I will admit, the public transportation system here intimidated me at first. Not the metro systems in Santiago or the much smaller one that runs through Valpo and Viña. They are like subway systems in many other cities I've visited. What made me nervous was figuring out how to take the micros and colectivos.
If you look directly behind Joel's head, you'll see a colectivo. This is a shared taxi with a fixed route, and along with micos (small buses, as for example the orange one above), are my primary means of transportation here in town.
What you need to know:
1. There are no route maps. This is what was intimidating to me at first. How the heck was I to figure this out??? What you should do is ask someone where you work what number you should take. You also need to ask where to get the car, since the route is fixed.
Route numbers are on the thingy clamped on top of the car. I take numbers 31, 33 or 119 from the corner of Traslaviaña and Alvarez, which is 2 blocks from my apartment. I have no idea where these numbers originate, or where they end up. All I know is all three go by the feria, through town, then up the hill and past the front gates of my campus.
2. Stick out you hand to get the driver's attention. I've noticed several styles for this gesture: some use a very assertive index finger high in the air, some point straight out towards the street. Colectivo drivers are alert-they compete with each other for passengers, so if there is space, they will flash their lights and stop. Sometimes they are going so fast they stop beyond you, so you may have to jog over to the car.
3. The front seat is the best seat. The seat belt always works in the front seat, even in the older, creaky cars I've been in. And it is really a good idea to use one if at all possible. Seat belts in the back are generally buried under the cushion, or you can't get to them if you are in the middle or the last person in. It can be a tight fit in back with 3 people, and hands digging around near bottoms would be a serious breech of etiquette.
4. Close the door fast and greet the driver. Everyone says buenas dias/tardes (or buen dia here in Chile), hola, etc. Be polite!
5. State your destination, then hand the driver your money. I often hold off on the money bit until we've come to a stop light. Currently, it costs 500 CPL for me to go up to campus, about a 10 minute ride, but coming home I'm sometimes charged more for some reason. And no, not because I'm a gringa. At a certain point, I reach another "zone," explained one driver. So sometimes I get off 2 blocks sooner, to keep the price the same.
6. Hold on! Time is money, so drivers specialize in quick starts, fast stops, pedal to the metal on straight aways and very sharp, jerky turns. It also helps to use those core muscles, so you won't fall onto the person beside you. I also find that keeping my eyes closed helps too. I'm serious, I really do this.
7. Remind the driver as you near your destination that you want to get out by saying aqui por favor. He (I've never seen a female chofer) will pull over, often at a bus stop.
8. ALWAYS exit from the back seat on the right hand side of the car. I got out on the left once, and got yelled at. No wonder: drivers do not want another colectivo to whip by and take that door off. Of course, this means everyone in the back has to get out if someone on the far left is exiting.
9. Remember to say gracias señor upon exiting.
And if you are on foot, NEVER cross against the light, even if you see people here doing it. Drivers with the right of way simply do not slow down. This goes for micros and regular taxis too. I've not seen someone hit, but things have gotten close sometimes. Colectivo drivers obey red lights and stop signs, but they will rocket away as soon as a light turns green. You do not want to get in their way!