Insane Peruvian driving can yield some pretty grim consequences.
To be quite honest, I have intentionally been putting off writing about forms of transportation here. Despite all the crazy culture-shock moments we have had and language barriers we’ve bumped into, transportation in general has been the biggest change in my life since moving here. Everything about it is so different from what I am used to back home, that I really don’t even know where to begin. Nothing I can write will fully describe the surreal experience that even a taxi ride can be in this country, it honestly just has to be experienced. But I’ll try to give you an idea.
Being that I am from the greater Los Angeles area, the concept of public transportation in and of itself is foreign to me. In LA, nearly everyone has their own car and drives themselves everywhere. Public transportation is notoriously unreliable and not necessarily the safest way to get around LA. Heading into a foreign country where personal cars are a status symbol and not a necessity has been pretty bizarre from the get-go.
The first mode of transportation I’ll try to cover is taxis. The most familiar to Americans and reliable form of short-distance transportation, it is also the most common form of transport for tourists visting Peru and well-to-do Peruvians alike. There are literally thousands of taxis in any given major city in Peru, driving in circles and just waiting for someone to flag them down.
Unlike the States, taxis in Peru do not have meters. When you flag one down, you have to tell the driver where you are heading and then negotiate a price before getting in. If you forget to agree on a price beforehand, he can charge you whatever he likes upon arriving at your destination and you cannot dispute it. As a whitey with not an entirely full grasp of Spanish, the taxi driver automatically raises the price for me assuming I do not know any better and will pay whatever he asks. From the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, one taxi driver tried to charge us S30 (roughly $11.50) for the short trip to the nearby ruin of Tambomachay. Luckily, I had done my homework ahead of time and refused to get into his taxi until he brought the price down to S12, which was a fair price since the trip should have only been like S10. So caution fellow travelers when taxi-ing about the country! They will take advantage of you in a most obscene manner, so make sure to ask around how much is the appropriate price to pay to get to various sites.
Taxis costs are pretty variable, even to the same destination, based on the level of safety you seek. For example, the taxi shown above is a type that should be avoided as much as possible, but is also the cheapest kind around. These tiny little hatchbacks are nothing but tin cans, providing very little safety, and unfortunately are the most common style here in Arequipa. Toyota Yarises (what I drive back home!) are also a very common taxi in Peru, and a safer bet. If you are traveling with loads of luggage, be sure to flag down a sedan. Taxi drivers will say anything to get you in their cars, and the little hatchback owners will always promise that you and all your stuff will fit. The next thing you know, you are crammed with your backpack above your head, your laptop at your feet, and your luggage on your lap with no space to even breathe. But Lord knows, they got it all to fit!
There are also very few “official” taxi companies in Peru. Official taxis are generally safer, but much more expensive. Most often, the taxis are unofficial cars with advertisements stuck to them and no safety regulations to adhere to. Because they do not have to report to anyone, the taxi drivers often trick out their rides however they please. I have seen taxis with strobing headlights, blue interior lights, various horn sounds, and back-up chimes that play songs rather than the traditional beeps (nearly all cars here have back-up noises, not just big trucks like in the States). If you are poor, like us, and opt for the convenience and reasonable price of unofficial taxis, try to be as friendly and kind as possible to the drivers as you can. The odds are very low, but there is always a possibility of the unofficial taxis taking you to a bad part of town and then robbing you blind. My idea is if I can build a positive relationship at the start of the ride, maybe any potential thieves will have second thoughts about robbing people as nice as us. I always make sure to tell them how much I would love to see more of their beautiful country, but we are too broke to do anything but teach and explore the city.
Another way for taxis to get supplementary income is to pick up tourists from the airport or bus station, ask them where they are staying, and then tell them their hotel/hostel is all booked up and suggest another (where they get paid a little commission for bringing new clients). Unless you really don’t have a place to stay, always tell the drivers you paid for your room in advance and will lose money if they don’t take you there. Also, take care to watch what streets they take. Often, drivers will take the longest route possible, saying that they are avoiding traffic or construction, and then ask you for S15 more than the agreed-upon price once they arrive at your destination (happened to us our first day in Arequipa).
Rear seatbelts are rare for taxis, as are safe and patient taxi drivers. Most of them speed around corners, come to slamming stops, and merely lay on the horn while flying through intersections instead of slowing down to check for incoming cars. There is no numerical limit to how many people can get into a taxi, merely spacial limitations. We have managed to fit 6 people into those tiny yellow taxis, which was necessary due to the sheer lack of van-sized taxis, but not recommended.
Many tourists (including ourselves until this very weekend) have no idea of another service provided by all taxis, but the locals frequently make use of it. An arequipeño friend told us about how Peruvians will flag down taxis, any time of the day or night, and then pay the drivers one Sol to light cigarettes for them from their car lighters. Apparently no one finds this little cultural quirk at all noteworthy, but as far as I know, that is not a common practice for taxi drivers in the US.
Kyle and our friend Rachel in a mototaxi in Máncora.
In certain smaller towns, such as Máncora, taxis are pretty few and far between. In their stead are the little cousins of taxis, the mototaxi. They are essentially a motorcycle with the back half cut off and a three-seater bench with two wheels beneath welded on. The ones in Máncora are open-air like in the photo, but there are also ones with zipped-up doors in other towns in Peru. These are usually hot and bumpy rides, so it is better to catch a colectivo (glorified hitch-hiking in a privately owned van with a bunch of strangers) for longer rides or you’ll have a sore butt for hours after.