A Brief History of Bolivian Transport

Magnum P.I. negotiates the busy street

Say what you will about 3rd World Countries, but their public transportation systems are not to be trifled with. Of course, taking a trifle on anything moving is a mistake and will only end in tears and a shirt that looks like the entire Rolling Stones entourage puked on you, but in the other sense of the word I mean transport in Bolivia was quite good. Very cheap, and short waiting times unless you’re more than 10Kms out of the city. In that case you might die from starvation just waiting to get picked up. I’ll only deal with land transport here today. Air and Sea have their own sensibilities, profundities and legal issues, and probably deserve tales of their own anyway, so Land it is. Here begins our comprehensive and entirely factual account of the various transport modes (some private, some public) in the bustling metropolis of Cochabamba, Bolivia, helpfully transcribed in order of passengers taken. You may notice commuter numbers are considerably higher than might be considered ‘safe’ in other countries. Other countries need to live a little.


Transport: Bicycle
Passengers: 1-4
Comfort Level: Good if you get the seat.

My First Bike. Notice the lack of scantily-clad women in the photo.

The Incas first brought bicycles to Bolivia around 400AD, but they were made of solid stone and weighed around 4 tonnes. This meant there were numerous downsides, such as A) after ordering, they took about 2 years to get made, and B) after giving yourself a hernia to get them moving, once rolling downhill they could reach speeds in excess of 1000mph and usually killed most living things in their way, on top of them, or in neighboring countries. As you can imagine, helmets back then were also cumbersome, but useful if you felt you were 3ft too tall and enjoyed the ability to walk. Like all things engineered in the Americas, it was found that Asian imports were lighter and cheaper. Thus, several centuries later, Bolivian bicycle numbers are repopulated every year from china. Most of them are black, with gold chinese lettering on the frame, and long hand levers under the handles for the brakes. At last count there were 150,000 chinese bicycles in Cochabamba, although some have said I simply invented this figure on a whim. I’d like to see them do any better.

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Transport: Motorbike
Passengers: 1-6
Comfort Level: Not good for the middle guy.

The most prolific form of motorbike in Bolivia is the venerable Jawa. In production since 1929, and built in Czechoslovakia of all places, which should have been a warning of sorts, most of that initial year’s orders seem to have ended up in Bolivia. Not to be confused with the faceless creatures from StarWars, Jawas are big and heavy and appear to run on filthy motor oil, rather than gasoline. We once hit a dog on a Jawa and everyone escaped unharmed, even the bike, which slid along the road on it’s side and destroyed a department store and nearby army barracks in a massive fireball.  Motorbikes make for great family trips in Bolivia. I’ve seen 6 people on at once before, or 2 guys carting window panes through the city engaged in what must have been a bet of some sort. Our science teacher Mr Nelson took Sam and I on the back of his Yamaha one time and we jumped a drainage dip in the middle of the road. I banged my chin on the top of Sam’s head and nearly put a tooth through my lip, which would have been cool ’cause I could have filled the hole with that lip ring I’d been begging Mum for.

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Transport: Taxi
Passengers: 0-11
Comfort Level: Front Seat’s fine.

Our first stop on the public transport section of the tour is the venerable Bolivian Taxi, which in all likelihood is exactly the same as taxis in your country, except affordable and completely devoid of comfort. No, most of them were great, except some of the dodgier ones had seats made of a metal frame wrapped in plastic cord, which was about as comfortable as driving in a fishing net. About 95% of Bolivian taxis are Corollas, and the wagons are best because the driver will open the back and let you sit on the tailgate, feet dragging on the highway, losing friends by the minute to asphalt-flavoured death. Usually the windscreen is full of registration and toll stickers and there’s a tiny hole somewhere in the middle so the driver can peer out into oncoming traffic. There are 2 types of Bolivian taxi drivers: Old ones that know where they’re going and will get you there in a few days, and young ones who think you need driving gloves even when stuck in traffic and shirt buttons are optional accessories.

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Transport: Trufi
Passengers: 1-38
Comfort Level: Varies. Avoid the foldaway seats.

Trufi. Upper level seats were cheapest.

Depending of the size of the passengers and their assorted baggage, Bolivians can cram a great deal of people into a Trufi (True-Fee). Trufi’s are just minivans that run on bus routes, but faster and more comfortable than actually being on a bus. Or getting an enema.  I personally have seen 73 people get out of a trufi but it was very late and I was in the process of digesting 5 times the recommended monthly intake of steak and may have been a little delirious. I think some of them were clowns. You could get across town in a Trufi for about 20c or so and kids used to stand at the bus stops and yell out the intended destination in a pitch approaching J-sharp. Not a bad way to make money if you’re not already a member of the Bee Gees. Once Jeremy and I were on a trufi and a drunk guy in the back quietly asked us to please exit the van and return to our respective countries of birth. I can’t blame him; Jeremy was incredibly gassy that day. Santa Cruz, a city south-east of Cochabamba, is warm and humid, so the trufi drivers keep their sliding doors open, which adds to the excitement. Your stop is just a commando roll away.

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Transport: Micro
Passengers: 1.5-187
Comfort Level: Depends on who you’re sitting next to.

Micro. King of the Road

Our public transport tour ends with the mighty Micro. (Mee-crow) I didn’t spend much time on Micros because they were quite big and sometimes it would take you 3 days just to shuffle past everyone to your seat way in the back, by which point you’d already missed your stop 7 times. Micros were by far the cheapest way to travel, but also the slowest. They pack them really full of people, so much so, that the only real fun way to experience them is to hang out the door for dear life whilst avoiding trees and power poles. Because most Micros were about 100 years old and all the electronics were gone, the driver would connect the horn cable to the gear stick and press the bare wire against the shifter with his finger to blow the horn. Which is a pretty good idea when you think about it, especially since Bolivian drivers honk their horns every 2 seconds. The greatest thing I ever saw on a micro (let’s be honest, saw EVER) was when I was stuck in gridlock behind one in David’s car. As usual the micro was packed to the brim and a guy jammed in the door whipped it out and started peeing on the door handle of an adjacent parked car. It warms my heart really. Mostly when I think of the owner returning and attempting to open their car. Happy Days.

And there’s a brief look into Bolivian transport. If you’ve got favourite memories of your own, stick ’em in the comments! And fill out the survey.

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YOU'VE been to Bolivia! What's the best way to get around?

  • Trufi (75%)
  • Taxi (13%)
  • Motorbike (13%)
  • Micro (0%)
  • Bicycle (0%)

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5 thoughts on “A Brief History of Bolivian Transport

  1. you forgot to mention that all the taxis are transformers! you get to pretend your driving in the drivers seat while the driver actually drives from the passenger seat.

  2. I like taxis best, except most of the drivers are too busy checking you (and another other girls passing by) to drive and actually stay on road.

  3. taxis are more exciting.

    particularly when the driver has you hanging out the window to make sure some essential part of the car hasn’t fallen off.

    oh- or when you could count the white stripes on the road through the holes in the floor…

    its all part of the “my car is so bad it won’t get stolen!” mentality… 😛

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