CALI: My favorite city in Colombia

Cali, sweet Cali… how is it that we almost missed you?

Because we almost listened to the people that said to “watch out, Cali is dangerous” or because we were worried about the weather being bad, neither of which turned out to be an issue at all. As with the rest of Colombia in general, the message  rings loud and clear: Don’t believe everything you hear! If I had I wouldn’t have gotten to know my favorite city in all of Colombia, nor my favorite country that I have traveled thus far.

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“Cali is Cali and the rest is just a hill”. Pay attention to the cat, we will come back to him later

When we decided to go check it out anyways, it was initially just for a day or two to “test the waters” after the unsettling things we had heard. That easily turned into an entire week, and even then I longed to stay more. A piece of my heart is still back there in sweet, surprising, Cali.

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I left my heart in Cali, Colombia

I didn’t get to know any other city in Colombia the way that I got to know Cali. From the day that we got there we were immediately accepted and integrated into the lovely, low-key neighborhood that we called home for one week,  San Antonio. We nodded and smiled to the locals as we walked past them, wishing each other “muy buenas dias”. Before I knew it they were my neighbors and my friends, people recognized us and giggled as they tested out what little english they knew to ask us how we were and how we were liking Cali. It’s hard to say that any one place in Colombia had the friendliest people, but my experience here was extra special. We joked about having celebrity status as the answer to anything that we asked was an enthusiastic “si, claro!”.

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Rio Cali which runs through the center of the city

 

I have to say in this case, I was kind of glad that so many people listen to the bad stuff and opt to simply skip over Cali because it meant that we had the place to ourselves to discover and fall in love with. As far as the “danger” factor our neighbors and friends had our back. Caleños are quick to warn you where to avoid. We simply heeded their advice and avoided those places, and made it out of Cali with nothing but beautiful, happy memories. Such as the following:

Cali for… SALSA!

You may have thought it was Havana, but Cali, Colombia is actually the capital of Salsa music, something that they are very proud of and rightfully so. Like Medellin, Cali also has undergone a transformation in the last decade from a capital of drug trafficking to the capital of Salsa, and the heart of the entire city seems to be thumping to that upbeat, happy sound. Therefore, a visit to the Museum of Salsa is a must, where you can learn about the city’s rich heritage with this genre of music. Since we were the only ones there, we were treated to a private tour of this museum, and even got free CDs when we left.

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This giant trumpet monument in front of the Salsa Museum in Cali is also a giant music box! When you step under the horns you can hear the “Cali Pachanguero”, Cali’s theme song by their most famous group, Grupo Niche, who helped create and elaborate the salsa genre.

A lot of people come to Cali to learn to dance salsa, and this is what I would have done if I’d had more time there. Needless to say, you can find salsa music to listen and dance to any night of the week here.

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A whole city thumping to the Salsa beat

Cali for… Cake!

Alright, this is not normal. I’m standing at an intersection and three of the four corner shops are “pastelerias” or cake shops, and this has been a frequent occurrence since we got to Cali. Why is it that this is such a big city for pastries and cakes? “Maybe because we are so sweet” one Caleño joked. Good answer! But the real reason turns out to be that Cali is the capital of Valle de Cauca, the region where most of the country’s sugar cane is grown and produced, and they have mastered the art of all things sugar. Apparently there is even a sugar cane museum in Cali that we didn’t make it to, preferring to spend our time in the pastelerias indulging in these sweet little masterpieces than learning about their production. It was time well spent and a big part of the reason why I call Cali the sweetest city so far, both figuratively and literally, of course.

Cali for …. Food!

It doesn’t stop with the pastries. I would label Cali a culinary destination for sure, and the best food that I have eaten in Colombia was here. In fact, part of the reason why we kept extending our stay is because there was still more food to try! The popular street food tour that takes you sampling your way through Cali’s main market for only $7 is an absolute must. I had the best seafood dish of my life in one of the many restaurants in that area around the market for less than $10, and the interesting Colombian version of ceviche- a big bowl of shrimp mixed in a salsa rosa (a mixture of ketchup, mayonnaise, and spices) with saltine crackers. Pre-Cali I wasn’t too impressed with Colombian cuisine, but the food I tried here was the best I’ve had in South America. I won’t deny that our Cali experience revolved heavily around food and eating.

The best ribs and seafood I’ve ever had, the cazuela de mariscos- a creamy casserole chock full of every seafood you can think of

Frozen limonadas de coco and the Colombian version of Ceviche

Tasting our way through Cali’s central market on the Street Food Tour

Cali for… Street Art!

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Every city in Colombia has cool street art, and most offer walking “Graffiti Tours” which are absolutely worthwhile and recommendable, but I was particularly enthralled with Cali’s colorful and creative murals, which constitute a great majority of the pictures that I took there. You could spend a day just walking around marveling at this stuff- we certainly did.hipstamaticphoto-513024649.245340

Cali for…. Cats!

The “Gato del Rio” or “River Cat” was a donation to the city of Cali from famous Colombian artist and sculptor Hernando Tejado in 1996 as part of an effort to clean up the city’s riverbanks (the Cali river runs through the center of the city) but now it has become the city’s icon. Ten years later, in the same effort to continue keeping the river clean, fifteen Colombian artists were invited to create “Las Novias del Gato” or the girlfriends of the original River Cat. Now the river is lined with these fun and artistic cat sculptures. Apparently, the striking amount of actual cats we noticed all around Cali is just a coincidence.

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I’m not much of a cat person but I did have a blast posing for photos with the famous “Gato del Rio” and his many girlfriends.

Cali for… Vistas! 

There are two very worthwhile viewpoints to check out while in Cali: the three crosses, which involves an early morning hike up a little mountain (you must go in the early morning when the police are present along the trail, in the afternoon it can be dangerous as thieves take advantage of the lack of police presence later in the day) and the Statue of Christ (you have to take a taxi to get up to him). Both were erected to protect and look after the city of Cali. Apparently he is one of the tallest Christ statues in the world. Not only are these fun, active things to do while in Cali (to help burn off all those pastries!) but you have fantastic views of Colombia’s third largest city and the surrounding mountains ranges.

So to conclude, the experience I had in Cali was certainly a special one, and the perfect end to an amazing ten weeks in this enthralling country. For one week we belonged to that neighborhood, to that city. For ten weeks I belonged to this country. I never felt so warmly embraced by any place in the world, save Spain which was home to me for four years. I wouldn’t change it for anything; I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. To have such a welcoming experience in a place you are just passing through is something I will never take for granted and that will keep me coming back to Colombia (and Cali!) again and again.

Hostel recommendation:

Along with the pastries and the food, our fantastic experience at Kingbird Hostel in the neighborhood of San Antonio is a big part of the reason why we just could not part ways with Cali! The awesome staff were immediately our friends and we are forever grateful to them for all the laughs, the recommendations for where to eat, and making us feel right at home in our favorite city. Make this your spot in Cali!

 

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