. As to whether a certain colour makes a taxi more legit: it seems they should be either yellow, white or black, “corresponding to whether they are self-employed, authorised to wait in a taxi rank, or take only pre-booked fares”, according to this Global Voices article. More importantly, the way to tell if a taxi is official is by a sticker in its windscreen from Setame, the authority that regulates taxis.

Taxis here don’t use meters, so if you’re hailing a taxi off the street, make sure you haggle and agree on the price before getting in. Depending on your bargaining skills (and the taxi driver’s familiarity with the roads), it can vary quite a bit. Someone I know managed to get a taxi to fetch him from San Isidro to the centre of Lima for S/. 5 — an extremely cheap exception, and the taxi driver later realised that he’d been had, but I’m just making a point.

To err on the safe side, you may want to call for a taxi instead. In keeping with other modern cities, there are taxi apps like Uber, Easy Taxi, and Taxi Satellital (which also has a phone service, and is equipped with GPS tracking; but you won’t be able to get a fare quote in advance of your journey, though there is a tariff guide on its website). There are also cab services especially for women, like Solo Para Ellas (+51 1 660 0600) and Taxi Para Nosotras (+51 9 8118 8440), which claim to screen their drivers to make sure they are women-friendly, though it’s not clear what that means and by what criteria it is judged. But no, it doesn’t mean that all the drivers are women; some are men.

Lima’s chaotic traffic can wear you down, but hopefully this helps some of you navigate this city.