La Paz introduced another revolutionary transport system this year, the illustrious Puma Katari. There has been a hell of a lot of media hype and excitement about this service recently. So what is it exactly? To put it simply, it’s just a regular bus.
Most people in Bolivia can’t afford a car so rely on public transport. Up until now, La Paz’ transport system has featured four service types.
In English we would call these minivans. At best, they seat 7 to 15 cramped passengers in extreme discomfort. Minibuses run a route chosen by the driver, with the most important stops displayed on the front window. Some have a vocador who yells upcoming destinations out the window and collects fares from passengers who can board or get off anywhere they like. If someone at the back wants to get off, then everyone in front of them must get off as well to let them past then get back on again, a tiresome process to say the least. As you can imagine, this sort of constant delay significantly contributes to La Paz’s traffic mayhem. The standard fare is 1.5 BOB (US$0.22c).
I’m not sure why they are called Micros because these refitted US style school buses are actually kind of big. During peak hour, passengers cram on until nobody else can possibly fit which makes for a seriously uncomfortable ride. Like minibuses, they stop anywhere they feel like to let passengers on and off. Worst of all, Micros are really, slow, especially uphill which is pretty much everywhere in La Paz. The standard fare is 1 BOB (US$0.15c).
Fastest of the lot, these shared taxi services follow similar routes to Micros and Minibuses but are much quicker and more comfortable. The standard fare is around 3 BOB (US$ 0.40)
Taxis are everywhere so it shouldn’t take more than a few seconds to find one. Gypsy taxis are rundown old rust buckets with a cardboard sign that says taxi on the windshield, generally cheaper but also more dangerous due to the potential for being kidnapped. Radio taxis belong to a company which has their name printed on the car and a sign on the top, safer but more expensive. A short taxi fare can be as low as 7 BOB (US$1).
These vehicles are all privately run. The Chofer (driver) often owns the vehicle himself, is responsible for it’s upkeep and receives all the profits minus a small amount paid to a syndicate. Choferes can also choose their own routes and hours, although many regularly work 12 hour days or more to make ends meet.
Due to their freelance nature, Choferes are renowned for providing consistently lousy service – typically rude, obnoxious and argumentative. However, numbering in their tens of thousands, they form a part of a powerful union. Whenever the union is unhappy with the government, they block off every major thoroughfare which brings the entire city to standstill. Choferes that try to work instead of going on strike get rocks thrown through their windshields.
Back to the Puma Katari. After a lifetime of suffering the above lousy transport options, Paceños (people from La Paz) were delighted with the arrival of something more civilized. Never mind that it’s just a normal bus like the rest of the world has been using for decades, the Puma Katari is modern, spacious, comfortable, cheap and even has free WiFi. Unlike previous forms of transport, passengers must get on and off at dedicated bus stops which makes for a much faster ride.
Welcome to the present, Bolivia.