I HAVE lived in Bogota for over three years now and I think it is fair to say that taxi drivers in Bogota do not have a good reputation among the locals. For unsuspecting newcomers, here are a few of the most common scams and more that you need to know about if you want to hit the ground running — perhaps metaphorically speaking — when it comes to taking a taxi in Bogota.
Avoid hailing a taxi from the street.
Use the Tappsi or Easy Taxi phone applications to order a taxi in Bogota, or ask a hotel employee, restaurant host, or friend to order one for you. Since the taxi driver will know that if anything goes wrong during the journey, you can use the app or call to make a complaint about him, you’ll be less likely to experience any problems. Always make a note of the license plate number when you get in the taxi.
Locate the tariff at the beginning of the journey.
Bogota has the least transparent system for calculating a taxi fare that I’ve ever encountered. Instead of displaying an amount of money, the taxi meter starts from the number 25 and increases by 1 digit every hundred meters. At the end of the journey, the number displayed on the meter corresponds to the fare you have to pay. There should be a tariff hanging from the back of the front passenger seat so that you can find the number and the corresponding fare. However, this tariff is often nowhere to be found, leaving the driver free to charge you whatever he likes. If you don’t see the tariff when you get into the taxi, ask the driver for ‘la tarifa, por favor’.
Use a taxi fare calculator.
Alternatively, make things so much easier for yourself by downloading the taxi calculator app (Calculadora de Tarifas). Enter the number on the taximeter at the end of the journey and tick any of the other options that apply (such as airport pick-up, Sunday surcharge, etc.) and it will tell you how much you owe. Don’t make the mistake of asking the driver how much you owe without checking the tariff or the calculator app. You will be inviting him to overcharge you.
Seat-beats are optional.
Colombian law only requires the driver and the passenger in the front seat of the car to wear a seatbelt. This means that seatbelts in the back of the car either don’t exist or are conveniently tucked behind the back seats and therefore inaccessible. An un-seatbelted adventure in a Bogota taxi can be a real test for the nerves. It was only after I’d moved to Bogota that I started to appreciate the importance of the handles above the windows in the back of the car.
The Fast and the Furious was (apparently) based on a true story…
I am sure that the makers of this franchise were first inspired by a taxi journey in Bogota. I’ve had many a journey where a taxi driver has been speeding along inches away from the vehicle in front, while all I could do was hold on as tightly as possible to the handle above my head, look towards the heavens with and silently pray that the cars ahead would have no reason to brake suddenly. If you try asking the driver to slow down or drive more carefully, you’ll discover the significance of ‘furious’.
Be prepared to be taken on the Extended Tour of Bogota.
In my early days in Bogota, I became far too familiar with this tour. You don’t even have to ask for it. Just look like a foreigner who doesn’t know the city, give the driver your destination, and he’ll take you on the longest route possible, making the journey as lucrative for him as possible. Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do about this if you’re not familiar with Bogota. If you have data on your phone, you could follow Google maps to see roughly what the quickest route would be. If you think you’ve been taken for an extra-long ride you should report the driver to Tappsi or Easy Taxi at the end of your journey.
Keep an eye on the taxi meter.
A common and well-known scam (which I’ve also experienced first-hand) is to tamper with the taxi meter so that the digits increase more often than they are supposed to and the drivers can make more money from each journey. Remember that the number is supposed to increase by 1 digit every 100 meters. If it appears to be going faster than this, complain to the driver and report him. I’ve even gotten out of taxis at a traffic light without paying after I realized I was being scammed. However, you shouldn’t risk doing this unless it is daytime, you know where you are, and you feel it is safe to do so.
One journey, one fare
This means that if you are part of a group of people being dropped off at different locations after a night out, the driver cannot charge you extra. You calculate your taxi fare in the normal way at the end of the journey, referring to the tariff. If they try to tell you there’s an extra charge for having to drop people off at different places, don’t believe it! There is, however, an additional charge in the following cases: If you have pre-ordered the taxi; after 8 PM on weekdays and Saturdays; all day on Sundays and public holidays; and for pick-ups and drop-offs at the airport or intercity bus stations. The tariff or taxi fare calculator app will tell you how much extra is due.
Put away your 50s.
Most fares within Bogota will cost much less than $20,000 pesos, and it is rare that a taxi driver will have change for a $50,000 peso note (or perhaps they do, but they’ll usually claim that they don’t). If you try to pay with a 50, one or both of these things could happen: The driver could become irritated and refuse to give you change or you could be taken on the ‘Extended Tour of Bogota’ while the driver ‘looks for a gas station’ where he can change the note. Either way, paying with a 50 will likely end up costing you more. Try to break a 50 whenever you can — at a café, restaurant, supermarket, hotel — so that you have change for a taxi.
Don’t be taken for a Millionaire’s Ride.
Not that common, but common enough that it has a name, the ‘Millionaire’s Ride’ (or Paseo Millonario as it’s known in Bogota) is far less glamorous than it sounds. Rest assured though, it would almost certainly never happen if you’ve ordered the taxi via phone or app. What usually happens is that someone who has taken a taxi from the street is kidnapped by the driver for an hour or two (who often picks up an accomplice along the way). They take the victim to as many different cash machines as possible and order them to withdraw money and hand it over, before letting them out at a random location at the end of the ordeal. To minimize the chances of this happening, never take a taxi from the street and once you’re in a taxi, send the license plate number to a friend or family member so they know you’re on your way.
Beware of Burundunga.
Again, this is not that common and extremely unlikely to affect you if you’ve pre-ordered the cab. Burundunga is a drug which some taxi drivers have used to drug passengers. The typical tactic is to sprinkle it on a newspaper that they’ve tucked into the back pocket of the front passenger seat so that the person inhales the drug when they pick up the paper to read it. The drug’s effect is to make you do whatever the driver tells you to (such as withdraw a large amount of money from a cash machine) without having any recollection of it after the event. Another strong argument against hailing a taxi from the street.
Look for alternatives to taxis.
Nowadays, I avoid the yellow taxis altogether, having experienced some of the above situations too often. I prefer to travel by TransMilenio (the main public transport system in Bogota) or by Uber, which is a great alternative to taking a taxi in Bogota. The advantages of Uber are manifold: The service costs roughly the same as the yellow taxis (when the price surge doesn’t apply) but is usually far better, the drivers are nicer and if you already use the service in your own country it works the same in Bogota (but is probably much cheaper) and you don’t have to worry about paying by cash.