One needn’t go far to find a good time in Colombia, but there is one thing that has become synonymous with a party in this country: the chiva bus.
A couple of things every gringo should know about the chiva experience:
- Don’t wear nice shoes, because as you bump over and around the ubiquitous potholes that mark the roads of Bogotá, you’ll be sprinkled with more sloshing beer and spilled aguardiente than you’d like.
- You won’t think you’re drinking a lot, but you are. Even though the 100 tiny plastic cups of aguardiente passed around are only half full, they’ll quickly add up…
- I’m sorry if you’re tall. Chiva ceilings are about 5’7″, meaning that even if you’re lucky and don’t knock your noggin on one of the steel roof supports, you’ll still spend the night dancing with your neck at a comfortable forty-five-degree angle.
What is a chiva?
Chivas—also known as bus de escalera (literally ‘bus of stairs’)—were a main form of transportation in Colombia’s countryside a few decades ago, carrying people and goods along the rutted, winding roads between towns. All chivas have a few things in common: there are no windows or doors, rather than seats the buses have wooden benches which open to the outside, and somewhere there’ll be a ladder leading you to the roof, also used to carry people and things. Probably the most important characteristic of a chiva is the brilliantly colored paint job, starting at the front bumper and continuing all the way to a mural in the back.
While chivas remain a form of transport in rural areas, the place most people see them nowadays are chugging along the streets of the bigger cities, filled with partiers and spilling music and flashing lights from their insides. You can find one year round, but the party buses seem especially popular around Christmas and New Year’s as folks celebrate with friends, as we did this past weekend to acknowledge Cody’s team for a year of hard work.
What does a night on a chiva look like?
The short answer is that it’s a mini nightclub on wheels: you drink and you dance. The inside is set up to facilitate this, with wooden benches lining the sides and leaving an empty space in the center. To stop you from flying out the windows or doorways—because with the sudden stops, swerves and flowing beverages this is totally possible—there are lots of poles and hand straps to grab and help you stay vertical. Both times we’ve chiva-ed, a pretty good speaker system blasted a rotation of Colombian favorites, but we’ve also picked up a three piece band who happily played as we rumbled towards Chía. We must have had a fancy chiva this past weekend because there was even a teeny bathroom!
So, music and a dance floor are provided; next, you need the booze! Since we hired a bus, we brought our own. It’s best to keep things simple (see #1 above), so we brought beer. But since it’s not possible to ride a chiva without aguardiente, we made sure to have that in spades as well. If you’re among the uninitiated, aguardiente is a sugarcane alcohol flavored with anise and is Colombia’s most popular type of liquor (though in some regions rum is favored). Aguardiente is served neat in little cups, which can be as simple as one-ounce plastic tumblers to decorated wood or ceramic cups that are worn like necklaces (see the pic below).
Then, you drive! As soon as everyone is on board, your host will crank the music and everyone will start cheers-ing. Our particular route took us from Parque Virrey and up to Usaquen, swinging like monkeys from the blue canvas straps attached to the ceiling as the bus maintained a steady rhythm of halts and surges. With us dancing, laughing and waving at the cars next to us, we chugged along for a few merry hours until we returned to our pickup point.
Where can you get one?
Chiva tour companies can be found in all the larger cities of Colombia, just ask wherever you happen to be staying or check a site like TripAdvisor. A big party can hire a private one for the night, with full packages or options to BYOB. Couples or small groups can join an existing tour, which typically includes your fill of rum or aguardiente and will finish at a night club.
For those in Bogotá, we can happily recommend Chivas Tour de Colombia. We have used them twice to hire a bus for our group—once to take a trip to Andrés Carne de Res in Chía and once to drive around the city—and have been happy both times. Their website has pictures of all their vehicles, from re-purposed vans seating seven to trolleys for fifty (and of course the classic styles for sizes in between).
Do you have a chiva experience (that you can remember, ha!) or a question about making plans? Share it in the comments below!