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Colombian ‘Chiva’ Bus Owners Hoping Pandemic Hasn’t Killed the Party

The La Chiva Loca party bus took part a Three Kings Day parade in Brooklyn.
La Chiva Loca party bus at a Three Kings Day parade in Brooklyn a few Januaries ago.
Courtesy of Yury Arias

The end of Yury Arias’ best job ever was a wild night.

It included dancing, “bouncing,” 10 bottles of vodka and a whole lot of laughs among a group of 15 Polish tourists riding on Arias’ La Chiva Loca bus. On a Tuesday.

“It was like they drank vodka instead of milk when they were babies,” said Arias, the 60-year-old Ecuadorian owner of the chiva, shorthand for “Colombian party bus.”

“They danced, shouted and left the bus without stumbling once,” he told THE CITY.

After three stops, the party was over, as smiles and a hearty “see you again soon” sent the group on their way to perhaps more revelry that night. But little did Arias know that this would be the last time he would get to pass on some party bus culture to others.

The March 17, 2020, bash marked Arias’ trip final amid 15 canceled reservations as the COVID pandemic that brought the world to a halt.

“I never thought that was going to be the last one,” Arias said. “I knew things were bad but never that bad to close [down].”

Arias is among the city’s party bus owners hoping to let the good times roll again after a prolonged pandemic pit stop.

Chivas buses began as a traditional mode of transportation in rural Colombia. But in cities like Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla, they are now used as party buses.

The word chiva in Spanish means many things, including kid goat. How it became the name of the brightly colored buses is up for debate.

Some say that waiting passengers often confused the nimble mountain buses with goats from a distance. Others say the sound of the horn mimics the bleat of the animal.

The word chiva can also be slang for “news,” and the buses were a way for spread out rural communities to keep in touch.

They have been in New York for years, with many operators hailing from heavily immigrant neighborhoods in Queens. The pandemic brake-slam meant a loss of community — and commerce.

‘Relive the Good Times’

Cesar Zamora, 48, a social worker from Jackson Heights, Queens, has partied on La Chiva Loca about five times, the last ride being in the start of 2020.

He said it has been sad not being able to get back on the “discotheque on wheels” he called “a melting pot” of cultures.

Zamora said his experience on the bus typically featured Colombian aguardiente, an anise-flavored liquor, poured from a wineskin. And then were the sombreros, maracas and tambourines and a DJ blasting cumbia, salsa and reggaetón.

“It’s a beautiful way for our Colombian community to relive the good times we had back home and be able to share a taste of our celebrations with other people from different cultures,” he said.

Daniel Bernal, 64, owner of Daniel’s Chicken Bus or Rumba Express, as licensed by the city Department of Transportation, said his last trip was March 13, 2020, with a group of white American entrepreneurs welcoming new members to their team.

Daniel Bernal hangs out with his Colombian party bus bus at a Bronx Bar.
Daniel Bernal hangs out with his Colombian party bus bus at a Bronx Bar.
Courtesy of Daniel Bernal

Bernal remembers everyone making “Corona” jokes. “They didn’t take it seriously,” he said.

Chiva BarUs owner German Vasquez, said his last trip was also in mid-March, 2020. He now looks back at it as one of the “most sour” rides he’s ever had.

“That’s when me and my wife were just reaching our peak in the party bus industry until it all came crumbling down,” said Vasquez, 45.

La Chiva Loca Daniel’s Chicken Bus and Chiva BarUs are among the Colombian party buses forced to take a hard pause and grapple with the question of “What now?”

And with 73,190 Colombians populating Queens, a 2% increase from 2010 according to the most recent U.S. Census data, many await their return onto the rustic buses for parties.

First a Rider, Then a Driver

Hailing from Guayaquil, Ecuador, Arias said he always felt a special connection to Colombia, a country 600 miles from his homeland and with a similar flag. When he came to New York in 1984, his main goal was to have an impact on people’s lives.

In Ecuador, there are party buses but the concept is very different, Arias said: “They have a driver and a DJ but nothing else. No decorations, no gifts and they don’t take pictures or videos.”

His entry into New York’s chivas circuit began with a party bus invitation from a friend in early 2002, and shortly after another trip on his own.

The first time around, Arias enjoyed the vibe. But the second time he was not there to party: He studied the business and set out to learn how to run a bus himself. Three months later, he bought his first mini school bus and decorated it.

“It wasn’t long before I knew this was what I had to do: spread love and happiness to really build a community and feel like I belonged,” he said.

It wasn’t easy. In 2002, Arias would spend all his free time handing out flyers, posting on the Internet, and making appearances with the bus anywhere that would accept him outside, like clubs and bars, and parties, all to spread the word.

“First I had to ride La Chiva, before I could stand out and make it,” he said.

Two years later, people knew his name, the wild parties that he predicted started taking off.

People could make appointments during the three hours of operation at 1 p.m. 6 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. with prices ranging from $1,500 to $1,800 depending if they wanted food.

He started to get calls to attend parades of all kinds, including Chinese New Year celebration, because “La Chiva Loca is ready for all the places in the world.” He hosted events raning from gay weddings to divorce parties, he said.

A good day for Arias would mean three trips, bringing him up to $5,400.

‘I Had to Junk It’

When the pandemic shut him down, Arias had to keep his bus in an expensive parking space in a garage in Maspeth while still paying a high insurance fee.

“After three months went by, I said, ‘We still have a long way to go,’” Arias recalled. “And I wasn’t wrong, and I had to close it down and junk it because where was I going to get all that money from?”

He couldn’t bring himself to stay and watch his beloved bus when it got destroyed at a junkyard.

“It’s too sad to see all the love and dedication go away and the question of ‘Now what?’ goes through your head,” he said.

La Chiva Loca’s owner, Yury Arias (right) with a partygoer for a Hawaii themed party in the winter before the pandemic.
La Chiva Loca’s owner, Yury Arias (right) with a partygoer for a Hawaii themed party in the winter before the pandemic.
Courtesy of Yury Arias

His chiva, with its painted-on Colombian flag, was decked out with a multicolored spinning light bulb, several tiny souvenir traditional Colombian houses, instruments of all sorts and a goat horn on the hood.

Neither Vasquez or Bernal had to junk their buses, but they are dealing with similar issues. The storage space Vasquez had in Elizabeth, N.J., for his three chivas became too expensive, forcing him to move them an hour south, he said.

Bernal, meanwhile, said both his buses started wearing out due to long periods of inactivity, making it difficult to pass a state DOT inspection.

The Comeback

Arias says he’s continually getting calls from people wondering when they can get back on La Chiva Loca.

“It’s nice to know that you planted a seed in that happiness and that it’s still blossoming after so much time of absence,” he said.

Looking forward, Arias hopes to get a loan to buy a new bus soon. He promises the new bus will have an air conditioner.

Vasquez said he and his wife had to “reinvent themselves” during the pandemic, so they teamed up with an organization that plans surprise parties. They say that helped their Chiva BarUs buses were able to stand out during their first few trips back this summer in New Jersey, though they’ve yet to return to the five boroughs.

Arias will make vaccines a requirement to ride on his bus he said but masks will be optional.

Vasquez however, is not requiring anything from his Jersey partygoers because “it is still a choice,” he said. “They’ve been anxiously waiting for this again and they should know what’s good for them.”

Bernal, who is still dealing with DOT inspection issues, said he does not know if or when he’ll be back on the road.

“I can’t wait to get back out there with my people and feel the excitement I felt before,” Arias said.

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