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Taxis in Lima, Peru

I was just getting ready to write about the incredible experience of riding in cabs through Lima, when I ran across this article which is so accurate and well written, that I rather pass it along instead of bothering you with my lack of articulation….

by Travis A. Smith

There is one taxi driver for every man, woman and child in Lima. They range in size from station wagon down to circus clown transport. You can identify a taxi by its propensity to slow down and draw near as you walk down the street, similar to a beggar asking you for change; also, they all have a colorful sticker in their front window in one of several biohazard fluorescent colors. In order to be licensed as a Lima taxi driver, there is a test that consists of a) finding a store that sells the brightly colored sticker, b) counting the correct change to buy it (change counting is a critical taxi-driving skill), and c) surviving the drive home.

Taxis are inexpensive; a trip across town cost between 8 and 12 soles (like dollars, but smaller), plus about three weeks off your life from the sudden burst of adrenalin caused by fear and elation as you weave through the matrix of one-way streets. You know that scene in the matrix where Keanu Reeves stands in an empty void, and says “We’re going to need a lot of guns?” Enormous rows of shelves leap into existence and sweep by him on each side; if he had been standing to his left, he would have been plowed into oblivion. Yes, it’s kind of like that.

Driving in Lima — let me rephrase that, because I would never, ever, ever drive in Lima despite being a long-time fan of the demolition derby — being driven around in Lima, is a never-ending, long-form game of chicken. Almost all streets are one-way, so that at every intersection, the driver only needs to watch for oncoming traffic from one other direction. I did see stop signs, but I never, ever witnessed one being heeded. In fact, the signs seemed mainly to indicate that there was no need to stop; most taxi drivers sped up at those places. Every intersection became a test of timing like that old Dragon Slayer video game where you had to make a quick combination of right, left, forward, stop, to avoid various crushing boulders and walls. Big vehicles, like trucks and buses, were more commonly treated as dumb, slow obstacles as opposed to being seen as metal death dealers deserving of extra respect. Several times, a taxi driver decided the best way to get out of a traffic jam was to drive in incoming traffic. And I saw an ambulance tired of being stuck behind stopped cars and suddenly drive the wrong way around a four-lane-wide traffic circle downtown.

Priority between two equal streets is decided, and this is completely true, by which driver honks his horn first. It is much more important to be able to hear than to be able to see, because seeing a sudden oncoming hazard didn’t seem to have any effect on the driver’s decision to go or stop. One night, my taxi driver actually got out a small flashlight during the drive and used it to look at the dials in front of him — I guess his night vision was a little lacking.

My personal best time for summoning a taxi in Lima was 8 seconds from the time I exited a building, but the record among my friends was even quicker — taxis will often lurch at you as you open the door to leave a building and will also even pursue you into supermarkets and up stairs.

However, no matter how dicey the taxi situation may seem, it’s far superior to the bus system. I never took a “combi” bus, but I do know several things about them. First, all buses are owned by private companies or people. Second, there are no pre-defined routes or stops. Third, each bus has a guy, or in some cases, a skimpily-dressed girl, who hangs out the side door and yells out the destination of the bus, exhorting people to take that particular ride home. Sometimes, the bus drivers change their mind about their destination in mid trip, in which case Spanish-speakers will know to transfer to another combi, and non-Spanish speakers will end up being driven to a pig-rendering facility.

Taxis have no meters so you must tell the driver where you want to go and agree on a price before you get in.
One thing I’ve learned very quickly is to never ride in one of those Daewoo Tico taxis. CNN described it this way in an article 2 years ago: “Being out in Lima’s chaotic traffic is often like being caught in a stampede of elephants, and Peru’s most common taxi — the Daewoo Tico — is the scurrying mouse underfoot.” Update on that article: the Tico is still alive and well! My guess is that every 2nd taxi is a little yellow card box on wheels.

Posted by Wolfy Becker

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