Mostly what you read and hear about the city of Cali goes something like this: Cali is hot. The people like to dance. But the town is short on sights and things to do so it’s o.k. to skip. The city rarely makes the list of ‘top destination in the country’. And while most travelers don’t even bother with the southern part of the country, the tourists who do visit Cali are usually passing through in route to other sites in Southern Colombia, or to Ecuador. But if you’re touring Colombia and don’t visit Cali you’re missing out on a great Colombian city.
A hot, gritty city with a real zest for life it’s called “the city of eternal summer and salsa”. Cali is one of the oldest city’s in South America. It was founded by the Spanish in 1536 – though inhabited by the indigenous peoples thousands of years prior.
At an altitude of 3,340 feet (1,081 meters), the city sprawls out over a valley floor of Cordillera Occidental mountains. It spans 216 square miles (560 meters) (216 sq. mi) with an urban area of 46 square miles (121 km). Cali is the second-largest city in the country. With a population of 2.5 million people, Cali is the third most populous city in Colombia after Bogota and Medellin. An economic powerhouse, Cali has one of the fastest-growing economies. It’s the seat of 150 multinational companies and boasts all the conveniences of modern living with numerous shopping malls and two soccer stadiums.
Producing 20% of Colombia’s G.D.P. Cali is the capital of Val de Cauca, a department producing sugar, rice, cotton, coffee and cattle. Cali is the only major Colombian city with access to the Pacific coast with major highways cutting through 75 miles of mountains to the port city of Buenaventura.
What to See and Do
Cali is not expensive. There are lots of modestly priced hotels and restaurants. I stayed on Sixth Avenue or ‘La Sexta’ – which, according the guide books, is the place to be. It’s an avenue smack dab in the city center full of clubs and restaurants and shops, well patrolled and safe to walk even late at night.
Cali is a city that can be easily be explored on foot. Walk under the shade trees along the riverbank in the historic center, admire the architecture of churches and visit the city’s many museums.
Sixth Avenue starts at Bolivar Park in the south. Cross over Puente Ortiz and you’re in the historic center. Stroll along the river on Carrera 1 which follows the Cali River winding through town. The river walk is decorated by feline statues called ‘cats on the river’ made by the artist Hernando Tejada.
There are plenty of sights to see along the way: the Ortiz bridge, the white neo-Gothic Cathedral of La Ermita, The La Merced Chapel, the Archeological Museum, the Gold Museum, Municipal theater, the Tertulia museum and many more.
The west end of the river walk ends at San Antonio park. The surrounding neighborhood has a bohemian identity with boutique hotels, upscale restaurants, vegetarian fare, cafes, hostels and alternative offerings. A lot of travelers are stay in this area.
Cali has a large central food market in the southern end of the historical center. The city has some of the best stocked wine and liquor stores I’ve found in all Colombia. And just a short taxi ride from the center the best zoo in Colombia, Zoologico de Cali, can be found. Parque del Perro is a dining district west of Cali – famous for its large statue of a dog in the square. And, of course, there’s Cali’s nightlife.
Cali’s Nightlife and Salsa Fever
Cali is famous for its steamy salsa dancing and a nightlife second to none. Self-proclaimed the ‘Salsa Capital of the World’, salsa became popular in Cali in the 1940s and 50s with the popularity of Cuban and Argentinian music. Then in the 1970s and 80s, with the Cali cartels and lots of drug money in circulation, hundreds of bars and nightclubs sprung up around the city. There are many international festivals in the city celebrating its salsa tradition, but it’s the poorest neighborhoods that keep the salsa fever alive.
There are many ‘zonas rosas’ or entertainment districts around the city filled with dance clubs and bars. After La Sexta, in the center, there’s the Barrio Granada and Juanchito. These areas are famous for their night life, lively streets, dance clubs and bars. The northern part of city is an industrial area full of working factories during the day and dance clubs and love motels at night.
The people of Cali love dancing. You can see it’s in their blood. If the music is playing in the distance somewhere and they’re moving to it. All someone has to do is turn on a radio and people start busting a move. In the plazas, in the evenings, they have free public dance exercise – crank up boom box and the salsa dancing begins. And it looks like anything but exercise.
Things to see outside of the city
Calima Lake is a beautiful lake in the mountains above Cali,
Cerro de la Tres Cruzes is a hilltop just outside of the city with 3 crosses. People like to hike the hill to the top.
Cristo Rey is another religious destination – a park above the city with a 75 foot tall statue of Christ similar to the one found in Rio de Janeiro and in Bucaramanga.
Cool things off by taking a trip up in the nearby mountains. Go find a country restaurant in the mountains or pack a picnic.
Cali is an interesting city with an electrifying atmosphere. The city’s slogan is: ‘fall in love with Cali’ ‘Enamorarte de Cali’. Fall in love, see the sights, visit the clubs, learn to salsa dance. The city will draw you in and stay with you long after you leave town.