Lifestyle, Tourism

The ‘chiva’: the iconography of city transport in Colombia and London

Anyone who has ever been to Colombia will be immediately familiar with the ‘chivas’, those tough, colourful little buses, tirelessly circulating people and goods around and between cities.

Laura Cronk

They take their name from the slang for a kid mountain goat, a reference to their (or their drivers) extraordinary tenacity and agility in navigating the countries hazardous mountain roads and rush hour traffic.

Another explanation of the name is that chiva is also slang for ‘news’- the buses were a way for families to pass on messages and stay in touch. No wonder then that they hold such a special place in the history and hearts of the country.

In Colombia, they have achieved an iconic status akin to that of London’s double-decker routemasters; those red beasts which adorn not only London’s roads but many a mantelpiece in homes around the world- one of the top souvenirs of choice for London’s 15 million annual tourists.

Environmental, financial and safety concerns have led to the phasing out of the iconic routemasters, the remaining examples of which were decommissioned in 2005. However, a few examples will remain on parts of the ‘heritage routes’ 9 between Hammersmith and Aldwych and 15 between Tower Hill and Trafalgar Square. The same threat faces the Chiva, as faster and more efficient minibuses become the main mode of public transport.

The question remains, what will happen to these decommissioned national treasures? Fortunately, the scrapheap does not await, as both countries find innovative and even lucrative ways to reignite these old vehicles.

In London, it’s now possible to eat dinner in an old routemaster; the ‘Rootmaster’ vegan restaurant in the Old Truman Brewery Square off Brick Lane, you can arrive at your wedding in one; and Radio One DJ Chris Moyles recently broadcast his breakfast show live from inside one.

For the Chivas, corporate style has been avoided in favour of the party bus sensation sweeping the streets of Bogota and beyond. However small you thought a Chiva was, it turns out to be more than accommodating of a sound system, DJ decks, flat screens a well stocked bar and up to forty happy party goers.

The trend does not stop at Bogota; party chivas are gaining popularity among the growing Colombian population of New York, and the trend is spreading to the non Latino population as well, with party Chiva tours around the chic bars of the upmarket Meatpacking District.

Leading ladies Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Lieu rolled up in a chiva to the 2000 New York premiere of the film Charlie’s Angels.

Could the London routemasters take some tips from the party chivas? With London’s current ban on drinking alcohol on public transport, the routemaster party would be a more sober affair.

It’s certain though that the revenue and image they generate means that the transport treasures of both London and Colombia, won’t be leaving our streets anytime soon.

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