The evening air of Santa Marta hung warm and thick. Three chivas, traditional farm transport turned Colombian party bus, were waiting in the parking lot. With their garish paint jobs and purple strobe lights, they looked more traveling carny than mobile disco. We were a group of nine middle aged Philadelphians who came to Colombia sharing only our devotion to Elizabeth, our Colombian Spanish teacher.
Our destination was Playa Rondadero, Santa Marta’s beach, where, we were told, there would be music and dancing. It was Fat Tuesday, the last night of Carnaval. Visions of a beach pulsating with throngs of white-clad Colombians dancing cumbia filled our minds.
Rubiella, our guide, led us to one of the chivas. Our driver appeared with a cooler of beer and water, then disappeared. The two other chivas took off into the night. A wizened woman walked by carrying a tray of beer on her head for sale.
We drank beer. We waited. The driver returned to switch on some loud dance music and vanished again. Energized with anticipation, we started dancing in the cramped aisles.
After an hour, a group of young Colombians joined our bus, drinks in hand. The chiva finally chugged out of the parking lot around 9PM. The music accelerated and the Colombians sang and waved and moved rhythmically in the back. A young man with a shaved head and tight shirt leapt to the back of the chiva and motioned us all to dance while humping the seat backs.
We drove slowly through the streets of Santa Marta, music blaring with hip-hop and reggaeton and Latin pop. The Colombians were shouting the words with the lively familiarity of a family wedding. We stopped at a gated liquor store to buy booze. We stopped to take selfies wearing curly yellow Carlos Valderrama wigs next to an outsize statue of the Colombian Pelé.
The chiva meandered through Santa Marta as the music grew louder. The smell of diesel permeated the humid…