If you’re anywhere in Latin America, buses are not mere modes of transportation. They are literally adrenaline on wheels! Of course, they’re the least expensive as well. So if you’re running on a bootstrap, buses are your best bet around the town. What they lack in convenience, they more than make up for in speed.
Given their ubiquity and efficiency, it makes sense that you learn what to call one when stranded. You see, a bus is a bus no matter what English-speaking country you go to. But Spanish isn’t that dead-beat. Every country has its own take on what to call these indispensable devils. What’s Spanish without its colloquialisms?
The generic term that should get understood everywhere is ómnibus. While easily understood, the word will earn you a few snickers for sure. That’s because it sounds quite bookish, i.e. old-fashioned, to most Spanish ears.
The Southern Cone Colectivos
This region of South America includes Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. In their neck of the woods, the word is colectivo. You could also shorten it to just cole.
While cole comes from colectivo, the latter itself comes from a much longer vehículos de transporte colectivo. That translates into collective transportation vehicle. Sounds pretty contrived, no?
Colectivos are most common in big cities like Buenos Aires. They run fixed routes and pick and drop off people along the way. The driver is conveniently called colectivero. He is the dude who sold you your tickets back in the day. Since 1995, though, the job has fallen on ticket vending machines.
Older folks still prefer ómnibus for all buses but the word primarily refers to what has come to replace los colectivos in Buenos Aires. These are swankier, greener, and more modern. Ómnibus is also used for all kinds of buses in Uruguay.
In the neighboring Brazil, they speak Portuguese. They have trams, which they call bondinho in their language. Or bonde for short. This word has also entered Argentina as bondi. Such words are referred to as Lunfardo, a non-standard Spanish dialect from Buenos Aires. So, if you’re in that city, you’re also gonna hear a lot of bondi.
Bondinho itself has a very interesting story in case you care. The word sounds kinda like bond in English and for a reason. You see, streetcars were first introduced to Brazil in the middle of the nineteenth century. And the ones that did it was a British company. Now, this company needed dough to keep the enterprise afloat, a lot of it. So they decided to start selling bonds to raise capital. These bonds were often sold in the form of bonus tickets and came to become quite ubiquitous. So ubiquitous that the locals started associating the very word with the whole enterprise. This is how tranvía (streetcar) itself became bondinho in Brazil. This corrupted to bondi and entered neighboring Argentina as a Lunfardo term for buses.
Long-distance buses that connect cities are generally known as micro, short for microbús. However, this is not a standard practice. In some places, the definitions are reversed, i.e. long-distance is colectivo and intra-city, micro.
The Peruvian Combis
Technically, what passes off as bus here is actually a small van with a very distinct personality. These vans are typically from Volkswagen® and Lima calls them combis.
Combi is a curt derivation from the original Kombinationfahrzeug. Needless to say, it’s German. The word originally referred to a specific class of vans built by Volkswagen during the 50s.
There’s also micros. A micro is nothing but a bigger combi. Other than size, there’s absolutely no difference in how the two look. Other than Peru, neighboring countries like Bolivia and Chile also have micros.
Micros and combis enjoy a reputation for being rash and particularly dangerous. Actually, that holds true for all public buses in all parts of Latin and Central America. To be fair, these are also often the cheapest modes of transport and, the quickest too. They dash with unforgiving speeds along every possible arterial street in the city. This sometimes costs lives. In fact combi accidents accounted for nearly half of all road accidents in Lima in the year 2011. And things have not improved drastically at least as of this writing.
Although combi started off as a brand name, thanks to Volkswagen, the word has now become generic. So generic that the most common brands of combis today are not even from Volkswagen! Today, most are either Toyota or Nissan. Bigger micros also run on Mitsubishi. That being said, combis are consistently on their way out these days. Like in Argentina, these are being replaced by swankier and modern ómnibuses.
Goats and Ladders in Colombia
Chiva is the word in Ecuador, Panama, and Colombia. Originally the word refers to a baby-goat. Chivas are the lifeline of the Andean countryside in these countries. Typically, these buses are brightly painted in red, yellow, and blue with local figures. You’ll never find a bland chiva here. It’s not a chiva if not a local art gallery on wheels!
The most interesting thing about chivas is that every single one of them has a personality of its own. And I really mean personality: Every driver has a unique nickname for his chiva. Isn’t that cool? The personalization doesn’t stop there. I already told you about the riot of colors all over the body. They are also customized body-wise. So, it’s just the chassis that remains original; everything else is tailored for the job. The seats are modified as benches, the windows turned into doors, etc.
Most chivas also have a ladder that you’d use if you wanted to climb up to the rack on top. That’s right, in rural Latin America you can, and often do, sit on top of the bus! This is the reason chivas are also sometimes called escalera, Spanish for ladder. And it’s not just people who use them; you also use it to carry baggage to the rack. Even livestock. This is probably the reason they are called chiva in the first place. I could go on and on about chivas and fill an entire evening filling you in on their history and culture. But I guess this should be enough for now.
The Red Devils of Panama City
Welcome to the land of los diablos rojos (the Red Devils). That’s what buses are called in this city. I can understand it might not be very comforting to ride a vehicle named after Satan himself! These are old hand-me-down school buses from the States that run through city streets. They also connect Panama City with the neighboring towns and villages.
The most defining feature of these vehicles is their appearance. They are typically covered in super-dramatic graffiti and streamers, red being the dominant color. Since they run fixed routes, their destination is conveniently painted across the windshield. The route information is also reinforced by the drivers yelling their lungs out at every pit stop.
Like their other Latin American counterparts, Red Devils are notorious for rash driving. This means crashes and incidents of rode rage are commonplace. This should explain the “devil” in their name. To make things more unpredictable, they rarely adhere to their schedules. The doors are often kept open throughout the drive due to overcrowding. If this doesn’t sound adventurous to you, I don’t know what does. But a rock-bottom ticket price more than justifies every risk involved.
The graffiti and paintings are rich enough to give major art institutions a run for their money. You’ll find everything from Speedy Gonzales to Jesus in there. There’s also a generous dose of borderline porn! And then there’s the text. These are no less interesting in their own right and carry a lot of wit and emotion. Oh and did I tell you about the stunning skylights? You’ve gotta see these buses after sundown. That’s when these psychedelic bubble lamps come alive and turn the place into a virtual disco!
These buses don’t just have a visual personality; they even have a voice of their own. And just as the painted graffiti, their sounds serve to reflect their drivers’ personality. This voice can be heard off the speakers mounted atop. They blare out everything from reggaeton to salsa and dominate the scene well. Diablos rojos are like fiestas on wheels! That is so long as you don’t mind the unprecedented overcrowding.
If you can afford, I suggest you plan a trip to the city soon. That’s because these icons of urban Panama are already on their way out. Not being terribly energy-efficient, they run the risk of being phased out in due time. Modern “Metrobuses” have already started showing up in places. They are the future. Eventually, diablos rojos will only exist in fond memories of the older generation. If you noticed, this is the direction most Latin American countries are taking. Everyone is looking forward to more energy efficiency and better comfort. That’s why everything that’s iconic, from combis to diablos rojos, is destined to retire. It’s only a matter of time. And local Panamanians are pretty nostalgic about it already.
The Children of Dominican Republic
What runs here is not exactly a bus in the truest sense. These are small weathered trucks or vans locally known as guaguas. Smaller ones are also fondly referred to as guaguitas. The name, according to some, comes from wáwa. That’s Quechua for kid. They say it’s because of their small size when they first came to be.
Another theory pegs its origin in the Canary Islands! That could explain why guagua also refers to a public bus across the Pond in the Canaries and in Spain. The word is no stranger to Puerto Rico either. And also Cuba where they spell it wawa, closer to its Quechua origins.
Coming back to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, guaguas run fixed routes. They serve more as shared taxis than as buses, picking people en route until they’re packed to the brim. Goes without saying, comfort is the last thing one should expect here, but they do save you a pretty penny. Guaguas connect major cities and only run while the sun shines. The closest Stateside analogy I can think of would be the jitneys or dollar vans of New York and Miami. Of course, guaguas are nowhere as comfortable or posh as their American counterparts.
The best thing about guaguas is that you can just hail one wherever you see one. There’s no fixed bus-stop you need to rush in order to catch a guagua. Once on board, you can again get off wherever you wish to. How’s that for commute personalization? That’s why I said, they serve more as shared taxis than as public buses.
Wanna find out where the guagua goes before you board one? Listen carefully to the cobrador (the guy hanging in the doorway). This guy’s central job description is to yell out the destinations’ names as loud as his lungs would allow. Despite the loudness, he’s mighty unintelligible which is why I said, listen carefully. Some guaguas even have signs that spell out the destination for you but don’t count on them being there every time.
The only downside to this mode of transportation is that it’s frustratingly sluggish. That’s because the cobrador must squeeze in as much fare off each commute as possible. This means the guagua stopping more often than it should. And every time it stops, the cobrador would go around convincing potential passengers. It’s quite fun to watch, if you ask me. The slowpoke pace offers a great opportunity for you to explore the city as a tourist.
For intra-city commutes, you might prefer a slightly faster and better regulated option. These are actual buses and are run and subsidized by the government. Locals often refer to them as guaguas too which might be a source of confusion in the beginning. A more technically correct term for them is OMSA. The abbreviation expands to Oficina Metropolitana de Servicios de Autobuses (Office of Metropolitan Bus Service). You can call them OMSA buses. These are significantly cheaper than actual guaguas which means extreme overcrowding during peak hours.
Camels in Cuba?
Cuba has wawas. But they’re small and Cubans depend on public transport more than anyone else. If you know anything about the country, you’d know how owning a car is a big deal there, thanks to the American-imposed trade embargo. This level of dependency on public transportation means wawas are far from adequate. This is why they also have camellos.
Camello is Spanish for camel but don’t get me wrong; there’s no actual camel in Cuba! The thing gets its name from its weird shape. You won’t find them anywhere else on the planet! They were imported from Soviet Russia. Some also came from China too.
More than bus, these are like pickup trucks with a driver’s cabin that tows along a passenger trailer. This trailer often comes with a couple of humps on top which lends it the camel analogy. Some of them came from Spain, Seville in particular. These were the buses that Seville decommissioned after the city graduated to CNG-powered buses. Instead of recycling the decommissioned trailer buses, they decided to donate them to Cuba. How sweet. Cuba appreciated this gesture. And you can tell that by the Seville coat of arms these buses still bear!
You can also find a lot of American school buses, the yellow ones, in Havana. How come? What about the embargo? Well, these came via Canada. Canada never had a grudge against Cuba, you see. So they didn’t mind picking up a bunch of second-hand buses off their neighbor and donating them to Cuba. Lucky Cuba, so many awesome friends!
Like their Latin American cousins, camellos are extremely overcrowded and uncomfortable. But that’s because they’re also cheap and quick. Unfortunately, they’re on the brink of extinction. In fact, these hulking 18-wheel beasts have already vanished from the streets of Havana. Their metallic roar is all but a fading memory to most young Cubans in the capital. But the camel’s Chinese successor is hardly a match when it comes to volumes. Camellos could easily ferry upward of 400 passengers in one go!
The good news, however, is that camellos are still very much a reality outside of the capital. Don’t know for how long though. Sooner or later, they’ll go the way of the dodo too; but for now, they’re doing well.
The Peso Transporter
In Mexico, the most common term for bus is camión. Camión also refers to a truck which is why there’s a certain ambiguity at times. To avoid such confusion, trucks are sometimes called camión de carga. The common term in Baja California, though, is calafia. The name probably comes from the legend of Calafia which is an interesting story in itself.
Minibuses are generally referred to as micros in Mexico, just as they do in the Southern Cone. Folks in the capital, though, prefer the term pesero. The word derives from peso and owes to the fact that they used to charge a flat fare of one peso per ride back in the day. Pesero referred to the fare collector and eventually, the vehicle itself.
Originally, they were referred to as taxi colectivo and were cars instead of buses. I am talking about the 70s. With time, they got replaced by minibuses and the name changed from taxi colectivo to pesero. Peseros ferry people not only around the city but also to neighboring towns in the state. In fact, similar services also exist in places like Guanajuato. But they’re increasingly moving away from Volkswagen in favor of other more eco-friendly and comfortable options.
Buses can be found in every town and village of Latin America. They lend a unique character to the places they connect and are a must of you wish to experience the authentic Latino lifestyle. Buses in all English-speaking country are called bus. But that’s not the case with the Spanish-speaking parts of the world. Here, every country has a unique name for its bus. These names are as interesting as the buses themselves. We have already discussed some; here’s a few more:
- Chile – liebre, góndola
- Costa Rica – lata, bus, casadora
- Honduras – burro
- Perú – microbio
- Venezuela – camionetica
In case you have trouble keeping so many names in mind, just remember, camión can be understood almost everywhere. Even more universal is the English word itself. Yes, they do understand bus! But where’s the fun in being generic? Go local, use local words. Your Latino friends will love you for that. Ever been to one of those places? Got any more names that I should know about? Please tell me more about them in the comments below!