Chilean Colectivo: Taxi for Communal Folk

The scene is a common one in Hollywood films, two strangers hail the same cab and run to open the door at the same time. The ensuing dialogue is either “outta my way, that’s my taxi,” or if the plot is about destiny, love and friendship, “go ahead, you take it… oh, no, no, by all means, you take it…” Almost never do you see two complete strangers take the same taxi together.

In U.S. cities, taxis are either solitary rides, or those shared with family or friends. So, it was a great surprise to discover that in Chile, there is a mode of travel that is a step above riding the bus, and yet a step down from my former world of private, commercial city transportation, namely the colectivo (pronounced co-lec-tee-bo). Painted dark blue/black, and bearing a rooftop sign, with a number for a specific list of destinations or route, the colectivo is a communal taxi for anyone who dares to climb in.

For the price of about 450 pesos (95 cents, US), one care share a ride with complete strangers to any destination along the driver’s designated route. Colectivos can hold up to four passengers, and come in all degrees of conditions. Some are immaculately maintained, while others may look like a “chop shop” had a go at the interior. The same extreme degree can also be applied to the skill of the driver. Some are very calm and professional, many will leave you feeling like you’ve just ridden through the streets of Mumbai.

One of the best features of a colectivo, apart from the cheap fare, is that you don’t have to hail them, making a public spectacle of yourself, they’ll hail you. Colectivo drivers are constantly looking to fill every available seat, and will toot their horns at just about everyone walking on the sidewalk. They’ve also been known to cut across several lanes of traffic just to secure that passenger. Colectivo drivers are very competitive, not just on the road with other drivers, but also among their own ranks, and take great pleasure in beating a competitor to a potential fare.

The real civility is found within the colectivo itself. Pay the fare and give your destination to the driver once you are fully settled in a seat. A written destination will work for those who do not speak Spanish. Try to avoid any unnecessary physical contact with others. While this is a shared ride, other passengers are entitled to their privacy. Don’t be afraid to take the front passenger seat, if it is available. It is also acceptable to engage the driver in a conversation, or not at all. Lastly, exit the vehicle from the right (sidewalk-side). If it is not possible, wait for the driver to advise when it is safe to exit.

While private taxis are still very affordable compared to other world cities, colectivos are hard to beat for being easy on the pocketbook, as well as concrete-battered feet.

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