Santiago de Cali, more commonly referred to as Cali, is a vibrant city located in the southwest region of Colombia. Nestled in the Valle de Cauca with a population of roughly 3.5 million Cali is the third largest city in Colombia, behind Bogotá and Medellin respectively. When I learned about my year-long teaching placement in Cali I felt excited and nervous at the same time. My family embraced my new adventure with mixed reviews, “But isn't Colombia really dangerous?” “You mean Columbia, South Carolina?” “You are going to stand out with your blonde hair down there!” Ultimately they came around and supported my new endeavor, however to my embarrassment when asked where Cali was located I realized I knew very little about my new city. Naturally, I first went to my long-time friend, Google. After a quick search of “Cali, Colombia” I found my browser full of images containing violence, drugs, and danger. I am sure if you browse the internet you will find similar results. I began to second-guess my future travel plans but was not about to tell my parents about these internet findings. While this was disheartening, I welcomed the New Year 2016 in the United States, hopped on a plane headed south and have not looked back. During my five months living in Cali I have discovered the dynamic Caleño culture, learned (some) Colombian slang, and realized the inaccuracy of the internet.
Dark Past, Bright Future
Formerly a hotspot for drug traffickers, cartels, and violence, the southwest of Colombia, including Cali, has undergone a serious transformation in the past decade alongside the rest of the country. While many Colombians in this region still continue to face problems, including serious issues concerning wealth distribution and education, life for many is slowly improving. Many tourists and expats flock to Medellin, the former hangout spot of the infamous Pablo Escobar and known for its recent innovations in transportation, however, if you are looking for a truly authentic travel experience I highly recommend Cali. While tourism is far from anyone's mind here, Cali is full of dynamic barrios (neighborhoods) and boasts a gritty passion for life. Here in the “Salsa Capital of the World” travelers will find themselves integrated into a busy Colombian city and will witness the real Colombia, not just the limited tourist view. Below are seven reasons why Cali should be your next travel destination.
The Valle de Cauca region is known across the country as a gastronomical paradise and is guaranteed to satisfy a variety of taste buds. From the sweet cholado dessert to the sour lulado lemonade, your stomach will not be disappointed in Cali. Further, its proximity to the Pacific Ocean results in delicious seafood menus at local restaurants. In short, Caleños know how to cook, well. Here in Cali I have eaten some of the best food of my life, all on a tight budget. While Cali is a tremendous city, the food prices remain cheap. An “almuerzo tipico” (typical lunch) at a restaurant usually costs around 6.000 COP, around $3.00USD. Each day local restaurants post a menu at a fixed price. From here you can choose whatever you would like and portions are not for the weak either, this hefty lunch includes a heap of meat, a mountain of rice, vegetables, platains, beans, soup, and freshly squeezed juice. If you are looking for something other than Colombian food Cali has a number of western restaurants throughout the city. Granada, San Antonio, and El Peñon are three popular barrios where you can find Asian, Mexican, American, and Vegetarian restaurants. There is truly something for everyone's stomach in Cali, however you might want to bring some bigger jeans…
2. The Weather
Cali is hot. For me, the weather is representative of both the grit and passion of the city. A Caleño will tell you there are seasons here: rainy and dry. I have been told rainy season ranges from March-June/July with the rest of the year being dry season. A typical day usually reaches around 85-90 degrees Farienheit. Again, this city is very hot. While the middle of the day may be quite toasty, the mornings and evenings receive a cool breeze from the Pacific which makes for an awesome temperature. As an Ohio native, I have grown accostumed to these high temperatures and would take them over a bipolar Midwestern winter any day.
Usually about once or twice a month I ditch the busy city life and head outside of Cali. Located just three hours from the beach and mountains, Cali is an excellent home base location for travelers. Equipped with both an international airport and large bus terminal, traveling is easy as well as cheap. For example flights to Bogotá run daily and range from $20-40USD. During my time in Cali I have visited archeological sites, the Pacific Ocean, the Coffee Region, and small pueblos (towns) surrounding Cali. Sometimes it is nice to get away from the noise and bright lights of this vibrant city and with Cali's stellar location you have access to a variety of travel destinations.
Caleños love to party, drink, and have a good time. Cali has an active nightlife with a variety of options depending on the day of the week. While salsa clubs are the most popular, you can find electronic and crossover clubs that play western/ English music if you are not into the salsa scene. If clubs are not your thing, have no fear! There are a number of relaxed bars throughout the city that play live music and serve cheap beers. The popular beers here include Club Colombia, Aguila, and Redd's. Club Colombia has an ale, roja (red), and a dark brew. If you are like me and prefer lighter beers Aguila Lite is for you. Depending on the location, you can usually buy a beer for around 3.000 COP ($1.ooUSD). There is always some sort of festival happening in this city. Every Thursday there is Indigenous Dance night where all are invited to come dance in a local park. The event is free and open to all. You are guaranteed to have a great time whatever you end up doing at night.
If you come to the Salsa Capital of the World, you have to learn salsa. In fact, I have met many travelers that come to Cali for the sole purpose of perfecting their salsa skills. While my white girl dance moves are still in the process of being transformed into a suave salsera rhythm, there are an infinite number of salsa dance studios across the city depending on your budget and schedule. Almost every night of the week you will find salsa bars popping with Caleños moving their hips at a rate I still cannot comprehend. A popular spot on Thursday nights is Tin Tin Deo, a small salsa spot where the best of the best practice their moves. You will hear salsa music EVERYWHERE and learn that there are many other salsa singers outside of Marc Antony (check out his tune “Valió la Pena”). Salsa is not just a hobby here, it's a way of life that you will grow to know and love.
The people of Cali, los Caleños, are the nicest people I have ever met. Period. English can be hard to come by here as Cali is not a tourist metropolis (yet) but the language barrier does not stop Caleños from lending a helping hand. I found my current apartment by talking to a nice old man on the street who happened to know my landlady. Just yesterday I was trying to cross a busy street and a woman jumped out in front of traffic to stop the cars so I could cross the street. I am lost on the bus daily and constantly receive directions from fellow passengers. While Cali has over 3.5 million people I have never felt like I am living in that large of a city because it feels more like a community. The people of Cali are known for their kindness and love for life. I assure you that this happiness in contagious and after five months of living here I have never been happier.
7. Best of Both Worlds
No, I am not quoting the Hannah Montana Theme song, kudos if you caught that though (#TBT). In Cali you will find a Hampton, Mariott, Subway, and a number of other western restaurant chains, however your Skinny Vanilla Latte will have to wait because as of right now there are no Starbucks here. You can sip fancy cocktails and enjoy a five-star dinner at a reasonable price, but if you walk a few barrios over you will witness families struggling to feed their own children. Each day I leave San Antonio, a historic barrio, and walk through the city's center to catch the bus to work. The Centro is not pretty and represents the rough reality that many Colombians still face in this developing country. As a resident of Cali you will witness extreme poverty on a daily basis. You are not shielded from these harsh realities of Colombian life. While in my barrio it is fairly common to encounter “gringos” wandering the historic streets, the majority of Cali is not full of tourist sites. I studied in Buenos Aires, a city full of museums, monuments, and touristy things to do. Here in Cali you experience tourism in a different light, from a more local perspective. Whether it is finding an awesome hole-in-the-wall restaurant or discovering a new barrio, Cali remains a relatively unexplored city. For me, this has been an incredible adventure. Ditching the Lonely Planet Guidebook and setting out on foot to learn the ins and outs of my city has taught me how to be a responsible traveler. Further, during my time in Cali I have interacted with far more locals than I ever did in Buenos Aires. You can truly have an authentic travel experience in Cali dining in local restaurants, taking public transport, and living amongst Colombians. At the same time, there are certain parts of the city you can escape to if you are really craving a Subway sandwich or an American style breakfast. Thus, Cali has the best of both worlds.
As they say, “Cali es Cali y lo demas es loma.” (Cali is Cali and the rest is just hills).