Right now the chauffers (taxi and bus drivers) of Cochabamba are on strike. I haven't been to work in two days because I have no way to get there. They raised the price of intra-city rides from 1.50Bs to 2Bs, which is quite a price hike. The people refused to pay or ride and now the drivers are refusing to drive. Economic unrest aside, this gives me a minute to reflect on how long it has taken me to figure out the little bit I know about the transport system in this town.
The spiderweb maps of London and New York subway systems have nothing on Cochabamba. First of all, there is no map; no secret decoder ring; no signs. Public transport is an “insider” thing. Rumor is that there is a book that lists the routes, but I have never seen one, and you can bet that I have looked. You basically have 4 options in public transport here:
Micro: Ironically named, the Micro is the largest vehicle offered in the city. They are all painted obnoxious colors, as pictured. The inside is usually decorated similarly, and it is nearly enough to induce a seizure.Due to the seizure risk¨, and to the fact that I have no idea where any micros go, I never ride one unaccompanied by a local.
Trufi: A trufi is basically a minivan that can pack in more people than you would ever imagine. I think I counted 18 once. Yes, in one of these. They drive a route indicated vaguely by the construction paper sign in their window. To get any of these bus-type things to stop, you have to step into ther street and hail them like you would a cab. If you want to disembark, you just shout "Next corner!" or "right here!" to the driver. The people paying good money for public transport will not walk an extra 50 feet, so there is a decent chance that a trufi will stop 4 or 5 times in one block.
Taxi-Trufi: This "hybred" runs on similar priciples to the trufi, but is in car form. They also indicate their routes in construction paper on the dashboard. I take a taxi-trufi to work each morning. Early on, I reasoned that it would be great to get the front seat. I based this reasoning on lessons ingrained from childhood games of "Shotgun." When I waved a taxi-trufi to a stop, the front seat was open and I hopped in. In a half block, another passenger waved the trufi down and they shoved in next to me. I was pressed up against the driver and needed to self-levitate to stay off the car´s gearshift. Everytime we slammed on the breaks (which is constantly in Bolivia), my left thigh shoved the car into neutral. The driver would then have to put the car back in drive before proceeding. I sit in the back now.
Taxi: We're left with what seems like a normal form of transport the world over. However, what separates taxis from regular old cars in Cochabamba is just stickers. These stickers are the keys to the kingdom. Everyone, it seems, has a friend of a friend that has been mugged, raped or murdered in a "fake taxi." What counts as a "real taxi" is widely debated. Taxis will have one or more of the following stickers: a "taxi" sticker in the windshield, a sticker of the license plate number on the fender, and/or a sticker on the back door of anything, from a company name/phone number to Spiderman. Most people agree that any car with two or more stickers is a "legitimate" taxi. These stickers are commonly sold in local hardware stores for reasonable prices.
Once you´ve flagged down a cab and gotten in without being stabbed or rufi-ed, you have to negotiate price. It does´t matter if you called a "radio taxi" company and they sent a cab to you, or if you flagged one down in the street, you will have to negotiate. There are no meters and no set fairs. The distance, the weather, your accent, and the drivers mood greatly affect what you will pay, but, that said, the final number really is anyone´s guess, and, surprisingly, stickers are not accepted for payment.
I lived in DC when the cabs were un-metered and operated on a "Zone System." You needed a Phd and at least 6 months in the city to figure out how to use and manipulate the fares of said system, but it could be done. The taxi drivers of Cochabamba prefer to stay cloaked in mystery. And, right now, these mystery men can charge whatever they like, as the rest of the city goes into Day 3 of a transport strike.