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Rum and Rumba in Cartagena de Indias

ArticleJessica SoltComment

There is a place bathed by the Caribbean Sea where sunsets are so heavenly they hang framed in your memory forever. The sun might be disappearing into Cartagena’s horizon, but laughter and celebration begins to sprout all over the city, like tiny bubbles before reaching boiling point. The old Cartagena de Indias suddenly becomes lit by antique lanterns, revealing wandering tourists, handicraft vendors, horse carriages, and couples walking hand in hand or taking bike rides through the labyrinth streets of the fenced city.

As Colombia’s fifth largest city and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, visitors flock to Cartagena de Indias year-round. This attraction isn’t new. Historically, Cartagena’s excellent geographic location made the city an ideal target for colonization and exploitation. In pre-Columbian times the coast was inhabited by Caribbean Indians who fought expeditionists fresh off the boat, looking for new lands. Greedy invaders hailed from England, France and Spain with intentions of turning Cartagena into a commercial port and slave trading area. Protecting the city from trespassers became a priority as early as the XVI Century, hence the construction of forts and the need to encase an entire city behind stoned walls. The statue that stands in front of the old port shows a woman holding an open hand straight ahead toward the sea. A short message reads Noli Me Tangere—Don’t Touch Me—warning pirates and other invaders to keep out. But don’t take this too literally. Today Cartagena welcomes everyone with open arms.

With temperatures soaring as high as 90°F by day, it’s no surprise that the best time to venture through this enchanted town is at night. First-time travelers who are willing to let loose—at least for a couple of hours—should break the ice with Cartagena aboard a Chiva Rumbera, a colorful party bus of sorts that offers passengers a taste of what this place is all about: mystery, fun, dancing, singing, and mere madness.

What exactly is a chiva?

A chiva is a rustic bus—once used for public transportation—that was adapted over the years to become a way for tourists to explore the city. But the moment you add rumbera—from the word rumba, a type of Cuban folk dance with Spanish and African elements—to the equation, it ceases being a means of transportation and becomes an experience. A chiva is hard to miss. With colorful designs of patriotic insignia, religious and humorous messages, and distinct names (you don’t want to confuse your ride) painted on the outside, these vehicles are recognized as symbols of Colombian culture.

Let’s give this a try.

While you wouldn’t normally find me drinking on a vehicle, tonight is different. I take the first row—the seats are bench like—right behind the driver because I want to have a good front view and appreciate how much everyone is partying in the back. Before long, the chiva takes off and the coke and rum begin to flow freely. The gigantic rearview window offers the spectacle of dozens of adults beginning to warm up. The chiva is peppered with large glass holders that welcome anything from tiny ice buckets to drinks in disposable cups.

Traveling aboard a chiva is all about the attitude. Our guide, Reina, is a vivacious woman who speaks uninhibitedly into the microphone. The chiva is the venue and we are her audience. The worst thing that could happen would be to bore us to death. Experience tells her that’s not an option. She pulls out at least a dozen little bottles of Tres Esquinas Rum—a high-quality liquor with a delicate flavor. I’ll pause to mention that while Colombia’s national drink is aguardiente, which literally mean “burning water”, the majority of Colombians prefer the smooth taste of rum.

It’s time to pick our poison. You can either drink the rum straight up or chug it down with a bit of coke. Ice is mandatory and abundant—nobody likes a lukewarm drink—but even when the ice here melts quickly, you want to enjoy every sip. Now, it wouldn’t be a party without music. Behind me, nestled in the crowd, sit Los Gomelos, the live band that will be delighting us with vallenatos, salsas and boleros to spice up the adventure.

We ride through Bocagrande and into Getsemaní, getting a good look at Cartagena’s bay. Reina pinpoints Puerta del Reloj, Cartagena’s symbol of excellence. We go around Parque Centenario, where cartageneros rent books on weekends and read them under the shade. We continue into Zona Rosa and over the Puente Román, where colonial houses greet us on the other side. At the San Felipe de Barajas Castle  the Colombian flag flies high. By this time we’re already reasonably merry. Reina initiates a battle of the sexes and it’s men vs. women to see who can party the hardest. “Vamos a mover la colita,” she screams into the microphone, meaning we have to move our bottoms with rhythm. Everyone complies in a sea of uncontrollable laughter. Some of the passengers are starting to get an itch for dancing. After all, there is no way to properly engage in this activity on board.

At Santander avenue, we are dropped off and taken to the Bastion of Santa Catalina. For the next hour or so people dance, sing, and drink under the stars. Partygoers from other chivas join in. The music brings everyone together. Wandering around is a young man holding a sloth. He places it around your neck before you can change your mind and expects some compensation for the unique photo you’re about to take. Don’t shoo Pepe the sloth away, he’s worth every penny. Everyone marches back to the chiva and we are greeted by a tasting of Cartagena’s cuisine: arepa de huevo and empanadas. The goodies are gone before we know it. The ride is about to come to an end when we arrive at our final destination, Café del Mar. Situated on top of the Bastion of Santo Domingo’s ancient walls, this open air lounge offers fantastic views of both the city and the Caribbean Sea. La fiesta sigue for us. For the rest of the chiva crew, it’s time to call it a night.

Gabriel García Márquez once admitted that all of his books had loose threads of Cartagena in them, even though he only spent a short period there in the late 1940s. Just as it’s easy to be seduced by Cartagena in one night, it is also hard to rub off its pulsating charm.

While you wouldn’t normally find me drinking on a vehicle, tonight is different. I take the first row—the seats are bench like—right behind the driver because I want to have a good front view and appreciate how much everyone is partying in the back. Before long, the chiva takes off and the coke and rum begin to flow freely. The gigantic rearview window offers the spectacle of dozens of adults beginning to warm up. The chiva is peppered with large glass holders that welcome anything from tiny ice buckets to drinks in disposable cups.

Traveling aboard a chiva is all about the attitude. Our guide, Reina, is a vivacious woman who speaks uninhibitedly into the microphone. The chiva is the venue and we are her audience. The worst thing that could happen would be to bore us to death. Experience tells her that’s not an option. She pulls out at least a dozen little bottles of Tres Esquinas Rum—a high-quality liquor with a delicate flavor. I’ll pause to mention that while Colombia’s national drink is aguardiente, which literally mean “burning water”, the majority of Colombians prefer the smooth taste of rum.

It’s time to pick our poison. You can either drink the rum straight up or chug it down with a bit of coke. Ice is mandatory and abundant—nobody likes a lukewarm drink—but even when the ice here melts quickly, you want to enjoy every sip. Now, it wouldn’t be a party without music. Behind me, nestled in the crowd, sit Los Gomelos, the live band that will be delighting us with vallenatos, salsas and boleros to spice up the adventure.

We ride through Bocagrande and into Getsemaní, getting a good look at Cartagena’s bay. Reina pinpoints Puerta del Reloj, Cartagena’s symbol of excellence. We go around Parque Centenario, where cartageneros rent books on weekends and read them under the shade. We continue into Zona Rosa and over the Puente Román, where colonial houses greet us on the other side. At the San Felipe de Barajas Castle  the Colombian flag flies high. By this time we’re already reasonably merry. Reina initiates a battle of the sexes and it’s men vs. women to see who can party the hardest. “Vamos a mover la colita,” she screams into the microphone, meaning we have to move our bottoms with rhythm. Everyone complies in a sea of uncontrollable laughter. Some of the passengers are starting to get an itch for dancing. After all, there is no way to properly engage in this activity on board.

At Santander avenue, we are dropped off and taken to the Bastion of Santa Catalina. For the next hour or so people dance, sing, and drink under the stars. Partygoers from other chivas join in. The music brings everyone together. Wandering around is a young man holding a sloth. He places it around your neck before you can change your mind and expects some compensation for the unique photo you’re about to take. Don’t shoo Pepe the sloth away, he’s worth every penny. Everyone marches back to the chiva and we are greeted by a tasting of Cartagena’s cuisine: arepa de huevo and empanadas. The goodies are gone before we know it. The ride is about to come to an end when we arrive at our final destination, Café del Mar. Situated on top of the Bastion of Santo Domingo’s ancient walls, this open air lounge offers fantastic views of both the city and the Caribbean Sea. La fiesta sigue for us. For the rest of the chiva crew, it’s time to call it a night.

Gabriel García Márquez once admitted that all of his books had loose threads of Cartagena in them, even though he only spent a short period there in the late 1940s. Just as it’s easy to be seduced by Cartagena in one night, it is also hard to rub off its pulsating charm.