Barranquilla officials better get a clue quick about their taxis or risk becoming known worldwide as a city where taxis take tourists for a ride. And I don’t mean for a ride the good sense.
Truth is, it may already be too late, as across Colombia, including Barranquilla itself, you hear stories about the wayward ways of taxis in Barranquilla. Since I arrived in this city on Friday, I have spent way too much time haggling and arguing with taxi drivers over what they want to charge. And here all this time I thought concern over petty street crime and not becoming a statistic would be my Number One preoccupation. Nope, it’s been the taxistas . The taxi drivers – not all, but too many of them – will try to get as much money out of you one way or another. They either jack up the price because you are foreigner or will literally rob you. This is the first city in the world I’ve visited in which you have to be seriously worried about whether your taxi driver is driving you to where you wish to go or to some secluded or sketchy part of town where either working alone or with others he will rob and dump you on the side of the street. From locals, from police, from hotel operators, I’ve heard a half-dozen stories of taxis engaging in criminal behavior, not necessarily violent, just using enough force to have you hand over all your cash, camera and whatever else you have in your possession.
When I left the carnival parade on Saturday, I tried for almost an hour to get a taxi with no luck. They were either busy or did not want to go to the center of town, the location of my hotel. By the way, taxi drivers in Colombia routinely refuse service. If they don’t like where you are going – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad neighborhood – they don’t go. For any reason – too much traffic, too far on the other side of town, they don’t like the way you wear your hair, your polka dot jacket offends them – they will say “yo no alcanzo ese lugar” – translation: get out of my cab!
As I walked with the throngs of carnival revelers leaving the parade site, I came across a couple of cops standing on a street corner. I jokingly asked what does it take to get a taxi to agree to drive to the center of town – and one that doesn’t come up with dozens of reasons to force you to pay an outrageous sum. The cops asked where was I headed and I produced the hotel card with the address. They asked where was I from and immediately began to caution me about taxis. They said an American tourists just the day before had been driven to an area where two other men working with the taxi driver forced him out of the cab, took his money, cell phone, camera and other items, and took off. They said some taxis are not who they say they are, driving around preying on visitors.
The cops stepped in to get me a taxi home. They started stopping cabs to ask if they could drive me to my hotel and how much they would charge. But taxi after taxi said they were already en route to pick someone up or were just not willing to brave carnival traffic across town. So the cops asked a guy with a motorcycle if he could drive me to a taxi stand out of the carnival zone where I could then more easily get a taxi. The cops asked how much would he charge for this. He said $20. I laughed, because he might as well have said $100. He drove off and the cops said Motorcycle Dude had no clue how much $20 is worth. So we continued trying to get a cab until Motorcycle Dude came back, probably after checking with someone more informed as to how much he should charge me. He now said 5 pesos. The cops said that was a reasonable sum, so he handed me a helmet, I got on the back off the bike with two bottles of soda I had bought, and off we went, weaving madly through traffic and dodging pedestrians, some of them giddy on overproof aguardiente.
The whole time during the ride, Motorcycle Dude asked about me – where in the United States was I from? What did I do for a living? What brought me to Barranquilla? Then he started to offer to drive me all the way to my hotel for more money, of course. I was barely hanging on to the back of that motorcycle, with one hand holding my sodas, and I couldn’t see myself driving any further in this rather perilous mode of transport. But he insisted. As we reached a street corner, he stopped and said there was no way I was going to be able to get a taxi given they were all tied up. He again suggested he drive me all the way to my hotel for more money. As it so happened, he had stopped in front of two private security guards who heard him suggesting he take me to my hotel. At this point I had taken off the helmet. Motorcycle Dude explained to the guards that he was trying to take “este gringo” – this gringo to a taxi but no taxis were readily available. He told the guards he could take me to my hotel. The guards said I could get a taxi right at the very intersection if I waited. During this conversation, as I still sat on the back of the bike, one of the guards seemed concerned for my safety and signaled that I should get off the bike. Then he said firmly that I should wait with them. I got off the bike, Motorcycle Dude took off. The guard then said he had a bad vibe about Motorcycle Dude and it was safer for me to be off that bike and to get a reputable taxi. It was at this point one of them went in the middle of the street and started to stop taxis. On the third try, he called over and said this was a good taxi and he would take me for 10 pesos, a good price. Cool. I thanked them and took off.
It was a circuitous way to get home, but I got home safe and sound. Not so lucky for the American guy I had heard about from the cops earlier. Not so lucky for a French guy that day, who was somehow drugged, stripped of everything, including his clothes, by a taxi driver and team of bandits, according to my hotel manager.
In Bogota, the taxis are metered and the photo IDs of the driver are prominently displayed. In Barranquilla, they are not. You have to negotiate the price before you get in the taxi. And sometimes, that doesn’t work.
My hotel negotiated a price with the taxi driver – 10 pesos – to take me to a potluck being held by friends. But first, I needed to stop at a store to buy beer or wine for the party. The driver agreed. I noticed as he drove by store after store where the beer would be presumably cheap. During the ride he tried to convince me that I should buy Smirnoff cocktail drinks instead of beer or wine. Smirnoff is more expensive. I said that’s cool, but I would stick to Aguila or Club Colombia beer. All the while, he peppered me with questions, assessing my net worth, I suppose, because he said I should be able to afford Smirnoff. Here we go again with the Smirnoff. What’s it to him whether I buy Smirnoff or rubbing alcohol for the party. Not like he was invited. Then he pulled up to a liquor store and told me to stay in the cab, that he would go talk to the store clerk and ask the price of the beer. From the cab, I noticed some whispering between the two. The driver returned and said that they only sold individual beers – they had no six packs at this store – and that each beer would cost me 5 pesos. Five pesos? That’s more than double I’ve been paying at local bars. I smelled a rat, as the taxi driver was also insisting that I stay in the cab and I give him the 50,000 pesos he noticed I was holding to buy the beer. That’s okay, I said, and got out the cab to walk up to the liquor store, which had iron bars and all transactions were made by not entering the store but from the sidewalk and essentially the parking lot. I asked about the beer myself. The clerk it was 5,000 pesos. Okay, any cheaper alternatives? How about wine? What about aguardiente? I had a funny feeling and from the corner of my eye I saw the taxi driver communicating through hand signals with the store clerk. Aha! They are trying to run a game on me. Here comes the gringo, let’s make some money! Okay, I tell you what, just give me a cheap box of aguardiente and a red Chilean wine and that’s it. Out of here. Back in the taxi, I knew this guy was no good. So I started closely watching the route, the streets, every turn he took, thinking of what I should do in case he’s driving me to a robbery – mine! As he drove, he started bellyaching about how he should be charging me more because where I was headed was actually farther than he thought. And that the address I had was the wrong address. When I reached my destination and I handed over the agreed upon 10 pesos, he grabbed my arm and said “faltan” – meaning you are short. How’s that? 10 pesos is what we agreed on. How much more you want? 20 pesos, he said. I got out the cab in a bit of rage and told him it would be a cold day in you know where before he got 20 pesos out of me. How did he arrive at this? The host of the party was waiting outside for me and came over. He told the taxista there was no way that trip was worth 20 pesos and that was outrageous. Seeing that party host was a local, the driver then dropped to 15 pesos, telling my host that he waited for me to buy liquor and that the address I had presented was actually incorrect. After a quick discussion, I gave the driver 5 pesos more and he took off.
How about a metered system, Barranquilla? How about prominently displayed ID cards for all taxi drivers? How about you get a clue that this hurts your image?