Public transportation in Peru, like people, comes in many forms. Taxis, buses and combis are the common forms of public transportation. While you may be familiar with taxis and buses, the combis, or micros, are vans or minibuses that travel various routes throughout the city: making it possible to virtually get anywhere from anywhere in Lima.
The size of a combi varies. They range from older vans, traditionally designed to carry nine passengers, to minibuses with 20 to 30 seats. The older vans have been converted inside to include seating for up to fifteen passengers. The conversion adds padding behind the the front seats for three to sit backwards and in the rear of the van is a bench seat for three passengers. Two passengers can sit up front next to the driver. The rest of the van has three rows of seating. On the left side are seats for two passengers, an isle in the center and a single seat on the ride side: except for where the side door opens. This area is reserved for the cobrador or conductor.
The cobrador has many functions. The cobrador collects the fares, directs traffic and tells the driver when to stop and go. Sometimes he will instruct passengers to move seats to fit more into the combi and he assists people getting on and off as the combi is in a constant state of motion.
In the small combis the cobrador will be seen hanging out if the window of the sliding door. While traveling with the speed of traffic, the cobrador will be yelling the route of the combi to attract riders: not unlike a barker at the circus. However, this barker is doing so at 50 kilometers an hour.
The combi, traveling along its route, stops, or slows, along the way to pick up and drop off passengers. While there are some paraderos, bus stops, most stops are where a potential passenger happens to be standing and raising their hands. With his hands and head hanging out of the window, the cobrador will let other vehicles in traffic know that the combi is changing lanes in front of them to either drop off or pick up a passenger. It is not uncommon to see a cobrador actually reach out and place his hand on another vehicle to make them aware that the combi is coming into their lane.
The cobrador is the one in control of where the combi stops and when it proceeds. When one wants to get off the combi they will announce next street corner, "esquina," traffic light, "semáforo," or gas station, "grifo." The driver rarely stops at the corner, stop light, etc. unless the cobrador announces it to the driver to stop or baja. When the cobrador sees a potential passenger he will tell the driver baja. As passengers get on and off you will hear, almost as if singing, "sube, baja" (get on, get off) as indications for the passengers and driver of the combi stopping or going again.
I love the combis and travel several per day. They are cheap and they are always an experience. You can travel for as little 40 centimos (15 cents US) to one to two soles (35 to 70 cents US) depending on distance you will travel.
On a typical day I will take two combis to my fiancé's apartment and two combi's back. When I umpire I travel to the ball fields in a combi. When I go to work or an appointment for teaching I will ride the combi. However, I must caution you, combis are not for everyone.
Combis will almost always be dirty, usually crowded, and sometimes scary. The combrador's job is to get as many fares as possible. Having standing room only crowds on a combi is not uncommon. When it is crowded you will hear him say "avance avance" which means move to the rear of the combi. Move to the rear really means pack it in. The combi may be packed to an unsafe number of people, making traveling at a high speed worrisome.
One part of the experience is always trying not to "avance" to the back of the combi if your stop is near. Getting to the door through the standing crowd can be difficult. If you have ever seen the original Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it is similar to the scene when the children and parents first enter the factory: entering the small room with no door at the other end and trying to get back out the original door they all went through.
The video below is from my travels one day last week to a teaching appointment. The daylight trip was the ride out and the nighttime scenes are on the way home. It is about a six minute video without music. As you watch it listen to the constant chatter of the cobrador and cobradora. You will see the dance in some scenes and get a sense of the size of the vehicles used in public transport. Watch the video and take the ride with me, Señor Mark: Expatriate in Peru.