Think of BA’s thoroughfares as a jungle and the city buses as the wild beasts that roam, roaring as they tear recklessly down down the narrow streets. The public bus or ‘colectivo’ system in Buenos Aires is daunting, notoriously confusing for first-time users due to the expansive system in which hundreds of separate bus lines operate and the utter lack of helpful, instructive signs indicating routes, destinations, and fares. In fact, the colectivo network may be one of the most user-unfriendly metropolitan public transportation systems – particularly for non-Spanish speakers – and is definitely not safe territory for the timid or the unadventurous.
That said, BA’s colectivos are cheap at 30 cents a ride and usually the most convenient way to get around town. The sheer number of bus lines servicing even the most remote sections of the city ensures that oftentimes getting from some far-flung point A to a distant point B requires walking just a few blocks to the nearest stop. And with the help of the vital annually-updated Guia-T bus map – which appears to be a short novel rather than your average bus map – navigating BA’s colectivos can be a snap.
Aside from that, the buses – often bedecked front to rear in soccer memorabilia, makeshift altars honoring the Virgin Mary and Gauchito Gil, or paraphernalia proudly commemorating the driver’s native barrio and sometimes blasting cumbia or scratchy Soda Stereo hits – are a wonderful slice of original kitsch culture.
Barring the standard signs indicating a stop for a particular numbered bus line, you can pretty much forget about using bus signs as guides. Rather, make the trusty Guia-T your best friend. Pick one of the pocket guides up at any sidewalk kiosk and learn how to chart your route: look up both your starting address and destination and use the grids on each corresponding map to choose the bus that runs closest to both points.
Several European, Asian, and North American cities have adopted multifunctional magnetic cards to be used for public transportation systems… but Buenos Aires isn’t quite there yet. Instead, one sole method of fare payment in the form of machines that only accept change currency have hundreds of thousands of porteños scrambling through coat pockets and under sofa cushions looking for coins to pay to ride the bus each day. The result is a serious shortage of change, a constant bother with which locals are fully accustomed to dealing but has foreigners baffled. The secret? Hold onto your one-peso coins as if they’re made of gold. Truth be told, they’re worth far more than one peso.
Riding the bus is straightforward enough; hail it on the street, board, and tell the driver the amount you intend to pay for your trip – which these days will run you AR$1.10 for a few blocks, $1.20 for most rides, and $1.25 to go to almost the end of the line. The fee is rather arbitrary; tell the driver your destination or just opt for the middle amount when in doubt. As for colectivo etiquette? Pregnant women, children, and the elderly always get priority seating. Stay clear of the door unless you plan to get off at the next stop. And like most things in Buenos Aires, don’t expect anything be clear. The bus only stops if someone buzzes to disembark, and unless you have a good idea of where you are supposed to be getting off, keep your Guia-T (there it is again) in hand and an eye on the street signs to follow the colectivo’s path, ringing the bell a few blocks before your street. And don’t take your time getting off; some drivers seem to be competing in some sort of speedway race and will barely stop the bus completely, making a strategic leap to the sidewalk your best bet for debarking.
When it comes right down to it, if you only plan to spend a short time in Buenos Aires and prefer not to , opt to splurge on cabs, which are dirt-cheap by most standards. Leave the colectivos to those with plenty of time, nerve, and navigational finesse.