Chivas Bus – Rural Transportation and a Colombian Culture Icon

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Chiva buses are those brightly colored open air buses you see parked outside of the markets in Colombia. These sturdy buses have been crawling over the mountainous roads of rural Colombia since the beginning of the 20th century, hauling farmers, animals,  sacks of coffee, plantains and  construction materials to and from towns and isolated rural outposts.

Chivas  have become a symbol and cultural trademark of Colombian culture. In 2008 they were declared a cultural patrimony. 

Before Chivas the farmers relied on horses and carts to transport goods from the mountain farms to town. But in 1908 a Colombian engineer named Luciano Restrepo and a Colombian mechanic, Roberto Tisnes, imported a bus chassis from the USA and began work on what became the first Chiva bus. 

In a shop in Medellin, they designed a wood and metal body to sit on a bus chassis. It was the first motor driven vehicle built in Medellin and was driven between downtown Medellin and the neighboring barrio of El Poblado.

The original bus had canvas roofs with four wooden benches inside.  Over time they added a hard roof and a roof rack with a ladder on the back of the bus to allow more  room for cargo, livestock and people on top. They were also called  ‘bus escaleras’ or ladder buses.

The design of the buses has stayed to same over the years. They quickly became standard form or rural transportation lurching down the winding dirt roads of rural Colombia.

Today while the rich farmers have jeeps, Chivas still remain the principal form of transportation for many of the poorer Colombian farmers in the Andean departments of Antioquia, Cauca and Tolima.  The buses are still manufactured in Colombian by building or hacking bus bodies on sturdy Ford and Chevrolet truck chassis. 

The word chiva literally means ‘goat’ in Spanish – the spry, sure footed animal.

Today, the chiva buses look like something from a Disney cartoon. They are painted in bright colors – usually yellow, blue and red – the colors of the flag of Colombia, with colorful decorative patterns, murals and illustrative paintings. 

The chiva body is made mostly of wood and metal with wooden benches. Each bench is accessible from the outside permitting passengers to easily slide in and out.  When the interior is full the roof is used for everyone and everything that doesn’t fit inside. Rolled up canvass tarps on the sides can be dropped down during inclement weather to keep the passengers and their cargo dry. 

A trip in a Chiva bus is almost mandatory for someone visiting Colombia. The open air concept is great way to experience the Colombian countryside and the communal experience of sharing a bench with local passengers is a good conversations starter.  

There are a number of scenic chiva routes throughout Colombia. In the coffee triangle the chiva is still the traditional mode of transportation and in heavy demand on market days.

The favorite chiva tourist rides go from the  villages of Jardin to Salento; Jerico to Jardin and Jardin to Rio Suscio.  Each route is around 4 hours long and costs 20,000 – 50,000 COP. But Chivas can be found in almost any mountain village in Colombia loading up at the morning market and heading to the remote countryside. Just make sure there will be transportation back to town before you jump on and catch a ride.

You can also experience the buses in any of the major cities where Chivas have become popular as recreational vehicles called ‘chiva rumberas’ or party buses.

These coaches have been converted into mobile night clubs rented out by tour companies to individuals and groups. Some of these buses are a work of art. A few wooden benches are removed from the center of the bus to permit the party goers to stand and dance to music being blared over speakers. Sometimes there’s a D.J. or even a live band onboard. Beer, aguardiente and rum are served as the buses cruise around the city stopping at popular night spots. This urban tradition has transcended its Colombian roots and taken hold in cities as afar as Miami and New York.

Modern transportation will never render the chiva obsolete. The most popular souvenir in Colombia is the small ceramic chiva bus sold in the airports and all over the country. So take the chiva bus ride when you’re in the Andean mountains of Colombia. Or take a night tour of a Colombian city on a chiva rumbera. Or, at least buy a toy souvenir as a keepsake on your way home.

(See article: Arts and Crafts Tourism in Colombia)

popular Chiva bus ceramic souvenirs from Colombia

Pijao – the ‘slow city’ in Colombia’s Coffee Triangle

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Pijao is a small town 31 kilometers (19 miles) to the south of Armenia located in Colombia’s famous coffee triangle in the Quindio province. Along with Salento, Calarca and Filandia, Pijao is considered one of the most beautiful villages in the department. Only an hour bus ride from the city of Armenia it can be a day trip as part of the coffee tour or a destination to go relax and decompress for a day or two.

Continue reading “Pijao – the ‘slow city’ in Colombia’s Coffee Triangle”

Simple and Easy Do-it-Yourself Cocktail Recipes to Make in Colombia

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Traveling in Colombia works up a thirst. And for those of us who like to kick back at the end of the day and enjoy an adult beverage there are plenty of accommodating bars and restaurants. Some lounges and clubs in the major cities have mixologists who inoculate wonderful infusions of Colombian spirits and exotic tropical fruit juices.

(see article: Healthy, Fresh, Colombian Fruit Juices)

After a day of hard travel it’s very appealing to head back to your room, grab a shower and kick back in front of a fan. Most people usually grab a few cold ones on the way back to the hotel. Beer is the national alcoholic thirst quencher. Rum and Aguardiente are native spirits, earmarked for inebriation and used in a number of easy-to-make cocktails.

Here are a few simple cocktail recipes to mix in a hotel room with ingredients readily available throughout Colombia.

Continue reading “Simple and Easy Do-it-Yourself Cocktail Recipes to Make in Colombia”

Colombia Travel During Covid and the Protests of 2021

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After being stuck in a cold, grey Michigan all winter for the first time in years,  I finally got my second covid shot in April and after two weeks took a flight to Colombia.

But when the government advises against traveling abroad, what do you do? Only a few destinations  are level 3 – “reconsider travel” but most countries in Europe and Latin America, including Colombia, are listed level 4 – “do not travel”. And after a month down here I can see why. 

Continue reading “Colombia Travel During Covid and the Protests of 2021”

15 Best Destinations in Colombia

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Seasoned South American travelers say Colombia is the continent’s best kept secret – beautiful, affordable and relatively undiscovered by tourism.  Though large, Colombia is easy to travel with plenty of low cost internal flights, comfortable cross-country buses and taxis everywhere.
Travelers can easily visit more than 2-3 destinations in a week with an ample selection of destinations to visit over extended periods.

This is my selection – the  15 best destinations to visit in Colombia. These are places I gladly return to time and time again.  The list is divided by topological identities: beaches, colonial towns, archaeology and cities.  For more information on each destination read  the full articles on Continue reading “15 Best Destinations in Colombia”

Travel in Colombia / What to Expect/ What to Pack/ How to Stay Safe

Reading Time: 10 minutesCouldn’t be a better time to see Colombia

Reading the travel guides on Ecuador – they talk about it how tourism has changed the country. ‘Should have been here 10 years ago when it was quaint and undiscovered,’ they say. ‘Now there are big hotels, boutique shops, robberies all over the place.’

Well, that’s not the case with Colombia. Outside of Cartagena it’s all to be discovered. There is no big corporate tourism here. In a way, Colombia has remained unchanged for the last 40 years. But there is so much pent up tourism potential. Continue reading “Travel in Colombia / What to Expect/ What to Pack/ How to Stay Safe”

Medellin: the Land of Eternal Spring

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 Medellin (pronounced Meda-jean)

Is a dynamic, contemporary, prosperous city of 2.6 million people in Antioquia, Colombia – the heart of Colombia’s famous coffee triangle. Known as the land of the eternal spring it has a temperate climate – hot during the day and cool at night. Continue reading “Medellin: the Land of Eternal Spring”

Travel Around Medellin: Daytrips and Places to Visit – Guatape, Santa Fe, El Carmen de Viboral

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Day Tripper

If you’re spending any kind of time traveling in Medellin, which is easy to do, after a couple days a get away is in order. There are a number of possible day trips from the city. They sell guided tours to a number of these places but these villages are so easy to reach with  public transit that they can and should be explored at one’s own leisure. Continue reading “Travel Around Medellin: Daytrips and Places to Visit – Guatape, Santa Fe, El Carmen de Viboral”

Cartagena: a Port City and One Hot Mess

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Cartagena is a hot mess:
On one hand it’s a vibrant beautiful port city where cruise ships also dock. It has a beautiful historic center and is the major tourist destination for Colombia. The city has the feel of a touristy city in Spain. On other hand, outside of historic center it’s so congested with traffic you can barely cross the street. It’s loud and dirty, sweltering hot with pesky peddlers. Continue reading “Cartagena: a Port City and One Hot Mess”

Barranquilla throws the second largest Carnival Party in the World

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Hands down the Carnival of Barranquilla is the biggest folkloric tradition and best party in Colombia with more than 2 million people participating every year. Continue reading “Barranquilla throws the second largest Carnival Party in the World”