A Long Humorous Lesson about Public Transportation in Chile

We ride the Metro (train) and micro (bus – pronounced “meek-crow ” really fast) to work daily.  That’s how we travel here in Chile.  Our daily work routine is to take the metro from Viña del Mar to Valparaiso.  From the train station we then take the micro to the school where we teach English.  The metro is always on time.  The micro?  Not so much.

When we first arrived in Chile we asked if a bus schedule was published anywhere.  We got the same puzzled looks we got when we asked if anyone did anything else other than ‘Just in Time Planning’.  I’m sure the thought balloon would have said, “Why would they do that?  They run all the time and one will eventually come by that will take you to where you want to go.”

Conquering the micro system(?) was a bit daunting at first with our language barrier and the rapid fire Spanish(?).  First, micros come in a variety of colors.  Orange and yellowish, green and white, blue and white, and other colors we still know nothing about.  Even more confusing are the orange and yellowish and the green and whites seem to go to the same places.  Blue and whites seem to never venture across city boundaries (we think???).

The buses have multiple signs on them informing you where you hope it will go.  Sometimes this system breaks down and it takes you to a new destination leaving you to figure out how to get back to the ‘Start’ square.  They also have numbers.  These seem to work fairly well if you are fortunate enough to have been introduced to a seasoned bus rider who has survived the ride.  The ‘word of mouth’ system rules in the micro world.

And the fares are different on some of the micros.  We have never boarded a micro with a 700 peso fare.  God only knows where you may end up if you ride one of those.  Although we have seen people riding them we’ve never seen them again.  For all we know they go to the place of no return.  We don’t want to go there…  yet…

When you get on the bus you hand the driver the fare and if you don’t want dirty looks, don’t hand the him a 10,000 or 20,000 peso note.  Stick to the smaller denominations of 1000, 2000, or 5000 notes.  He then gives you a small paper ticket to show you’ve paid a fare.  There are 4 colors of tickets depending on the fare you decided to pay.  He doesn’t care what you pay as long as it matches one of the listed fares on the bus.  Just be sure to have the correct color in case an inspector/interrogator comes on board to check tickets.

Nope, there’s no such thing as a transfer or electronic system (System? We don’t need no stinkin’ fancy electronic system) to make things easier.  If you’re up to the challenge you can tell the bus driver your destination but be prepared to repeat yourself even if you pronounced the words perfectly.  We call it the gringo penalty.  We’ve concluded the drivers are caught up in ‘gringo gazing’ when you get on the bus and don’t pay attention to what you’re saying or they assume you can’t speak the local lingo.

There are a few drivers who have grown accustomed to seeing us on their micros and they don’t give us those puzzled looks of either shock or amazement of an ‘out of season’ gringo on the bus.  We think they’ve become victims of the Stockholm Syndrome.

Once you are on the bus you may run into the ‘getting a seat’ challenge depending on the time of day or night you ride.  In the mornings Raeski usually is offered a seat by any of the many gentlemen or younger ladies on the bus.  And what about Wooly?  No such luck.  He often stands during the wild rides.  More on that later…

Oh, and the seats… should you be “lucky” enough to get one…  These wonderfully designed seats (WDS) are perfect for short people with tiny legs.  It is absolutely impossible for Wooly to get his legs into the prescribed space without breaking them.  Even Raeski has trouble with this at times.  We think the model used during the design of seat spacing was the shortest person in Chile.

On late Friday nights after the Metro quits running the chivalry system on the micro breaks down.  Raeski rarely is offered one of those WDS.  Of course that really doesn’t matter if you are riding in one of the wild driver buses.  Again, more on that later…  And why doesn’t it matter you ask?  With one exception, it’s because you are packed in like sardines in a can.  In this case a rolling can but a can none the less.  As the bus fills up everyone keeps getting jammed to the back of the bus.  Eventually you reach the point of the one exception.  And who might that be?  Why the last person on the bus standing on the first step with his rear-end hanging out the bus.  Nope, the door isn’t shut because it can’t.  But the driver seems happy because his bus is now officially full and he only stops when one of the victims can’t take it anymore and rings the buzzer to get off.

When it’s time to get off and make your way to the “great egress” a new adventure begins.  That is unless you are right at the door.  In that case you just let go and fall out the bus, then everyone is shuffled one spot closer to the back of the bus.  But if you are one of those unfortunate souls not close to the great egress you have the challenge of pushing, shoving, pleading, or begging your way off the bus.  If you’re a fan of rubbing up full body against strangers come to Chile.  It’s your nirvana.  When you finally get to the door you have to wait for the final few pasajeros (passengers) to fall out of the bus onto the street before you can get off.  And the last passenger is now happy because he no longer needs to hang his butt out of the bus.

Wild man (WM) driving…  You haven’t fully experienced the micro system(?) until you ride a bus with a WM driving.  These wanna-be Formula One drivers attempt to wheel their bus around like a sports car.  Speed shifting a diesel powered bus?  Check.  Careening around corners?  Check.  Breaking hard enough to the point of smelling the brakes?  Check.  Drafting other cars, micros or anything else that moves?  Check.  They’re fast with horn too.

When riding a WM bus you find yourself wishing your WDS (if you’re one of the lucky ones) came equipped a five point harness and you were wearing a full face helmet.  You may even catch yourself wistfully looking for a bus sized roll cage.  But before that you first find yourself struggling to find one of those WDS as the WM at the wheel launches the bus towards the next stop.  Just when you are about to sit in that WDS the WM at the wheel attempts a gear grinding speed shift which propels you past your intended seat.  Once you finally manage to squeeze into that WDS the adventure continues.

New victims unwittingly wave to the bus to get it to stop and pick them up.  If you have one of the nicer WM drivers he will screech to a halt by the soon to be unwitting pasajero.  But if another micro is in front he will try to come to a screeching halt in front of the other micro thereby blocking the other driver from making his 15 seconds or less stop.  Meanwhile, the would be pasajeros are running down the micro to get on.  At least now they’ve been clued in that a WM is at the wheel.  Of course the WM at the wheel of the blocked bus behind you is honking his horn at your WM because his 15 second or less stop is taking too long.

And now you are treated with the entertainment of other people trying to find and get to one of those WDS as the WM at the wheel launches into traffic again.  If the WM at the wheel recognizes the new victims as seasoned pasajeros he will toss in a few quick lane changes for added difficulty in getting to that WDS.

When everyone gets off the micro you know you are at or close to the end of the line.  You will also get puzzled looks from the wild-eyed driver wondering where the obviously lost gringos are trying to go.  This happened to us once when we foolishly thought the bus was taking us to Cón Cón before we figured out the Cón Cón bus system(?).  This is when we learned that when riding to a new destination you should always sit at the back of the bus so you have advance warning that you are the last survivor on the bus.  This will also clue you into the idea that your bus may not be taking to your intended destination.

We kind of figured this out when we started getting strange looks from our wild-eyed driver.  As we were foolishly sitting towards of the front of the bus we didn’t see we were the last remaining bus survivors.  As the bus pulled onto a dirt road the realization dawned on us that we screwed up and weren’t on a bus that would take us to our desired destination.  After stopping at a shack selling empanadas our wild-eyed driver asked why we were still on his bus.  After we finally were able to communicate our destination he took us back to the last stop, booted us off the bus and pointed us to the direction we needed to walk.  Fortunately the walk was only a half mile.

Now that we’re pumped full of confidence at conquering the micro system(?) we are considering taking one of those 700 peso buses of no return to see where they go.  After all we are on an adventure.

11 thoughts on “A Long Humorous Lesson about Public Transportation in Chile”

  1. Sounds like the busses in Paris. Or the train in Cinque Terre when the seas are too rough to take most of the passengers. Or the rail system during rush hour at Chicago O’Hare, or the hotel shuttles for that matter. Public transport is kinda cool, that whole no gas/maintenance/insurance/payment thingie. Concurrently, public transport also kinda sucks ass, lol.

  2. Oh man, I couldn’t stop laughing! It amazes me how your view on something I grew up my whole life with is so detailed, surprising… and different! Hahahaha welcome to Chile 🙂

  3. Have you tried the metro in Santiago? “If you’re a fan of rubbing up full body against strangers come to Chile” –> the Metro in Santiago is a lot better if you like that 😀

  4. Hey! I’m in Canada now, but I’m from Chile, and i lived 6 years in Valparaiso and you brought me back to those days of university taken the micro as much as I could thanks to “el pase escolar”. YOu have no idea how many times I thought I would die from a terrible bus accident Hahahaha. OMG i missed Valparaiso so much! Enjoy your stay there! 🙂

    1. I no longer check the tires on the micros. That only makes it worse. 🙂 If you miss Valpo check out my photos of the street art. I’m sure you’ve seen many of them yourself. Have you been to Alberta or British Columbia yet?

      1. I’m in Toronto right now but I’m planning to move to Alberta by the end of September. Trying to find a job there for the winter season. It has been so difficult to make friends in Toronto, it’s so big! Hahahaha. But I’m still trying to decide between canmore, Banff, Calgary …. There are so many options!

        PS: I’ll definitely see those photos 🙂

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