7 Taxi Tips for Traveling in South America

Taxi-Taking Tips for South America Travel
By Mara Rutherford

Hi students! Are you planning some South America travel? Here a few tips from an American living in Peru for taking taxis. Remember to read these tips before taking a taxi. Be safe!

As the wife of an American diplomat, I’m beginning to think of myself as a serial expat. Peru is the third country I’ve lived in besides the United States, and I’m so excited to call Latin America home for the first time. So far, Lima has been warm and welcoming (especially coming from our last post, Russia). But, there is one thing I don’t like about Lima: taking taxis. For the past three months, before our car finally arrived from the U.S., I’ve had to take taxis to go anywhere, even a quick trip to the grocery store. With two small kids in tow, it has been more challenging than I expected. Most taxi rides include abrupt stops, rough speed bumps, and open windows which let in lots of noise and pollution. I usually arrive at my destination with a churning stomach and a headache. The experience is similar in many other Latin American countries. Most visitors to Latin America will have to take a taxi at least a few times, so to save you a little trouble, here are seven of the most valuable tips I’ve learned:

1) Avoid street taxis. Not only are they not as safe (the embassy warns against using them), but the cars are usually pretty beat up. Negotiating the fare is standard, but if you’re a gringo like me, you’ll inevitably be given a higher price. I’ve had taxi drivers simply tell me to close the door and drive away when I’ve attempted to bargain.

2) Instead, use a taxi company. This way, you summon a cab by calling the company or using an app. Most importantly, this is more secure, since apps like Easy Taxi require their drivers to be registered in the system. That way, if something does go wrong, you’ll be able to give the police a name and license plate number. You can use the Uber app the same way you do in America, which means you don’t have to carry change (always annoying since ATMs rarely give out small change). Uber also requires background checks on their drivers. Both apps have set prices, meaning you don’t have to negotiate with the drivers, and the cars are almost always nicer.

3) Learn some “taxi Spanish.” Even if you don’t speak Spanish well, there are a few easy words to learn that will make a big difference. Right (derecha), left (izquierda), straight or forward (al frente), here (I learned aqui in Spanish class, but acá is much more common in Latin America), and stop (pare) will get you almost anywhere you need to go. Por favor, gracias, and no entiendo (I don’t understand) don’t hurt either.

4) Make sure you know the directions ahead of time. Firstly, taxi drivers often don’t know where they’re going in Latin America, which is strange because most have GPS on their phones. As a passenger, you’ll often have to give the driver directions. That’s where all your taxi Spanish will come in handy. Secondly, it’s a good idea to make sure you know where you’re going, because if the taxi driver veers off in another direction, then you’ll know what he’s doing. Fortunately, I have a Peruvian SIM card, but if you are a tourist relying on wifi, make sure you load the directions ahead of time.

5) Wear a seat-belt. Americans are a little overly cautious, I’ll admit, but considering how crazy the driving is here, it’s always a good idea to wear a seat-belt. Half the time, I can’t find the ones in the back seat. Before your driver pulls away (which will be about two seconds after your rear end hits the seat), make sure you can find all the seat belts, especially if you’ve got little ones with you. More often than not, you’ll need to raise the seat up to find those pesky belts, and that’s a lot harder to do once everyone is piled into the car.

6) Avoid “smash and grabs” by keeping your purse on the floor by your feet and your door locked. This is very important. If possible, arrange for a driver from the airport. It’s safer and simpler (and let’s be honest, it’s kind of fun to have someone holding up a sign with your name on it when you arrive in a new place). If you have luggage in the back of the cab, make sure your driver gets out of the taxi before you do. The last thing you want is your cab driver making off with your luggage while you stand in disbelief watching his tail lights fade in the distance.

7) And last but not least, locals don’t tip taxi drivers in Latin America. While the driver will happily accept your money, it isn’t necessary or expected.

Mara Rutherford is a journalist-turned-novelist inspired by her travels around the world. Along with her diplomat husband and two sons, she currently lives in Lima, Peru, where she is slowly eating her way across the country.
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