It’s probably been mentioned before, but living in a picturesque city selected in 1984 by UNESCO as significant addition to the heritage of the world, has its advantages. For one, you are surrounded by beauty and history which, for most, is a treat in itself. But for another, when your friends visit, you get to play tourist for a few days and discover all that the city has to offer, including some corny but cool options to explore and enjoy.
One adventure in Cartagena that shouldn’t be missed is a night on a Chiva tour. Totally touristy, tacky and tiring, Chivas are city-roaming, open-sided buses that drive groups around the downtown area and beaches, with most stopping at sights, serving drinks and snacks, and providing live music. Though there are several companies offering the tours that seem similar, its rumored that no two Chivas are alike.
Step 1: Meet the Chiva Dealer
While hotels and hostels offer tickets for Chiva tours, you don’t have to sign up in advance to find a good one. Denis passed me and my friend Javier, visiting from Perú, as we navigated a skinny Centro sidewalk. He smiled wide, catching my eye and rattling off the typical script given to tourists: “Playa Blanca, Isla Rosarios, Castillo San Felipe, Chiva tour…” “Yes!” I answered, almost startling him, “Chiva tour!” Denis’s smile broadened, “Si, amigos, ven conmigo!” (Yes, friends, come with me!) he responded, turning on his heels.
As we walked together, Denis cheerfully made small talk about the city, adding that he loves his job and enjoys meeting people from around the world. Soon, we reached the Plaza del Reloj, where a tall man with a vest and ID badges wrote out paper tickets.
The tall man explained that, for the low price of $35000 COP (about $17 USD), the Chiva tour includes drinks, snacks, live music, an outside view of Castillo San Felipe, a visit to Las Murallas, and entry to a local discoteca, in about four hours. Denis then accompanied us to a large, colorful bus parked just outside the clock tower wall, where the front windscreen read Chocolate Tours: a Chiva company often seen around town (but unfortunately, with no website to reference here).
We climbed aboard, settling into a long, burgundy padded bench seat, surrounded by colorful tin cutouts and brightly-painted ornamental wood. Other excited Chiva riders soon filled the rest of the seats, with one row dedicated to the three-piece Vallenato band of a caja, guacharaca and accordian.
Step 2: Hold on to your vaso
The tour was off to a slow start as the bus snaked its way through Bocagrande, stopping at several hotels and homes where customers had made prior reservations. Though the pick up activity seemed to drag on for about an hour, the emcee, Rafael, stirred up the tourists over his microphone, asking where everyone was from, and encouraging the male riders to stand up and booty-dance over their seats.
The videographer, Denise, filmed smiling couples and families, as riders from Perú, New York, Chile, Miami, Argentina and Colombia shook maracas to the beat of the band.
The driver, Bernardo, carefully navigated skinny streets, stopping at a small tienda where Rafael loaded boxes of rum, liters of Coca-Cola, and bags of ice to put in plastic cubetas until, finally, the Chiva got into full swing. As riders served drinks to each other, the band played loud, rhythmic Vallenato and sang harmoniously.
At our first stop, outside of Castillo San Felipe, riders were quickly advised by security to keep off the grass and obliged, but happily continued snapping photos as the castle loomed eerily in the night sky.
Step 3: Bailando under the night sky (or inside the discoteca)
Continuing, the Chiva drove through the colorful streets of San Diego, stopping a second time at Las Murallas, where riders descended upon the high wall that surrounds the center of Cartagena.
On top of the wall, musicians took turns playing in groups as vendors hawked icy beer and soda, while others offered straw hats and shell necklaces. Tourists, as well as a group of local Mapalé dancers, celebrated in the hot but breezy Caribbean night.
Gathering the group, Rafael escorted us back to the Chiva where a large tray of fritos, including arepa con huevo and several types of empanadas, awaited hungry riders. Before moving on to Manga, a residential area just beyond the Centro, the Chiva made several turns through bohemian-esque streets of Getsemani, passing bar hoppers and evening diners at local cafés and restaurants.
Once in Manga, the Chiva stopped a few blocks from Taboo Crossover Club, a small discoteca where a DJ played popular songs in Salsa, Champeta, Vallenato and Reggaeton. Chiva riders disembarked for more dancing, this time among strobe lights, fog and air conditioning.
Step 4: Thank the Chiva and tell your friends
After about an hour, Rafael gathered up the riders wishing to return to the Centro, while several others remained at Taboo, having purchased botellas to drink on couches for lounging, probably well into the night. Arriving back at the Chiva, we discovered the rum was gone and the musicians had retired for the evening, but were grateful for the ride back to the Centro to catch a cab for home.
Having seen Chivas tours around Cartagena for the past year, I would absolutely recommend them to anyone wanting a fun evening out, or a good way to start a serious night of celebration. While the company you select may not be important, Chocolate Tours seems right for professional partying. Although the owner Jose Antonio mentioned other services the company offers, including beach excursions and private transportation it’s obvious the Chiva tour carries the most bang for your buck in just four hours.
Overall, the Chiva with Chocolate Tours was exactly what this Gringa Costeña wanted: a night cruising through Cartagena with fun people, enjoying live Valleanto, sipping rum and Cokes and appreciating all that makes this city live up to its nickname, La Fantastica.