Colombian ‘Chiva’ bus owners hope pandemic didn’t kill party

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The end of Yury Arias best work was a wild night.

It included dancing, “bouncing”, 10 bottles of vodka and lots of laughs among a group of 15 Polish tourists aboard Arias’ La Chiva Loca bus. 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 chivashort for “Colombian party bus”.

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

After three stops, the party was over, as smiles and a warm “see you soon” sent the group off to perhaps more rejoicing that night. But little did Arias know that would be the last time he passed on party bus culture to others.

The March 17, 2020 holiday marked the end of Arias’ trip amid 15 canceled bookings as the COVID pandemic brought the world to a halt.

“I never thought it would be the last,” Arias said. “I knew things were bad but never so bad to close [down].”

Arias is among the city’s party bus owners hoping to let the good times roll again after an extended 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.

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

Some say waiting passengers often mistake the nimble mountain buses for ranged goats. Others say that the sound of the horn mimics the bleating of the animal.

Word chiva can also be slang for “news”, and buses were a way for dispersed rural communities to keep in touch.

They’ve been in New York for years, with many operators hailing from high-immigrant neighborhoods in Queens. The pandemic drag has resulted in 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, with the last trip being in early 2020.

He said he was sad not to be able to return to the “disco on wheels” he called “a melting pot” of cultures.

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

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

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

Daniel Bernal is hanging out with his Colombian party 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 considers it one of the “sourest” rides he’s ever had.

“That’s when my wife and I were peaking in the party bus industry until it all fell apart,” Vasquez, 45, said.

La Chiva Loca Daniel’s Chicken Bus and Chiva BarUs are among the Colombian party buses forced to pause and wrestle with the question “Now what?”

And with 73,190 Colombians populating Queens, a 2% increase from 2010 according to the most recent US Census datamany are waiting to return to the rustic buses for the holidays.

First driver, then driver

Originally from Guayaquil, Ecuador, Arias said he always felt a special connection to Colombia, a country 600 miles from his native country and with a similar flag. When he came to New York in 1984, his main goal was to impact 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 the New York chivas circuit began with an invitation to a party bus from a friend in early 2002, and soon after another trip on his own.

The first time, Arias enjoyed the atmosphere. But the second time around, he wasn’t there to party: he studied the trade and set about learning to drive a bus himself. Three months later, he buys his first mini school bus and decorates it.

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

It was not easy. In 2002, Arias spent all his free time handing out flyers, posting on the internet, and making appearances with the bus wherever he would accept it outside, such as clubs, bars, and parties, all to spread the word.

“I had to ride La Chiva first, before I could stand out and be successful,” he said.

Two years later, people knew his name, the wild parties he predicted were starting to take off.

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

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

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

“I had to throw it away”

When the pandemic shut it down, Arias had to keep his bus in an expensive parking spot in a garage in Maspeth while paying high insurance costs.

“After three months, I said, ‘We still have a long way to go,’ Arias recalls. “And I wasn’t wrong, and I had to close it and throw it away because of where was I going to get all this money?”

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

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

La Chiva Loca owner Yury Arias (right) with a reveler for a Hawaii-themed party in the pre-pandemic winter.

La Chiva Loca owner Yury Arias (right) with a reveler for a Hawaii-themed party in the pre-pandemic winter.
Courtesy of Yury Arias

His chiva, with its painted Colombian flag, was adorned with a multicolored rotating light bulb, several small souvenir traditional Colombian houses, instruments of all kinds and a goat’s horn on the hood.

Neither Vasquez nor Bernal had to throw their buses, but they face similar issues. The storage space Vasquez had in Elizabeth, NJ, for his three chivas became too expensive, forcing him to move them an hour south, he said.

Bernal, meanwhile, said his two buses began to wear out from long periods of inactivity, making it difficult to pass a DOT inspection.

The return

Arias says he continually gets calls from people wondering when they can come back to La Chiva Loca.

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

For the future, Arias hopes to get a loan to buy a new bus soon. He promises that 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 throws surprise parties. They say it helped their Chiva BarUs buses stand out on their first trips this summer to New Jersey, although they have yet to return to all five boroughs.

Arias will make vaccinations mandatory for boarding his bus, he said, but masks will be optional.

Vasquez, however, is not demanding anything from his Jersey revelers because “it’s always a choice”, he said. “They were looking forward to this and they should know what is good for them.”

Bernal, who is still struggling with DOT inspection issues, said he doesn’t know if he’ll be back on the road 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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