El Sapo and los micros!

(The toad and the buses, by Hadley)

Most weekdays, I take a small “micro” bus to the University. This system of small buses, while very convenient, is deeply, deeply confusing!  There are at least 40 different bus lines (for a city that you can walk end to end in about 45 minutes!), and many buses with different numbers drive roughly the same route through the main city, but with important differences at one end or the other (for example, I can take the 501, the 503, the 505, the 506, the 508, or the 510 but NOT the 509).  Bus numbers and details of the routes are noted on cards in the front windows, but these can be very difficult to read as these micros drive very, very fast through the crowded streets of Valparaiso. (For example, here is my favorite bus, the 505, stopped on the street in December because student protesters had braved tear gas to pile desks and chairs in the middle of the street to support the striking port workers!)

My favorite micro, the 510, stuck in a student protest in December.

Normally, the drivers are paid per passenger, so they race from one stop to the next, attempting to pick up as many passengers as possible. (I pay the equivalent of 70 cents to ride a bus about 3 miles to the University. I think it takes about 10-15 minutes).  Sometimes, the buses literally seem to be racing each other in order to get to stops first and pick up more people.  To add to the confusion, people basically get on or off just about anywhere they want. You can wave down a micro as you walk along any street, and they will typically stop for you, even if it isn’t an official bus stop. Similarly, if you are on the bus and decide you want to stop anywhere along the route, you can ring the bell or just tell the driver and they will probably attempt to pull over and stop, or at least slow down. They open the doors well before they come to a stop, and many people hop right on and off buses while they are still moving.  Then again, sometimes the drivers don’t want to stop, and you will drive way past your actual stop before convincing the driver to slow down.  

To add to the fun, people hawking a variety of things will temporarily step onto buses to sell their ice cream, candy bars, selfie sticks, or USB drives. They usually stick around for a few minutes and then ask the driver to pull over so they can hop off again.  Sometimes, there are musicians busking ON the buses! They wander up and down the aisles playing guitars and asking for money. Given the lurching, bone-rattling zooming and bucking that is happening, this is an impressive feat. When there are no buskers on the bus, bus drivers will often play music of their choice over speakers, which creates a pretty festive feeling on the bus.  Combine this with the “mudflap” girl decals they often paste above their windows, and it can feel like a crazy party scene on the bus!

Despite all the wackiness, you typically only need to wait a few minutes for a bus, since they come pretty regularly.  And the reason they come regularly brings me to “el sapo.” Translated as The Toad (or Frog), it refers to “one who is always watching.”  These men essentially volunteer to stand at a spot along the route and keep track of when buses from various routes have last gone by. They carry notepads or clipboard and appear to have developed a fairly complicated system for keeping track of the last time they saw, for example, a 510 bus go by.  The bus drivers stop to consult with el sapo to understand whether they should slow down or speed up. Because the drivers are paid per customer, it is in their best interest to not follow another bus too closely, but instead be as evenly distributed as possible. The drivers will typically pass along a small tip to el sapo for the information.  My understanding is that this is entirely unofficial–these men have just stepped into this role. They aren’t paid by the bus company or the government and they don’t have a salary; they survive on the tips they are given by the drivers. I’m guessing they make several thousand pesos per day (perhaps $10 or a bit more?) It seems like an incredibly dangerous job–they jump in and out of traffic, often standing in the middle of two lanes of rushing buses and cars.

This blog won’t let me post videos, but you can see a couple of videos I’ve taken of these guys at work here:


And here:


And here is a really wonderful recording of a sapo calling out bus numbers and times for drivers in nearby Viña del Mar.  Let me know how you do understanding Chilean Spanish!



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