Before joining a friend of mine on her solo trip to Colombia, I had never heard of Cali. My embarrassing ignorance of Colombia’s third largest city, led me to a light Google search, which only made me even more reluctant to pay sixty dollars for the two hour flight from Medellin (the first leg of my trip). Cali seems somewhat unimpressive on paper. It was, however, only a three-day stop and the weather was meant to be pleasant. If nothing else, I had found a great Airbnb and was assured a good time with my friend. When I told a few people in Medellin that I was making a quick stop in Cali, they all reacted with the same word: salsa (the dance, not the sauce). This made me a bit more relieved; simply because I am tempted to think, where there are people dancing salsa, there is always a good time.
In truth, there isn’t much to see in Cali. In comparison to Medellin, Cali is small and mostly uneventful. Its museums and major tourist sites can all be explored in three or four days with proper planning. It has beautiful churches, and though we arrived on the weekend when museums were closed, we were supplemented culturally by a festival celebrating music and art from the region. From what I gathered talking to a few travellers, most people visit Cali for the excursions offered outside of the city (mostly parasailing and hiking). What there is to see, however, is quite beautiful.
During the day, many people stay indoors, because of the intense heat. If you do choose to walk around before 3pm (bless you), you’re bound to hear the faint sound of salsa music coming from a dance studio. Or maybe, you’ll encounter the sweet smell of ripe fruit from outdoor merchants, fanning themselves on a street corner. The thick humidity is such that it makes you feel as if you could graze your fingers upon the air and touch something solid. So understandably, the streets are quiet, which allows you to admire the beauty of its oldest neighbourhood, San Antonio’s architecture and the city’s overall tropical verdure in peace. I was particularly fond of the murals. They are abundant and colourful. I also enjoyed La Ermita church, although it too was closed. Right by La Ermita is a small park, Parque de las Poetas. There you’ll find sitting statues of different Colombian poets, inscribed with their personal views of the city . It was nice to sit with Ricardo Nieto and Antonio Llanos and piece together (with my one-semester-freshman-year-of-college Spanish) what they too admired about the city. Cali is very much a city with all the dusty paved roads and boisterous traffic jams to be expected from one. Yet, it has a small town charm one can easily fold into.
At night is when the city comes to life. For one, more people are out and about. Only then can you truly get a sense of the culture for which the city is known. Though unexplored in its entirety, my travel partner and I ventured to Zaperoco, a prominent salsa club. The high ratings and abundant positive recommendations found online made us fearful that it would be filled with people like us, tourists wanting to watch people dance and not actual salsa dancers. Thankfully, we were wrong, and instead were entranced by the natural sway of the couples, who danced as if it were in their DNA to move to the sounds of Celia Cruz and Joe Arroyo.
The second night was all for Bad Bunny! The Puertorican musician was the closing artist for the Remote de ICFES, an end of the school year festival. Most of the concertgoers were young teenagers, making me, at 20 years old, feel old. But the repetitive beats and “charisma” of the dancers on stage make you forget that you’re standing on your feet for three hours and surrounded by people who could not have been born before the year 2000. Afterwards, back in the comfort of my room, I could hear to friends, lovers covening in the park near my Airbnb, packed outside of restaurants, comparing motorbikes and enjoying an array of fried meats.
Which reminds me, I mustn’t forget to write about the food–or maybe more so the drinks. It would be a sin.
The best meal I had, a bowl of pasta, was from Museo La Tertulia‘s restaurant. The best coffee I have ever had was from my Airbnb hostess. According to her, the man she buys it from grinds and distributes his coffee from a van, that he drives around town making deliveries. Whenever she needs a refill, she phones him up and he’s at her doorstep the following day. It’s such a personal transaction, one most likely filled with brief pleasantries– an hola, a como esta, a quick ciao at the end. It added such a nice touch to the already small-town feel the city can give you.
Between the coffee, the lulada, a drink made from the lulo (fruit baby of an orange and kiwi), and the bread (there’s always breald), I was always loaded with enough carbs for afternoon naps and reading under the sun. Other than eating and walking, sitting and snapping pictures, hydrating on limonadas de coco and the Celia Cruz Mojitos (hands down the best mojito I’ve EVER had) was all I did. Filling up on french toast and walking in the hot sun just makes you thirsty.
All in all, Cali is an acquired taste. My travel partner’s fondest memory of the city is of her counting the seconds until she could board the plane away from it. I, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Perhaps it was because it was smaller and San Antonio is much quainter, and in some ways livelier, than where I stayed in Medellin. Whatever it is that made me fall in love with Cali, I am grateful for it. I am grateful for the cool breeze grazing my neck, after a long night being mesmerised by seasoned salsa dancers in Zaperoco. I am grateful for lulada. I am grateful for the afro and indigenous faces plastered on nearly every mural, celebrating the city’s racial diversity. I am grateful for my Airbnb hostess, Yelitza, who embodied the overarching ease and friendliness I often encountered often from the people I met there. If I never opened my mouth to reveal my gringa accent, I would blend in. If nothing else, that made Cali, even if just for three days, feel like home.
I look forward to a time when I can explore more of what the region has to offer.
Cali es Cali, y lo demás es loma.