Cali was on my (very vague) itinerary from the very beginning. It claims to be the capital of salsa and Lonely Planet describes it as a pulsing city that offers everything other cities only promise, so naturally I had to go. It is situated in the Valle del Cauca and one of Colombia’s agricultural centers. More interestingly, it was home to one of the big drug cartels not so long ago, which is possibly why inhabitants take extra security measures, like manned gates in some of the nicer neighbourhoods.
It’s a small world
Coincidentally, it turned out I had acquaintances in Cali. If by “acquaintance”, you mean someone who I don’t remember and who saw me the last time when I was four years old. When I had booked my flight to Colombia, I had had no idea that anyone there even knew of my existence. Apparently though, one of mum’s friends was married to a Colombian guy once and his brother was my mum’s boyfriend for a while.
With the help of Facebook, street vendors who sell cell phone minutes and an e-mail conversation with one of my mum’s friend’s ex-husband’s nieces (Confused yet? I know I am.), I managed to still surprise said ex-husband with my arrival. He didn’t know I would arrive that day until a few hours before the event, but he still managed to pick me up at the airport and be nice about the fact he had to wait for an hour or so because my flight was late.
A Colombian Birthday
After a quick meal, I was invited to come along to the birthday of a nephew. Not one to pass up the chance of getting a glimpse into Colombian culture, I forced down my fish (I hate fish with a passion, but when someone is nice enough to give you free food and shelter even though they don’t know you, it’s hard to say no) and grabbed my bag. Vamos!
What had been a mere suspicion in Bogotá, turned to absolute certainty once I had spent a few hours trying to make small talk with a few rapidly-talking Colombians: my Spanish sucks. Thankfully wine is a universal experience, so I sipped on mine and tried to guess what I was saying sí and claro to. The highlight of the party were clearly the mariachis, who turned up for a couple of songs, and didn’t even mind us snatching their sombrero’s for a couple of photos. I was explained that hiring mariachis for birthdays or other celebrations is quite common in Colombia. Everyone was singing and clapping along to the songs, so it wasn’t hard to believe.
Lonely Planet implies Cali isn’t exactly one of Colombia’s most beautiful cities, but I beg to differ. I have to add a small disclaimer here because I’m pretty certain I stayed in one of the nicer areas of town and I’m sure there are a lot more decrepit ones, but I experienced Cali as a busy city with nice people. It’s not very touristic, so people just go about their lifes. If you don’t know any locals you will have to make a little bit more of an effort to gain access to fun activities than in other cities, but they’re there.
The Sugar Cane Museum
Unfortunately, I had a severe cold the next week (I’m blaming the hostel room in Bogotá) and my hosts had to work often, so Cali wasn’t quite the wild salsa experience I had imagined. I did get to hear enough of the music all over town to last me for a lifetime though (I mean that literally), so I won’t complain. They did take me to the Museo de la Caña de Azúcar, the sugar cane museum, which I can highly recommend (http://www.museocanadeazucar.com). If the residence that dates back to colonial times or the history of sugar production don’t pique your interest, maybe the fact a soap opera used to be filmed there will. Most of all, the grounds are just really beautiful. This green space a little while from the city is definitely worth a visit, and I can only recommend it.
When in Cali, definitely go up the hill to see the Iglesia de San Antonio. If churches don’t rock your socks, I can emphasize, but there’s a restaurant with reasonable prices and a beautiful view over the city just across the street. Undortunately, I don’t remember the name, but you can get local food and they also offer hamburgers and lasagne. It’s in Cali viaje (the old Cali), and I recommend going in the evening because the atmosphere is great (I assume it’s safe enough, especially in a group, but make sure first). I imagine watching the sunset from there would be a highlight too.
Should you stop by Cali?
I had my problems with the open door policy where I was staying at (I need some privacy and I’m not trying to insult someone when I close my door for a few hours to sleep) and by the end of my stay I was definitely ready to move on, but altogether the family I was staying with was very nice and made sure I was safe and had a good experience. Knowing someone in Cali was a cool coincidence, but I would have gone even if I hadn’t. Unless you’re on an extremely tight schedule, Cali and the Valle are definitely worth a visit when you’re traveling through Colombia, so make sure you check it out!