Most travelers in Bogotá love yellow cabs or Ubers. The car: the mode of transportation to get around the city. Or at least, you would think so. After all, I am anything but a fan of spending hours in traffic jams and struggling myself through impossible traffic. Fortunately, Bogotá has a solution to that – the Transmilenio. Or Transmi, as locals call it. However, this “fastest” way of getting around Bogotá is immensely unpopular among Bogotans themselves….
As the Dutch complain about the weather, in Bogotá the Transmilenio is the talk of the day. Late for work? Because of the Transmilenio. Late home? Transmilenio. Wallet stolen? Transmilenio. Caught the flu? Transmilenio. Need something to protest? Block the Transmilenio. Yet this form of public transportation is massively used, including by myself. And yes I could almost write a book about all the things wrong with the Transmilenio, but it is still quite a good way of transportation to explore Bogotá. And not just for locals. Although I almost never saw a tourist there, this is indeed a good way to get around the city. And for the experience…
And now you’re thinking: is a separate article needed for that? Yes it is necessary. The Transmilenio is nothing like the bus you may used to, and to survive in this chaos and find your way around, some prior knowledge is quite useful. So are you ready? Hop on!
What is the Transmilenio in Bogotá?
The Transmilenio is a bus network that belongs to “high-quality public transportation”. It is similar to the subway, but above ground. A network of buses and bus lanes connects many corners of the city. Construction of the Transmilenio began in 1998, and by the year 2000 the first bus connections were a reality. First and foremost, Bogotans were pleased with this new system, which meant that instead of a few hours, residents only had to travel one hour to get to work. Until it turned out that this new invention could not handle the huge number of passengers. About 800,000 residents used the Transmilenio in the beginning, but that number has now risen to a whopping 2.5 million a day. There are also nearly 4 million more people living in Bogotá now than in 2000.
Today, the Transmilenio consists of 147 stations, some 115 kilometers of routes and over 2,000 buses. And more expansion is planned. Maintenance is another story by the way… In Bogotá, meanwhile, they are also building a subway, but when (and if) that will ever be finished and how well it will work remains to be seen.
By the way, did you know that the Transmilenio in Bogotá is among the largest bus networks in the world and other bus systems are based on it? In Mexico and Chile, for example. Still something to be proud of….
Why travel by public transportation in Bogotá?
Not particularly optimistic perhaps, nevertheless, traveling by public transportation in Bogotá is really not such a bad idea. Why?
- It is much cheaper than the cab;
- You have a local experience;
- You get free music and singing on the bus;
- It can just be much faster than by cab or Uber;
- You get to know Bogotá much better and in a different way;
- You are getting somewhere with the Transmilenio;
Want to really experience Bogotá? Then get in that Transmilenio! Then only lasts the question: how exactly?
How do you travel with the Transmilenio?
Do you have a minute? In fact, this system is quite complicated. Many times I have stood looking at the route maps as if trying to read Chinese. And not only me, many Bogotans don’t understand it at all. So time for a roadmap!
1. Find your location and destination
Since it’s not wise to have to search on your phone at a Transmilenio station nor to walk around like you have no idea where to go, it’s helpful to figure out in advance, while you’re still at your hotel, where to go. First find your current location, the nearest Transmilenio station to that location and then the location of the destination. Find the station you need to go to. Make print screens of those locations and stations and remember the names.
2. Find your bus line
The Transmilenio consists of about 14 troncales designated by a letter. This runs from A to M. Each troncal means a zone or direction in Bogotá. That means if you take the same route there and back, the letter does differ. Within each troncal go many buses, which are designated by a number. So there are dozens of bus lines that all stop together. Depending on your destination, you might also have to transfer and then it gets even more complicated. So look GOOD in advance to see where you need to be.
Then you also have to find the bus line. You can do this with this app or via this link. On the app, you can enter the station you need to go to or just the one you are going from to see which buses are running. And in this way find your bus. Also pay attention to the times: some buses only run on weekdays or during rush hour. And on Sundays, bus service is limited anyway.
3. At the station: buying a bus pass
Once you know exactly where you need to be and which bus to take, it’s time to head to the station. Especially during rush hour, it is so crowded that just walking across the bridge to the station entrance can be a challenge. Once at the station, you must first buy a ticket. At the ticket office, ask for a “Tarjeta Tullave,” which costs 7,000 pesos. You can use 1 card for multiple people just fine, as long as there is enough money on it. So also charge your card directly. A one-way trip on the Transmilenio costs about 2,300 pesos per person. So do the math to figure out approximately how much you will need. By the way, it doesn’t matter how far you travel or how long you are in the Transmilenio: if you want, for those 2,300 pesos you can go around town all day. As long as you don’t go off a station….
4. Find your bus
Now that you have your ticket you have to go through a gate into the station, with that card. You only need to check in, if you leave a station again you don’t need the card again.
Now comes the new challenge: find the bus you just looked up at point 2. The station is probably crowded and buses stop and go everywhere. First determine which way to go and start looking for your bus on that side. The bus numbers are plastered above the doors, along with the stations at which the bus stops. Several buses often stop at one door. If you still can’t figure it out ask a staff member or a police officer. Both will help you.
Once you find your bus, the waiting begins. If you leave at a busy time, you may just not fit on the bus anymore, and so you have to wait for the next one.
5. Wrestle your way onto the bus
The first times with the Transmilenio, I always had to wait a huge amount of time because I never fit on the bus. Thought. Because really: even if the bus seems crammed, you can still fit in. You just have to be bold like the Bogotans and wriggle through the crowd like they do, and just cram yourself into the bus. Are you standing at the back of a group of people waiting for the bus who do not move a foot when the bus is coming, and it is not for them but for you? So be bold and work your way past those people. If you don’t, you’ll still be waiting after a few hours. Of course, you may just find yourself at a quiet moment somewhere in the middle of the day, in which case you’ll probably be lucky and maybe even have a seat.
6. During the ride
Rules for getting on and off the bus, if any, are not followed. But once you’re on the bus, all you have to do is hold yourself very tightly (because lots of potholes and turns in the road and the drivers love to drive fast AND stop), keep breathing in the crowd or, if you’re lucky, find a seat. The red chairs are for everyone, the blue for the elderly, people with disabilities, pregnant women or women with a child on their arm.
There are often all kinds of things to do on the bus. From singers to guitar solos to vendors of whatever. For example, I once bought a cookbook on the bus. Also if you are hungry just wait until someone comes by with food. After a while, by the way, that’s not much fun anymore.
7. Arriving at your destination
In all buses there is a screen to indicate which station you are at and sometimes it is even called out. However, in half the buses, that little screen doesn’t work. In that case, pay close attention to what name is on the station or ask a local so you don’t miss your destination. The Transmilenio stops automatically, so you don’t have to press a button. If you go by blue bus or Dual (see below), you do have to indicate when you want to get off.
Many stations have two exits, so check carefully which way to go. As mentioned, you have to go through the gates, but you no longer need your bus pass to do so.
What other buses are there?
The Transmilenio is part of the large bus network SITP in Bogotá. With the same ticket, you can use all these buses. These buses are called alimentadores (green buses) and zonales (blue(urbano), red(especial) or orange(complementario) buses). Then there is also the Dual, which runs on Carrera Séptima (7). Read under “fun routes for you” what you can do with this one!
The zonales buses are possibly even more complicated than the Transmilenio, but if you can find which bus to take in the app, it’s certainly good to get around. Once you get the hang of it, it comes naturally. I also travel a lot on the blue buses and it is fine.
Fun routes for you
1. Discover Bogotá in a different way: about the séptima | Read this article for all the information and stops
2. From the Gold Museum to the north
From Museo de Oro in La Candelaria, bus B74 goes to Portal Norte. This bus will take you past Héroes (in front of Zona T), Parque Virrey (in front of Parque 93), Calle 127 (in front of Unicentro shopping center) and finally on Portal Norte. This route can also be useful if you want to make a day trip from Bogotá. For example, to the salt cathedral in Zipaqiurá, Sopóor Guatavita. Are you going back again? Then take bus J74.
From El Dorado airport in Bogotá by bus to your hotel?
I have done this several times (without suitcases, going home) and is really not recommended with suitcases. The place is packed and without a suitcase you already barely fit on the bus. Do you only have a backpack with you? Then it will be fine. Buses go from the airport to Terminal El Dorado. There you can buy a bus pass for the Transmilenio. By the way, at busy times it really is a horror. Once it took me 2 hours to get from the airport to the bus station, a ride of normally 10 minutes. You have to be a little bit lucky so.
Which bus you should have depends on where you are staying. If there is not a bus station close to your hotel, it may be more convenient to take a cab.
How safe is the Transmilenio in Bogotá?
I have often gotten puzzled looks from Colombians to whom I tell that I travel with the Transmilenio. Many Bogotans find this enormously dangerous. Not only because there are many pickpockets, but also because of gangs of young boys who rob people at gunpoint in the Transmilenio. Yes there are gangs and lots of pickpockets, but there are also huge numbers of people and buses. Use common sense and be observant.
Already I have spent many hours in the Transmilenio and at stations and I have only felt really unsafe about 3 times. And that from years of traveling by bus in Bogotá…. As a blond obvious foreigner too.
You really can travel by Transmilenio during the day, but please heed the advice below.
Tips for safe travel with the Transmilenio
- Wear no jewelry and if you do wear it as cheaply as possible. Expensive earrings or rings are pulled out of your ear or off your finger without mercy.
- Dress basic, nothing expensive.
- Keep your bag closed in front of you, never on your back.
- In the evening, after 8-ish or so (although I don’t like it much from 7-ish), traveling with the Transmilenio is no longer safe. Especially not the little walk you have to take across the bridge to get to the bus and especially not at certain stations. Are you going at that hour anyway? Then go with a local who knows his way around and knows what to look out for.
- It depends a bit on the route and the station, but if you don’t know it, it’s better to always keep your phone in your pocket. Especially at a bus station.
Conclusion: discover Bogotá by bus!
As mentioned, I traveled by the Transmilenio or one of the other buses for years and still do now when I spend a day in Bogotá. Except for a few irritations and annoying rides, I personally find it a fine way to travel. I myself often do use my phone to listen to music, but I know what to look out for and when to be careful, though. I can recommend you to travel through Bogotá by public transport as well. A fun experience and a special way to discover the city!
Fun fact: this is how my Transmilenio adventure began
You’ve read all the way to here so one last fun fact deserved! Because how did it start with me? Jimmy NEVER traveled with the Transmilenio. As a purebred Colombian, he found it far too difficult and scary. So I had to figure out how it worked all by myself. In the meantime, he didn’t like the fact that I was a blonde going on that dangerous bus, but after a few months he began to get curious himself. By then I was completely at home in the bus system and knew how everything worked and which buses went where. Jimmy was ready to try it, but had no idea how the system worked. So I had to explain to him how the Transmilenio works, which card he needed and which buses were useful to him. Since then, he gets on the bus a little more often and more easily, but he is not really relaxed. His phone was stolen once at a train station and he still finds it scary when I go through Bogotá by bus alone. So unpopular is the Transmilenio in Bogotá that a Dutch person has to explain to her Colombian husband how it works….
Have you ever traveled by the Transmilenio or do you plan to during your Bogotá city break?
Header photo: Shutterstock