Cali is unique amongst the Colombian cities that I have visited for the simple fact that it completely engulfs you. Do not expect to find the gringo bars of Poblado in Medellin, or the twisting cobbled alleys of the Candelaria in Bogota. Cali is thrown at you, and you have no choice but to embrace it.
When organizing my trip to Cali, I initially planned to spend three nights there. I envisioned myself wandering around, visiting some museums and of course going to a salsa club to watch the dance that the city is famous for. A week later, I am still here.
Although in terms of day to day wanderings it doesn’t offer much more than other Colombian cities, there is a vibrancy and life to Cali which is completely consuming. San Antonio, the old town, perches on top of a hill overlooking the city and boasts a small church and an ever-so-slightly kitsch artisan market. It is the area where the majority of Cali’s hostels and hotels are sporadically scattered, along with Santa Monica, where you will also find most of the city’s bars and restaurants.
A trip to Museo de Arte Moderno and the Museo de Oro are a good way to spend an afternoon and escape the heat; failing that, the huge zoo on the outskirts of the city also offers refuge. It is worth walking around the historical centre, absorbing the atmosphere and admiring the beautifully gothic La Ermita or the crumbling red brick Iglesia de la Merced, Cali’s oldest church.
The Tres Cruces crown the city and (depending on your level of fitness/hangover) are between a one and two hour walk up a mountain; best to do this early in the morning to avoid the claustrophobic heat.
The tiny village of San Cipriano is said to be a two hour bus journey into the surrounding mountains, although in typical Colombian style actually takes between three and four. It makes a great day trip out to escape and relax from the incessant energy and enthusiasm of the city. You ride a rickety wooden pallet crate pulled by a motorbike along a train track (known as ‘The Witch’), swim in crystal clear water under a waterfall and relax on a pebbly beach. Alternatively you can hike to another waterfall which is both more isolated and more beautiful.
Thanks to two indecently sporty Israelis, I chose the hike. However, for those of us who have not just spent three years in the army, it is quite tough and consists of a lot more uphill than I was personally comfortable with. It is worth it though- the waterfall is stunning.
A word of warning: if you choose to make the trip to San Cipriano independently, like we did, beware of local ‘guides.’ As soon as we stepped off the bus we were approached by one such gentleman, who gave us very little choice in whether to accept his services or not. Said guide later pulled a small, but definitely threatening, knife on us after he demanded more than the agreed price, which put a bit of a dampener on what was otherwise a great day. My only advice is to be very clear about what you are willing to pay beforehand.
In spite of this experience, the real draw of Cali, the thing that kept me there for a week, was the people. It is the salsa capital of Colombia and for the Caleños it is not just a dance, but a necessity. The passion and vibrancy of the dance spills out of the clubs onto the streets and permeates the city with its infectious energy. It is rare to find so many people who are so friendly, so willing to help and to ensure that you are enjoying yourself as much as they are.
While walking through the main plaza, a street seller approached us, and we let out a collective groan, expecting an onslaught of sales and pestering. Instead, the man grinned at us, ‘Where are you from my friends!? Is it your first time in Cali?… Welcome to the city! I hope you have a great trip, enjoy your day’ and with that he strolled happily off into the bustling square leaving us with an odd mixture of guilt and awe.
When you go out to the clubs and bars, within a matter of minutes you are beckoned over by a group of locals, fed mildly repulsive liquor, and pulled onto the dance floor to try and clumsily keep up with their perfect salsa steps. After constantly being told to ‘move my hips’ and trying to explain ‘I’m English, we don’t do hips’ it was announced that I was a lost cause.
To really see mind-blowing salsa, ‘Las Brisas’ is a restaurant-come-salsa club about twenty minutes out of Cali which only opens on Mondays and draws the professional and hard-core dancers. We sat open mouthed in amazement, fighting the urge to clap and cheer.
For a more participation-friendly experience, I advise going to ‘Café Mitierra’ in Mengo, the big clubbing district. It is simple and cheerful and less intimidating for beginners if you want to brave the dance floor. Alternatively, ‘Living’ is a huge, neon club which draws the wealthy and beautiful of Cali to dance and drink. Anything less than heels for women and shirts for men will be out of place and you will be met by a stern ‘no’ before you’ve even got out the taxi.
No matter what bar you go to, it is hard not to envy the ease and grace of the salsa dancers and I highly recommend lessons. ‘Acrosalsa Latina’ offers group classes, and there are numerous private teachers for those with more serious intentions.
It was hard to tear myself away from Cali, as the city pulled me along, shouting at me to shake my hips. It was invigorating, exhausting and completely unforgettable.
How to get there:
Buses go from Bogota’s Terminal Central to Cali several times a day, for approx $55,000COP to $65,000COP, and take around 8 hours.
Flights take 1 hour and cost upwards of $80,000COP with LAN.