What to do in Cali. The world’s capital of Salsa.

Cali is the world capital of Salsa – that was mostly what I knew when I arrived in cali (Valle del Cauca).

Originally, Cali wasn’t on my travel list. I ended up there for a series of coincidences. 

Just like when I travelled to the Eje Cafetero and I met splendid people from (or who had recently been to) Medellin and I booked a flight to Medellin straight away, when I was in Medellin the same thing happened with Cali.

My new friends were from Cali and I saw a special light in their eyes when they told me about their hometown.

I felt there was something in Cali. I needed to go there and see for myself.

With friends. Medellin, 2021.

So I made a reservation: Cali was meant to be for Halloween.

I booked four nights – three full days in Cali, which turned out to be more than enough. I packed my party clothes and got ready to explore the city.

This article is my guide to the City: what to do in Cali, where to stay, where to party.

I’ll also share what Cali meant to me.

Truth is, once back to Bogotá after my weekend in Cali, when people asked about it I didn’t know what to answer. I had a lot of fun and met some new friends, but there was something I had not quite understood yet about the city. There was something I couldn’t grasp. 

Then one day, over two months after my trip, I woke up and it hit me. I finally got it. That was Cali. But I will get there soon.

Cali, Colombia 2021

Cali is the capital of Valle del Cauca. It lies on both sides of the Cali River in the subtropical intermontane Cauca Valley. The city was founded in 1536 by the Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Benalcázar. Cali did not develop economically until the 1950s, however, because of its landlocked position. It has since become Colombia’s third largest city, after Bogotá and Medellín.

Today, the city is the centre of a number of tourist attractions. Beyond a handful of churches and museums, Cali is light on sights. To me, the city’s main attraction is its beguiling, electrifying atmosphere. 

What do to in Cali during three days?

  • Cristo Rey
Cristo Rey. Cali.

Cristo Rey is a statue 26 metres tall located in the Cerro de los Cristales. The hill is so named because of the amount of quartz that abound in the surrounding area.

The statue saw the light in 1953 at its summit as an image of Christ in celebration of the fifty years following the end of the War of a Thousand Days.

More than the Cristo Rey itself, the hill is what makes the visit worth it. From Cristo Rey’s hill you can breathe and meditate in peace.

  • Cat park: El Gato del Río

The River Cat is a sculpture by Colombian artist Hernando Tejada. The sculpture was inaugurated in 1996 and is located on the side of the Cali River. Inside the park, you will find 15 cats located, each having a different meaning and history.

Nothing very special, but a nice place to go for a walk.

  • Capilla La Ermita
Chapel La Ermita. Cali.

With its beautiful gothic style, this church was built between 1930 and 1948. Its marble altar, brought from Italy in the 18th century, stands out. The musical clock and the stained glass windows come from Amsterdam, while the iron doors are a product of Cali’s artisans.

The Hermitage preserves images from more than three centuries, such as those of the Virgen de los Dolores, San Roque, of San José and Christ of the Caña.

When I went to Cali, all around the church there were the bookstalls of the annual Book Fair. Authors were presenting their books and students listening to them with lighting eyes. The atmosphere was vibrant. For a moment I felt like I was in Europe. 

  • Barrio San Antonio
San Antonio Church in Cali

Quaint and quiet, San Antonio spotlights historic architecture, artisan craft shops and traditional cuisine from the Valle del Cauca region. The 18th-century San Antonio Church its within the San Antonio hill and features a white-and-brick facade and a baroque altar.

The neighbourhood is home to a wide array of laid-back cafes and low-key hotels.

  • Parque Artesanal Loma de la Cruz

The Park as a project started in 1990. It seeks to strengthen the city’s artisan scene, as a tourist hub and point of sale. Today, a total of 71 artisans showcase their products.

Market in Parque Loma de la Cruz

The name comes from a myth. Spoiler: quite a creepy one.

The legend tells of the relationship between two slaves in 1559, Crescencio and Juana. Both had affairs with the complicity of their patron, Doña Carmen de la Ronda. The two slaves maintained their relationship and secretly got married at the Piedra Grande altar in the Lili Valley.

When Juana told her employer about their wedding location and that they both heard a deep voice from the cliffs, Doña Carmen immediately remembered the legend about a demon that lived under that mountain. So that the devil would not tempt his peons, Doña Carmen betrayed Crescencio and Juana.

The couple found out and fled, but were captured later.

Once imprisoned, the two slaves were brough before their employer, Don Alberto Bujanlande. In a rage, he beat Juana until he almost killed her, which caused Crescencio to break free of his bonds and hit his master, breaking his jaw.

As punishment Crescencio’s penis and hand were cut off. Juana was abandoned, pregnant, in the bush, where she was devoured by animals. Shortly after, Crescencio appeared dead and as he was not buried, his soul appeared wandering and gushing blood – driving animals crazy in its path.

That went on until a wooden cross was planted in the place, which later in 1909 some Franciscans changed to one made of bricks glued in mortar.

Today, la Loma de la Cruz is an open space for culture, it hosts many events and is often full of activities such as open-air cinema screenings, Andean music, and a permanent display of handicrafts made by artisans. I loved it.

  • Museums (one of my favourite things to do in Cali!)

Archaeological museum

The Julio César Cubillos Archaeological Museum features a sample of pre-Hispanic Colombian cultural and archaeological heritage. I could admire exhibits of pottery, stone, hair, shells, and wood artefacts made in southwestern Colombia between 16 B.C. and 16 A.D.

Golden museum

The Banco de la República’s Calima Gold Museum features displays of pieces of jewellery, pottery, stone, bone, and shell from the Ilama, Yotoco, and Sonso pre-Hispanic cultures, who settled in the archaeological area known as Calima. Hunters and gatherers inhabited the area 9,000 years ago.

Tertulia Museum

Formerly known as the Museum of Modern Art La Tertulia, it has an important collection of American and especially Colombian art. I couldn’t visit it (Monday is closing day!) but I heard only positive comments about it.

Let’s talk food!

Cali is quite a hot city. So in between sightseeing, do not forget to get some energy with local fresh drinks, such as Champus and eat Cholado: 

  • Try Champus

It is a traditional and very popular drink in Cali and the rest of Valle del Cauca. It is a combination of corn, lulo, pineapple, orange leaves sweetened with panela “melao” and seasoned with cinnamon and cloves.

  • Taste Cholado

The cholado or ‘cholao’ is Cali’s typical fruit salad. Its preparation is on a base of shaved ice, fruits, molasses of different flavours and condensed milk. Ingredients: banana, green apple, strawberry, grape, papaya, pineapple.

The initial name of the drink was ‘The three girls’ and contained pineapple, lulo and lemon.

Tasting Champus.

When they ask me what to do in Cali, one imperative immediately comes to my mind. Party!

Cali wakes up at around 5PM. Sure, during the day people leave their home, they go to work, do their shopping and all the other things that people do in their everyday life.

However, the city seems to really shake off the torpor that has enveloped it during the hot day only at sunset.

That’s when it gets ready for the new night ahead. Streets become more jammed, salsa is not anymore the background sound you hear in the shops. Reggaeton’s vibes come along. The time has come for a new night of fiesta.

In Colombia, parties start early(ier). While in Europe (from my experience The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Germany) at 10pm you’d still be drinking a beer, slowly entering the state of mind for the next phase, in Colombia at 10pm you are already queuing for a club. 

So in Cali, every night I would find myself hopping off a taxi at 10ish and immediately start lining up outside a club. Wondering what was going to be the adventure of that night.

Cali is the capital of salsa so naturally, salsa is predominant. You will dance to merengue, bachata, and vallenato, and of course reggaeton, but salsa is the absolute queen of the night.

Here are some must go places for partying:

Where to stay in Cali

Every night after a crazy party, I would go back to the hostel by taxi. My hostel was located in Barrio San Antonio.

I think it was the best neighbourhood to stay as a tourist in Cali.

However, I surely would not recommend the hostel I booked.

I stayed in Viajero hostel. I remember hesitating while booking it. Something was stopping me. Viajero looked like a party hostel, and I didn’t want to find myself in a party hostel. I’m closer to my 30s than to my 20s after all… but then I decided to book it for one reason.

I thought: “For sure in a party hostel I’ll find some friends (and I did! I met some amazing people) and I will go around with them during the day. I’m a solo traveller par excellance but in Cali it’s better not to go around alone.

Mirador in Cali.

Cali is a dangerous city.

According to the ranking carried out by the NGO Seguridad, Justicia y Paz, which takes into account the crime and homicide rate in cities with more than 300,000 inhabitants, the Colombian city of Cali remained within the ranking of the 50 cities most dangerous in the world

The system of exclusion in the city (based on ethnic, racial and class segregation) makes the city particularly exposed to violence and conflict still today. This is due, among other things, to the fact that historically it was a migration hub. It was the urban centre to which populations migrated because of the violence and the Colombia’s internal armed conflict.

This migration process also resulted in the socio-spatial segregation of the city, with safest areas being assigned for sale to the wealthy sectors. The least attractive areas were historically destined for the construction of social housing informal settlements.

In Cali, a clear differentiation arose between those who had access to resources and homogeneous characteristics (white or mestizo elite, mostly Catholic, typical of the region and politically rooted in traditions), in relation to marginalised and heterogeneous sectors of the city ( ethnically and culturally diverse, displaced groups from other parts of the country).

This gap has increased, causing barriers which separated the different sectors of the city.

Spatial and socioeconomic segregation index in the communes of Cali.
Source: Cerón, Wilmar L. & Escobar, Yesid. (2014). Índice de Segregación Espacial y Socioeconómico (ISES) en las Comunas de Santiago de Cali. Cuadernos de Vivienda y Urbanismo. 7.

Today, Cali is still organised, in socio-spatial terms, in large blocks or “corridors”.

Here, the underrepresented population concentrates in two peripheral bands. The neighbourhoods on the eastern fringe and those that extend over the mountainous areas to the west.

The middle classes are located in the centre and in the peripheral communes, while the wealthy classes occupy the north-south corridor and represent the less densely populated territories.

These urban dynamics make the social conflicts more prominent, with the urban centre having a high crime rate due to the multiple armed organisations and criminal gangs that operate in this territory.

Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest against a tax reform bill launched by Colombian President Ivan Duque, in Cali, Colombia on April 29, 2021. Workers’ unions, teachers, civil organizations, indigenous people and other sectors reject the project that is underway in the Congress, considering that it punishes the middle class and is inappropriate in the midst of the crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. / AFP / Paola MAFLA

I explored the city alone as well and everything went well. But I’d recommend you find some travel companions.

Better if not in a party hostel. In my case, I would return to the hostel after my nights of fiesta, craving my bed. But then I wouldn’t be able to sleep because the guy sleeping below my (bunk) bed would be vomiting. Or, I wouldn’t be able to use the toilet because a couple was using it for another purpose (yeah, it is what you think).

This happens in the hostel. I would be lying if I said that I had never been on the other side, but well, to me it was not that fun when I just wanted to sleep. Food for thought in case you want to pick a party hostel.

With friends in Cali

I spent three days in Cali. I lived fully. However, when I came back to Bogotá and my friends asked me “So how did you like Cali?” I didn’t really know what to answer…

Then one day I woke up and thought of Heminguay’s book A Moveable feast.

A Moveable Feast is a 1964 memoir by American author Ernest Hemingway.

It talks about his years as a struggling expat journalist and writer in Paris during the 1920s. The book details Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson and his associations with other cultural figures of the Lost Generation in Interwar France.

In the book, “Moveable feast” emerges as a concept. 

Paris, 1920s. Hemingway with Richardson.

In Christianity, a movable feast is a holy day – a feast day or a fast day – whose date is not fixed to a particular day of the calendar year but moves in response to the date of Easter.

For example, Easter is itself a “moveable feast”.

By metaphoric extension, Hemingway uses the term “moveable feast” to mean the memory of a splendid place that is in continuous movement.

One that moves with the traveller for the rest of their life, after he has had the experience of it and gone away.

In the case of Heminguay, it was Paris.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” 

To me, it was Cali. Cali is a moveable feast.

I felt it on my first night there, I just couldn’t name it. On Friday I hopped on a cab. There were four (in that moment unknown) people squeezed on the back seats. My friend Macarena was sitting in the front.

Everyone was very excited about the party. My new friends were laughing loudly and the taxi driver was laughing with them. I must admit, initially I thought the driver was a friend who was going to come dance with us…There was something about the driver’s way to join our festive mode which deeply triggered me.

It was a collective movement of enthusiasm and light-heartedness. The essence of sharing an intimate moment, a feeling, a momentum.

Cali  felt suspended. As it was not bound by conventional rules of time and space. As if it would be moving through life with you.

Cali is not just a place. It is a feeling. Cali is a moveable feast.

Leave a Reply