Fast and the Furious – Barranquilla Drift

A comedic graphic representing a typical Barranquilla bus racing in NASCAR. Photo Credit: Unknown

According to the World Health Organization, traffic accidents are considered a major public health problem, with 1.2 million deaths every year around the world and between 30 and 50 million injuries.

Here in Barranquilla, the Transportation Secretary has so far this year reported fifteen such deaths and based on the WHO stats, we can extrapolate that there have been around 500 accidents causing injuries. Two of this year’s deaths were in February and, in both cases, a Transmetro bus was involved.

It’s common knowledge that bus drivers in Barranquilla often go well in excess of the speed limit, careening around corners and jumping in and out of traffic. Even in such a dangerous situation, where the risks of injury or death are so high, Barranquilleros look on the bright side and find ways to laugh it off. After all, Barranquilleros are used to defeating death as they do it every year in one of the iconic dances of Barranquilla’s carnival: the Garabato. In this dance, Life always triumphs. If you ride the bus like me, you’ve probably had to hold on tight to prevent being thrown around. And you’ve probably cheated Death more than once.

So what’s the reason? Why is it that buses go so fast?

To better understand the situation, I spoke to a few drivers (none of whom wanted to give me their names, for fear of losing their jobs). First off, each driver needs to clock out at “El Tiempo,” which is a time clock where they register their arrivals, and they need to hit those stations at specific times. Next, there is a set number of trips they have to make each day, and invariably, they find themselves running late and having to catch up.

To stop this, the bus companies are starting to unify the basic salary for each bus driver. However, according to one bus company employee, some bus drivers aren’t employed directly and are paid based on how many passengers they pick up so they drive as fast as possible to get as many as they can. The more passengers a driver can take, the more money they’ll earn.

Let’s not forget that accidents often have two parties involved and indeed, pedestrians don’t cooperate either, rarely using the pedestrian crossings or footbridges. It’s a common thing to see people jaywalking through traffic, or as they say here, “toreando” (dodging) the buses.

Despite all of the campaigns the local government has started, the community seems to continue dancing Garabato on the streets. Sometimes they win, sometimes they don’t.

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Carlos Guerra is a person who loves writing. His experience teaching Spanish to foreigners and his job as a Language and Culture Facilitator for the Peace Corps was his motivation to start writing about Barranquilla’s culture. He considers himself an ambassador of the Caribbean culture and Colombia. He loves teaching English and Spanish and enjoys learning from different cultures.


  1. A couple things could be done to help rectify the problem you describe:
    1) pay all the drivers of all the bus companies the same salary
    2) tell the police (who apparently do nothing at all in regards to traffic) to actually enforce traffic laws. Just imagine how much money that would bring into the cities coffers!
    3) make the bus routes shorter and throw away the time clocks. Why on earth does a bus route have to go from Soledad all way way to Villa Santos in the far north or to the University area in the far NW of the city? Who came up with the routes anyway? It appears all the bus companies follow the same routes. They, whoever came up with the routes, needs to get a clue on developing bus routes. There is no reason why half a dozen different buses need to follow each other all over the city.
    4) Try to put some distance between the same-company buses that follow each other all over the city. Why should I see 2 or 3 La Carolina (or whatever) buses, then wait a long time for another? Just tell the drivers to keep 5 minutes between them and the next bus of the same company.

    This isn’t rocket science.

    • You’re right Chip! I particularly agree with the one on having the police crack down on the following of traffic laws. Not only would it mean a boon for the coffers, but theoretically, the streets would be safer and less congested. Send us an email with your thoughts (a letter to the editor) and we’ll be glad to post them.