If you find yourself in Cartagena, Colombia, and want a boisterous night with powerful drinks, this is what you should do: hop on a rattletrap wooden truck called the chiva bus. In these open-air buses, suntanned Vallenato bands and a DJ blare music through Cartagena’s trendy neighborhoods and backroads, allowing you to exercise your hedonistic right to party.
The chiva bus, also known as buses escalera (ladder bus), is rooted in 20th-century Colombian history. The chassis frame showed up from the US in the early 1900s, and horse-drawn modes of transport were swapped for the rickety-looking, polychrome-painted buses. For years, the buses were used to transport produce, animals, plants, and people to and from rural zones. Today’s modern aesthetic with hodgepodge designs, massive speakers, laser light systems, and wild drivers are a cultural trademark. I’ve come to Cartagena to see who’s on the bus and to take a few drinks while learning how to chiva.
Gusty winds from the Pacific greet my chiva crew for the evening as we exit through the Old City’s 400-year-old stone walls. Across Plaza de la Paz, we find our chiva bus waiting on Carrera 8.
“Whoa,” my friend Kat says, going up on her toes to look inside the bus—there’s no doors, just high ladders to get on the bus’s deck. “There’s a whole band in there.”
To chiva on the chiva bus is typically a three-hour session of debauchery, and admission is around $15 US. For the most part, the clientele is a mix of Colombian and other Latin American travelers—no Americans and just a spare few Europeans. In the center row is the band: four men with various instruments including a harmonica, caja (drum), accordion, and a saw with a stick ready to jam traditional Colombian folk music called Vallenato.
The spectacle on the bus is not the green-tint light display or the club-ready DJ setup, but the open bar for each of the ten rows. The variety of drink differs and the picks on rotation tonight are beer (Aguila), Coke to chase, and the ineffably potent aguardiente, known as fire water.
Aguardiente is by far one of my least favorite scents ever: black licorice flavoring meets Fireball’s long-lost demon child. The stuff is often called guaro, and it’s 29 percent alcohol. It’ll burn a hole right through you.
An ice bucket and cups are passed around; the responsibility of mixing your drink goes to your finger. Ashleigh, Josh, Kat, Maria, and I aren’t quite sure how we’re going to get through all the anise-flavored aguardiente. We wonder out loud what sort of punishment a bottle of fire water—and an unspoken directive to finish it all before you get off—might be.
And then there’s the actual driving around town.
I watch Kat’s hands lurch for the railing as our driver rips around the first turn and squeezes in between two cars like the Knight Bus from the Harry Potter movies. The driver honks to the guitar players strolling the cobblestone streets and the DJ takes over.
I understand Spanish—my speaking can get me by—but I can’t understand when someone is screaming into a mic and talking a thousand words a minute. But when chiva-ing, you catch on to the festivities as long as you’re in the back. Our DJ Rafa introduces the partiers row by row, asking for their nationality and their best maraca-bolstered scream—all while each row is thrusting left and right with every turn.
“Fila uno!” Row one!
“Argentina!” they scream back with a punctual shot, no chaser needed.
He reaches “Fila nueve y diez!” and we call back, “USA!”
To say the reaction from the rest of the bus is lackluster would be a grotesque understatement. Every stare that turns to meet us is about as “meh” as it gets. Except for one guy in a bright blue, pineapple-patterned shirt; he turns around and starts slurring I Feel Good by James Brown.
We hit a stoplight in the sea of white cement high rises on the Bocagrande peninsula, and Rafa asks for volunteers from the front and the back of the bus. On every chiva, the DJ gets his riders up and dancing, no matter if the bus is stopped or going 60 miles per hour. Maria is our tribute, and Rafa explains it’s Maria versus Angela from row two in a dance battle. America versus Argentina: a chiva Olympics.
“Angela!” Rafa screams.
She stands, shakes her ass, flips her hair like Shakira to the machete-paced beat. (Think Skrillex’s BPM meets Juanes’s pop-folk sound.)
We’ve all seen the Beautiful Liar video, and this is a reenactment on the part of Queen Bey. Maria stands on her seat and channels Formation swagger with salsa hand motions that the Colombians can appreciate.
We aren’t just Americans lacking a single sexy sensibility in our hips anymore—we have Maria. Now, according to the belting blue shirt guy and the rest of our company, we could party. At this point we dabble with guaro sans chaser.
An hour or so in, the 15-ish chiva buses circling the city convene at Las Bovedas, an ancient wall and lookout point in the corner of the Old City. Here, Palenque women peddle ripe mangos, guavas, coconuts, and guayabas while the bands plug in to the speakers and blast their music to the ocean before them. Surrounding the chiva dancers, street carts with corn on the cob and cocktails infused with corozo—a cranberry-like fruit—encircle the party.
We meet blue shirt guy; his name is David and he’s a pretty famous jazz singer from Madrid. We buy drinks, we buy shots, we toast the chiva that brought us together.
By the end of the ride, our bodies are relaxed, slightly winded, and tingling from a combination of the guaro and the hours of bouncing on a wooden bench. We wander back toward the old city and, appropriately, hop inside a salsa club where we’re welcomed with—yes, always—aguardiente.