I always wondered what they were talking about in that ‘80s-ass Men at Work song. Now I know. A combi or micro is a mini-bus that can be as small as one of those tiny 80’s Toyota moon vans or larger bus that holds about 20 or 30 people. Knowing which bus to get on is a trick initially. The busses are painted different colors depending on the route. The origin and destination points are on a placard on the front of the bus and the streets along their route are painted on the side. The best way to figure out the route is go with someone who knows. If not, you have to ask someone and pray that you understood what the hell they said and that they actually knew what they were talking about. Ultimately it comes down to trial and error.
At the paraderos (bus stops), a number of micros will pull up at the same time with the cobradores (fare collectors) hanging out the side door with one arm yelling out “Sube! Sube! Sube!” (Get on!) and yelling the streets on their route. Meanwhile, you’re trying to listen for your street and reading the street names on the sides of several moving busses to try to pick the one that’s going your direction. It’s really very confusing if you’re unsure of which one you need to take.
You can also flag down a combi on the side of the street and they’ll pick you up pretty much anywhere, though the cops are kind of cracking down on that practice. The combi slows down, the cobrador slides opens the side door, you hop in, hold on for dear life as he zooms off, and try to cram yourself into one of the small seats (well, small to me anyway). If there are no seats you gotta stand hunched over and keep an eye out that people don’t try to pick pocket your sh*t. I won’t ride a combi during rush hour traffic because they’re generally pretty packed – and I mean packed to the point that the cobrador is hanging out the side of the bus with both hands holding on for dear life and trying to keep everyone in the bus. Rule of the game for combi drivers – pass the combi in front of him so he can collect more fares. They are, after all, privately owned and trying to make a buck.
The fares are very reasonable and generally run about 1 or 2 soles (<75 cents>Fare charts are generally posted inside the bus but I’ve yet to decipher one. If you don’t know what the fare is, ask the guy next to you because the cobrador might try to aprovechar (take advantage) of your ignorance and gringoness.
Some of the newer micros are really nice, large and comfortable. Others are literally “fried out”, have been around for 30+ years, and still have “Kilroy was here” written in Korean. Sometimes they smell like sex that’s been left out in the sun too long.
Public transportation is public transportation anywhere you go. If you don’t know the system and the area, you’re going to feel lost and it will always be packed during rush hour. After learning my way around Lima and figuring out how the system works, I can get to pretty much wherever I need get without getting too lost, at a good price and, outside of rush hour, relatively comfortable. It’s actually pretty surprising how efficient the system is. It almost beats waiting forever in the dead of winter in a foot of snow for the 154 to take me to downtown Chicago and piling into a bus that has the heaters blowing 90 degrees or turned completely off with a ton of other people.