If your primary exposure to South America has been TV and movies, you may think of South American transportation as being crowded, dirty, or chaotic.
In reality, bus travel in South America is a comfortable way to travel. Standard bus tickets for the many private companies that navigate from city to city provide a traveler with a reasonably comfortable seat on a bus that’s far cleaner than most distance buses in the United States. Many bus companies even offer “first-class” tickets (with seats that recline, a dedicated hostess, and food service!) The stereotype of crowded South American buses is more accurate to a transportation method known as colectivos.
While colectivos can be a chaotic and at times unpredictable way to travel, if you travel for experience, people watching, and enjoying the journey, colectivos can be an excellent way to save money travel more sustainably than using a private taxi, and have a richer travel experience. In this article will talk a little bit about what colectivos are and how to use them particularly in Peru in the region around Machu Picchu.
What are Colectivos
When I was preparing to travel to South America, I was taught from authoritative travel sources that colectivos are simply shared taxis. In reality, riding a colectivo is an experience is somewhere between a crowded Uber POOL ride and a public bus. Like buses, colectivos follow a specific route, and you’ll be able to ask the driver to stop at any town or point of interest along the way. Like Uber carpools, you’ll be sharing your ride with an unknown number of other individuals.
In modern-day South America, colectivos are generally 15 passenger vans or sprinter vans (the type commonly used for tours). Colectivos leave from a central location- the colectivo transfer station – whenever a van is full. With a few exceptions, a colectivo won’t leave until all the seats are sold. If you’re the first passenger purchase a ticket and board the colectivo, you may wait an hour to depart, but if you purchase a ticket to a nearly full colectivo, your colectivo may pull out and head to your destination within a few minutes.
Can Tourists take Colectivos to Machu Picchu?
Because Peru has allowed private companies to manage the roads and rails between Cusco, Peru and Machu Picchu, there’s no way to take a colectivo (or any vehicle) all the way to Machu Picchu. However, taking a colectivo part of the way to Machu Picchu can be a huge savings compared to the cost of a train ticket from Cusco to Aguas-Calientes (the “base camp” all travelers must stop at before the final ascent to Machu Picchu via local buses.)
The train ticket from Cusco to Machu Picchu can cost over USD $100, one-way, during the peak of tourist season, while a colectivo traversing the same distance should cost well under USD $10, and likely closer to USD $5.
Cost to take a Colectivo in Peru
in 2019, heading to Machu Pichu from Cusco, I paid:
10 Peruvian Soles (about USD $2.75) for a colectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, Peru
Return trip (2 legs)
2 soles (about USD 50¢) for collectivo from Ollantaytambo, Peru to Urubamba, Peru
6 soles (about USD #1.50) for collectivo from Urubamba, Peru to Cusco, Peru
How to get colectivo tickets in Cusco Peru
To take a colectivo to anywhere surrounding Cusco (including Machu Picchu, Urubamba, Salt Flats, etc), walk, bus, or take a taxi or Uber to Avenida Grau N° 496 in Cusco, Peru As you approach this building, you’ll see a garage with white vans and signs advertising destinations. In 2019, there was no ticket counter- you simply tell someone on staff your destination and they will help you pay for your ticket and board the appropriate van. Having some Spanish basics (words like where, how much, cost, ticket, etc.) Is helpful but probably not absolutely essential.
If you have a local contact- even a tour guide or a particularly friendly waiter in a restaurant- you may want to ask them what the going rate should be. Without ticket prices posted, it’s not unheard of for prices for foreigners to be doubled or even tripled in cost. Knowing what it should cost can help you navigate if the price you are given is excessive.
My Most Memorable Experience Riding Colectivos in South America
In Peru, colectivos can be both a form of personal transportation and a way to inexpensively transport goods between villages. On my first solo colectivo ride, I purchased my ticket from Cusco to Oyantaytambo, where I planned to overnight before taking a train the rest of the way to Machu Picchu. As I boarded the colectivo, I was the second from last passenger to purchase a ticket. There was one other tourists aboard my colectivo, and the remaining passengers were locals headed to work or to visit family in outlying villages.
Just when I thought that our colectivo was filled to the brim with passengers in every possible seat in the van, the driver walked through the van garage with an arm load of packages. Most fit easily, but one large box clearly marked as a karaoke machine was pressed into the small gap between the seat and the sliding side door used by disembarking backseat passengers. The box shifted all of us in the front seat better uncomfortably, but by the time we were clearing the city and beginning to see some of the Peruvian landscape, we’d forgotten about the box.
Since colectivos stop at many villages along the route, at each one the driver had to get out, unload the karaoke machine, helped the passenger exit, collect their bags from the luggage area in the back, reload the karaoke machine, shut the side door, and climb back behind the driver seat to head to our next stop. It was about an hour and 20 minutes into our trip from Cusco to Machu Picchu that we dropped off the third or fourth passenger. Unbeknownst to us, as we pulled away, something was very wrong – the large and well-marked karaoke machine was left on the curb in a medium-sized village in Peru!
Unnoticed by either the passengers or the driver, it took about 10 minutes for someone in the back to quietly say, “karaoke?” to which the driver replied “KARAOKE!!!” and we all realized the karaoke machine had been left behind – sitting on the curb by a colectivo stop. With the driver panicked and the passengers trying not to laugh, the colectivo pulled a U-turn in the middle of the highway and sped back to the village, all of us hoping that are abandoned karaoke machine would be where we left it.
Thankfully, after a few minutes of tense concern, the curbside karaoke machine appeared on the horizon- being scrutinized by passerby’s but not yet taken. With the cheer from the entire colectivo, the karaoke machine was reloaded and traveled with us to our final destination where it was received gratefully, and without communication of the story of its near loss.
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a female, fat, one-bag traveler, and journalling it all on WanderBig.com