You can’t miss them: throngs of diminutive buses zipping around streets at breakneck speeds competing for passengers. This is public transportation, Colombia style!
When it rains, which in some parts of Colombia can be several times a day, taxis all but disappear and people lose all their manners attempting to score the few that aren’t occupied. Busetas (pronounce Boo-seh-tass) to the rescue! You usually don’t have to wait long, a few minutes at the most, and although there’s bus shelters they’ll usually pick up and drop off passengers anywhere along their routes. Stick your arm out and they’ll usually stop for you.
Fares are very economical, well under one US dollar and usually are “integrado” meaning include access to the city’s public metro/articulated bus/tramway/cable car system if there is one (Ex: Medellín). Busetas are run by privately owned companies and this has the added benefit that many usually ply the same routes. Most busetas will connect to the city owned public transit system, but some cover long stretches of major avenues where there isn’t any.
If you’re a large or tall person, boarding busetas can be fun! There’s this tiny turnstile in your way at the top of the steps. You either hit the lil’ box on the pole with your transit card (which you can buy and fund at designated points) or give the driver your cash fare. Drivers will make change up to a point so try to have small bills and coins. Once you manage to get through the toy turnstile, get to a seat fast because drivers here infamously gun it even before the door is closed. Some will even take off while you’re still in the steps with your ass dangling out the door!
Again, if you’re big or tall, buseta seats can be a challenge: Colombians are seldom tall so seats and the leg space in front of them are better suited for gringo toddlers! There’s a limited number of seats with no leg issues at the front of the bus, but courtesy dictates that these should be left for the elderly, physically challenged passengers and mothers with strollers, so your best bet is usually the middle seat at the far end of the vehicle.
Once the buseta is in movement, think rodeo rider! Hopefully you don’t have hemorrhoids! I confess I initially laughed and whooped as if riding a bronco, to the consternation of my fellow passengers. Even the oldest here take it with poise! If you’re among the unlucky ones left standing (maybe with a bit of a crouch) you’ll have the opportunity to exercise your arm and leg muscles quite a bit, especially in steep grades, sharp turns or when the bus take offs or screeches to a halt!
Choosing the right bus can be a challenge as well. The front of the buseta will usually be festooned with a large bunch of signs indicating where it’s going, be it a mall, a barrio, the metro station, a parque (plaza), or a major thoroughfare. If you’re not sure ask the driver before boarding (“vas al Arkadia?” for example). You can also ask them to let you know when your stop is reached. Other passengers are most than happy to tell you as well, even if you don’t ask them! This may surprise you at first, but Colombians are very friendly and sympathetic towards tourists!
There’s usually a button on one or more posts that will also signal to the driver that you want to get off, or you can just yell “Me deja aca por favor“. If you want to be dropped off where there’s no stop, ask the driver for good measure. You usually exit the bus through the back door, as you don’t want to deal with that chintzy turnstile again!
Busetas aren’t typically air conditioned. It’s rarely that hot in places like Bogotá or Medellín, but it can get rather stuffy when it’s crowded and/or raining.
Note also that quite often bus routes will veer deep into this or that neighborhood before returning to a major thoroughfare, so it will add a few minutes to your ride.
As always, keep your adventurer’s hat on, and as it turns out, your mask on as well the national government just decreed a return to mask usage on all public transportation.
Photo by Colombia Dreaming