Cartagena, Colombia is a really fun city. On the weekends you can’t walk down the street without live music pouring out of every restaurant and bar on every corner. The old city buzzes at night, with with more people walking around on foot than cars driving the ancient streets. But weeknights are a bit tougher…so when I found myself in Cartagena on a Sunday night with two of my best friends and we wanted to go out, we decided to check out a Cartagena Chiva Tour.
When we had told locals we were going to do a Chiva Tour that night, most of them laughed at us. Although one of the major attractions of Cartagena’s nightlife, there was no doubt a Chiva Tour is for tourists. Nevertheless, we had seen the traditional wooden buses painted with tropical colors with their musical bands and “open bars” driving around the city each night and we needed to get in on some of that sweet Chiva action.
Having flown JetBlue to Cartagena with a plane-load of Americans that all looked like us, our immediate concern in doing the Chiva tour was that it would be “spring break” on wheels with dozens of obnoxious American tourists. This was not the case at all. Although the bus held about 50 passengers, the three of us were the lone Americans. Although everyone was a tourist, they were tourists from Chile, Argentina, Costa Rica, Brazil and elsewhere in Colombia. This immediately made the experience a hundred times more fun then we expected. Latinos know how to party and nobody on the bus needed to even have one sip of their drinks before getting in the mood for a fiesta. As we made our rounds from hotel to hotel picking up new passengers, everyone boarded the bus instantly ready for a good time. Unlike back at home. singing and dancing came first, and drinking second. The party-atmosphere was infectious and soon even us jaded New Yorkers were on our feet singing in Spanish and shaking the maracas we bought from a passing vendor.
Definitely the funniest part of the Chiva Tour is the “open bar” which begins once the bus is full. This involves passing a small bottle of rum, some coke and an ice bucket to each row. Special holders hold cups for everyone in the row as well as all the drinking accouterments. As the bus bounces along the ancient streets of the city, everyone passes the bottles around and mixes up themselves some Cuba Libres – usually having to stir with their fingers. The rum? Cartagena’s very own Tres Esquinas.
When the rum, coke or ice runs out, more is supplied for every row. These Chiva’s are pretty accommodating like that. In fact, at one point we mentioned to our guide, Alfredo, that we could really go for an empanada and he pulled out a huge tray of them for the entire bus. Even on a $17 tour bus, Colombia’s hospitality knows no bounds.
The three man band on board the bus plays only one type of music - Vallenato. Vallenato is basically the only type of music played in Cartagena and is traditional Colombian folk music played with three primary instruments. You’ve got your caja vallenata, your guacharaca and your accordion. To an outsider, all Vallenato music may sound the same. In truth, there are four different flavors or “airs” that the trio will alternate between (the Son, Paseo, Puya’s and Merengue).
Vallenato music is easy to love and easy to dance and sing along to even if you’ve never heard it before and don’t speak any Spanish. It’s a happy music that makes you want to stand up and shake your maracas. And why not, right?
The Chiva Tour lasts about 2.5 hours in total, maybe more depending on how early you board. Mostly it’s all about singing, dancing and drinking. But a good Chiva Tour guide will also pump the group up by challenging everyone to row-by-row dance-offs, seeing which on-board nationality can cheer and sing the loudest, and occasionally telling the passengers about the landmarks and sights that are passed along the way.
The highlight of the tour, however, is the off-bus excursion where you meet up with all the other Chiva buses out that night atop the ancient wall at Las Bovedas in the corner of the old city. With all the buses offloaded, an instant party gets underway. One of the bands started to belt out Vallenato music and vendors were selling everything from beers to chorizo to corn on the cob. Women were walking around with entire supermarket produce sections on their heads. Latinos from all over the continent were letting loose with one other. All while we looked out over the sea from atop Cartagena’s medieval wall.
The Chiva tour eventually ended in Plaza de Coches where we were all led into Candela bar for the after-party. Although taking a Chiva tour may not mean “living like a local”, it was definitely one of the highlights of my trip to Cartagena and something I would strongly recommend to anyone who wants to have some fun, especially on a weeknight. Oh, and if you want to get on a Chiva bus just ask at any hotel in Cartagena and they’ll arrange a pickup for you. Just pay cash on the bus when it picks you up – and be ready to party!