Cali, Colombia with a Side of Salsa

Cali's Rio-like statue of Cristo Rey towers over its inspirited city

Cali’s Rio-like statue of Cristo Rey towers over its inspirited city

In America, “Cali” is an abbreviated form of California. You may not always feel good about hearing it, but if the term is dropped on Uncle Sam’s turf, chances are your speaker is calling your attention to our most golden state.

But in Colombia, “goin’ back to Cali” means something else entirely. Abbreviated from Santiago de Cali (we’re all in a hurry, it seems), Cali is the country’s third-largest city, and after just three days there, it has replaced California as the go-to reference in my subconscious. In other words, Colombia’s Cali stuck with me.

As a self-proclaimed traveler, I like to think I’ve taken something from every place I’ve crossed off, but Cali really was a nice, welcoming city, particularly memorable if only for what it wasn’t: dangerous. This, remember, was once the hub of the ruthless Cali Cartel, and while I stand by my recommendation to use a guide like LivingTrips, I never had to give my security more than a fleeting thought.

Instead, I thought these things of my time in Cali, which I would rank third among the three Colombian destinations I visited:

Even Cali's street vendors are full of color

Even Cali’s street vendors are full of color

  • The people were just a bit friendlier than Bogotá’s
  • The English was a little bit worse than in Bogotá, though better than in the Coffee Triangle/more rural areas
  • There’s a fixation with beauty here, which leaves a gorgeous populace and a bit of pressure to follow suit
  • The night life is famously wild
  • Salsa is a way of life, especially at night, and you may not have a choice whether you join in if you go out
  • The cat is the city’s symbol as a tribute to beloved artist and cat-enthusiast Hernando Tejada
  • It feels smaller and less cosmopolitan than Bogotá, for better and for worse
  • You get more for your peso than in Bogotá
  • It may be the country’s leading conference/exhibition destination

It’s a fun city, and if I were better at salsa, I’d probably have enjoyed it even more. For next time, I guess. Because while there’s still a lot more I need to see in Colombia for the first time—Cartagena, for instance, which my buddy Kyle is enamored with—I’d go back to Cali for sure.

A little background
Cali is the capital of the Valle de Cauca department, which is indeed a valley in the Colombian Andes (flanked by the Western and Central Cordilleras, specifically). Though elevation here is a relatively consistent 3200 feet above sea level, the city’s western perimeter rolls right up into the mountains, leaving some of its outermost neighborhoods knotted in beautiful, sloping greens.

The city giving way to the Andes

Cali giving way to the Andes

It is mostly the flatter lands, however, to which the city owes its modern shape. The Spanish colonizing machine reached Cali in 1536 (two years earlier than Bogotá)—overpowering the inhabiting indigenous tribes almost immediately—and in the centuries that followed, slave-powered plantations flourished in place of urban development. Today, 2.5 million citizens carry the agriculture-based torch forward, and the African influence is tangible.

Also, since it’s interesting, the city will host the next World Games, which are like the Olympics for sports that aren’t actually featured in the Olympics. Like billiards. Or, you know, korfball and Tug of War. Korfball aside, it’s exciting news for Cali.

Weather
Depending on what you’re used to, Cali is warm-to-hot throughout the year, with average highs hovering around the mid-70s and lows never lower than 50. I even saw 80-plus on consecutive days, which is apparently not at all unusual. And with that news, I’m happy to report that Cali’s is a very comfortable 80-plus—even to a native New Englander—thanks to the westerly mountains, which shield their city from the Pacific-generated moisture fighting to become humidity. Luckily, the mountains always win, and a cool breeze accompanies the heat instead. In terms of precipitation, it’s worth noting that Cali boasts a tropical savannah climate, and so a rainy season skewing pretty hard towards October/November/December.

 

The man dancing is literally turning 102

The man dancing is literally turning 102

Salsa
As noted above, salsa is huge in Cali. In fact, it was the biggest takeaway from my time here. Deemed the “World Capital of Salsa” by radio DJs in the 80s, Cali backs up that claim in passion alone; everyone I met, from 21-year-olds to a man literally turning 102, loved, and really loved, to dance salsa. And in recent years, Caleños have been just tearing it up in international competitions like the World Salsa Championships.

The nightlife is pretty electric in Cali, and it needs to be experienced. Just know that salsa clubs are everywhere, in every form (including viejotecas, salsa clubs exclusively for old people), and even outside their doors, salsa masters may just grab your arm and pull you into the hot, crazy chaos. Intimidating as it can be, it’s fun as hell. Check out the links below before you hit the floor:

 

Centro de Eventos Valle del Pacifico
The Centro de Eventos Valle del Pacifico is most definitely a source of Cali pride, and for good reason. The 380,000-square-foot complex is the largest of its kind on the Pacific side of the continent, and since opening its doors in 2007, it has drawn tradesmen and entertainers from all corners of the globe—14,000 of whom can fit inside at any given time. The UN World Summit on Biodiversity, the Women Entrepreneurship Summit and the Fencing World Cup are just a few of the events this center has welcomed, and in summer, the massive outdoor space has been used as a venue for the likes of David Guetta (apparently a cool breeze blows eternal here thanks to its mountain backdrop). It even has a page on last.fm.

If nothing else, it’s worth mentioning as a symbol of the progress both Cali and its country have made. And while personally, I don’t have a trade show to set up, or an artist to book, the center seems worth a look if you do.

 

5 things to do in Cali

The self-proclaimed poet laureate of Cali at the Iglesia de San Antonio

The self-proclaimed poet laureate of Cali sharing his gift at the Iglesia de San Antonio

1. Cerro de Cristo Rey (Hill of Christ the King) (on Google Maps)
Cali’s hilly western terrain offers a number of great spots to take in the city from above, but none are as cool as this one. Beside a 100-foot tall statue of Jesus, in the style and proportions of Rio’s epic Christ the Redeemer, you can admire the suddenly red-spotted city against the blues of a clear sky and the greens of the mountainside. Cali’s famous Tres Cruces (Three Crosses) are visible across the way.

You’ll likely want to drive most of the way up, as is standard (there’s a loosely enforced parking area), but if you’re interested, there are a number of hiking trails to explore deeper once you’re back on foot. Either way, you should reward your work ethic by indulging in some of the treats being vended by cart. It’s a fun, lively scene, and you physically can’t miss it, so go ahead and grab an empanada or two.

2. Iglesia de San Antonio (San Antonio Church) (on Google Maps)
Construction began on the Iglesia de San Antonio in 1746. It was completed in 1747. It’s not colossal or particularly intricate in the way of a European church, no, but it has literally held a special place in the San Antonio neighborhood for the full quarter-millennium it’s been open (it replaced an older church of the same name to accommodate attendance demands).

It’s compact, it’s elegant and its red brick arches and white-washed walls sync poetically with the leafy green palms that cradle it. The scene in front is just as colorful, full of street venders and charged with the competing energies of townies, visitors and the eccentrics that no one will claim for their side. And it all overlooks the city.

I don’t throw the word “cute” around much, so I won’t here. But it really might be the best place to drink a beer at sunset. The San Antonio neighborhood is a culinary haven, too, so great eats await as soon as you’re done.

3. Museo de la Caña (Museum of Sugar) (on Google Maps)
Coffee plantation tours notwithstanding, the Museo de la Caña is as educational an experience as I’ve had in some time. Sugar is of course an integral part of our lives on several intersecting planes, and so what better place to learn about it than on a plantation that’s four-centuries-old? The sugarcane story is told with all the necessary ingredients to make it stick, including still-functioning production equipment from all corners of the country and its history books. The plantation itself is also full of antique treasures (including old Colombian cars), and the empanadas and lulada (Colombian drink made from lulu fruit) were exceptional.

Fruits on fruits on fruits at the Galeria Alameda

Fruits on fruits on fruits at the Galeria Alameda

4. Galeria Alameda (on Google Maps)
I’ve always felt that a busy market is a great place to feel out the pulse of a new city. Galeria Alameda, which is Cali’s best and busiest market, does a pretty great job of that—and it’s just a fun and interesting time overall. Wacky fruit after wacky fruit highlight the produce section, and nearby, the violent chopping of endless meats was, for me, pretty hypnotizing. Colombia’s famous flowers, handmade crafts and even elixirs and potions (believed to cure, for example, love sickness) open the window into Cali life even wider. And of course, the array of hot local foods, from lechona to regional tamales (the style here is unique to the region) to cow eyes if you want them, seems endless.

It’s a touristy place, thanks largely to cleanup efforts by the city’s “cultural office” (my guide’s words), and with the exception of the meat-chopper who didn’t love me using a full roll of film on him, the venders are happy to help the uninitiated. It opens at 5 am every day, closes around 6 pm and really shouldn’t be missed.

Helpful tip: For about 3000 pesos, you can get a full meal at Galeria Alameda, which is by all accounts the best deal in the city. All your solid food options will be fresh, hot and delicious—particularly if you love meat, starch and spicy kicks—but I’ll sign off on the lechona and pandebono in particular. And don’t tell Bloomberg, but your giant drink comes with unlimited refills.

5. El Parque del Gato de Tejada (Park of Tejada’s Cat) (on Google Maps)
El Parque del Gato de Tejada is worth a look if only because of its proximity to the city’s modern soul. The park (more of a pleasantly arranged walk alongside the river), commemorates the work of painter and sculptor Hernando Tejada, whose El Gato del Río—which headlines the space—was a gift to the city as it worked to clean up its image in the late 90s.

In the time since, more cats have been added, which is cool, I’m pretty sure. Each new addition is the work of a different local artist, and as a whole the bamboo-lined walk is something of a “Cali 101.” Explore a bit on your way to the nearby modern art museum, and if you love cats, then explore a lot. Either way, it’s a must-see in Cali.

Where to eat
Cali was described to me as the country’s culinary capital. I’m going to give the edge to Bogotá—with whatever certainty three days in each allow me—but for its size, especially, Cali has an impressive culinary scene to be sure. Enviable access to fresh produce, livestock, sugar and more is huge in bringing new flavors out of so many great traditional dishes. Here are a few spots that do it particularly well:

A horse rides by at La Tinaja

A horse rides by at La Tinaja

  • El Ringlete (on Google Maps), which offers the very friendly chef Martha Jaramillo’s takes on old favorites in the comfort of a refurbished home (her sobrebarriga, a tender beef dish, is excellent)
  • Zaguán de San Antonio (on Google Maps), where you can enjoy traditional favorites and possibly “Bofe con arepa” (beef intestine made crunchy, salty and kind of addictive), from the covered rooftop patio
  • La Tinaja (on Google Maps), a circus of a place where horse-and-rider combos perform for you while you feast (“Canastado,” with beans, rice, steak, and more all sizzling over fried egg, was one of the best things I ate in Colombia); it’s a bit out of the city, but an experience for sure—and it’s on the way back from the Museo de la Caña
  • La Cabaña (on Google Maps), a really cool, low-key lunch place about 30 minutes outside of Cali with views overlooking an incredible valley (the sobrebarriga was again very good)
  • Patio Santo (on Google Maps), a going-out-meets-dinner experience with a less traditional and very good menu accompanied by live music

Helpful tip: Make sure to try champús (sweeter) and lulada (tangier), two very delicious fruit juice concoctions you’ll find most everywhere in Cali. Their shared texture takes some getting used to, but you’ll be hooked soon enough.

Where to stay: Hotel Spiwak Chipichape Cali (on Google Maps) or NOW Hotel (on Google Maps)
The oddly shaped Hotel Spiwak Chipichape Cali (it’s like a fleshed-out, three-dimensional copyright “c”) opened in late 2010, and in the time since, it’s earned a reputation as the city’s best hotel. Just five minutes from the Valle del Pacifico event center, it’s pretty massive—and even connects to a shopping complex at the bottom—but its modern rooms feel cozy and personal, and its showerheads were good enough to warrant mention here. Even with a name like Chipichape (comes from the name of the shopping complex) to live up to, I’d say the Spiwak delivered.

Nice looking room at the NOW Hotel

A room at the NOW Hotel

And yet, I think I’d opt for the boutique NOW Hotel next time. Poking around it one afternoon, I was probably sold the moment I found Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring as the coffee-table reading, but the rest of the place really was amazing. A clean, avant-garde aesthetic sets the tone—from a kaleidoscopic lobby to giant doors to black-and-white, full-wall photographs—and it’s a good tone. The hotel has partnered with local artists and displays their work, as well. Just a cool place.

Ian Livingston

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About the Author

Ian Livingston
Traveler and writer Ian Livingston has lost his bearings in 59 countries, six continents and five NYC boroughs. He is better for it. Now living in Brooklyn, he reports on the world's lesser-known quantities as a self-calibrating writer and by way of his roles as Editor at JohnnyJet.com and Chat Manager for the weekly #TravelSkills Twitter chat with Johnny Jet and Chris McGinnis. In his sights now: the polar regions.

1 Comment on "Cali, Colombia with a Side of Salsa"

  1. That’s a nice description of the city. I like when you said that people is taking care about the beauty, because beauty and wellbeing is a matter of culture here. Cali is also known as the sport capital of america, not only for the sports events that host every year, but also for the sport and physical activities that people involve. It seems to be that you only were in the nort-west part of the city, there is a lot to know in the southern area. For example, did you go to Pance river or Farallones? those places also are iconic, for the ecoturist and for the average “caleño”. I am glad you enjoyed our city and you are very welcome!

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