The Valle de Cauca is a province in S.W. Colombia nestled between the mountain ranges of the Cordillera Central and Oriental. It also includes a stretch of Pacific coastline. The Valle region gets its name from the Cauca River which flows north to south through the department. The province includes Colombia’s third most import city – Santiago di Cali, the country’s busiest port – Buenaventura and a number of small cities and villages stretching along the valley floor and and up into the green mountain valleys.
Valle de Cauca doesn’t attract a lot of international tourists. But it is by no means a remote area of Colombia. If one is heading south to Popayan, Pasto and/or Ecuador the Pan American highways runs north to south right through Valle. This lack of international curiosity isn’t due to the fact that there’s little to see and do. Colombian tourists continually visit Valle’s cities and towns.
But more recently, the region has been receiving more attention from international travelers, especially the repeat visitors to Colombia, who are tired of the growing number of foreign tourists flocking to the country’s primary destinations. In just the last couple years, Medellin, Cartagena, Bogota and Santa Marta have seen a spike in foreign tourism resulting in higher prices for lodging and other services.
Seasoned travelers, expats, students and snow birds, especially those who speak Spanish, are looking at the lesser known departments like Valle de Cauca and Santander and more remote parts of the Atlantic coast for extended stays and investment opportunities.
–So whether it’s for a short or long stay, here’s a look at a few of the most interesting cities and towns of Valle de Cauca. While you won’t see a lot of tourism here these places merit attention now because they may be the next new, hot destination of tomorrow.
Cali – the Capital
Santiago di Cali is the capital city of Valle. With a population of 2.9 million it is the third most populous city in Colombia after Bogota and Medellin. It’s a hot, gritty city, one of the oldest in South America. Cali is the salsa and rumba capital of Colombia. The city has one of the fastest growing economies in the country and is the seat to over 150 multinational companies. It has a steady climate averaging 23 degrees C. (75 degrees F.) It’s called ‘the city of eternal summer’ and Cali Caliente.
Cali is not an expensive town to visit and can easily be explored on foot. Walk along the river in the city center which is decorated by feline statues by the artist Hernando Tejada. Visit the neo-gothic Cathedral of La Ermita and the Ortiz bridge. At the west end of the river walk visit San Antonio park its surrounding neighborhood which has a bohemian identity with boutique hotels, cafes and upscale restaurants.
Cali is famous not only for its steamy salsa dancing but also its clubs and night life. At night explore Avenida La Sexta or any of the ‘zonas rosas’ or entertainment districts like Barrio Granada and Juanchito.
Cali has an international airport, Alfonso Bonilla Aragon de Palmira, which is the 3rd busiest airport in Colombia with domestic and international flights. The city also has an impressive zoo.
Around Cali one can visit the Sugarcane Museum just north of Palmira and the Hacienda El Paraiso for a better understanding of the the importance of sugar cane industry in the development in the history of the region.
(For more information see the article on Cali,)
Buenaventura – Port City
Buenaventura is just a 3 hour bus ride west from Cali along a modern expressway tunneling through the mountains to the port city of Buenaventura. This is Colombia’s easiest and most important port on the Pacific. Here around 80% of goods enter and exit the country.
Buenaventura is a poor, congested city. It has some hotels, restaurants and bars blasting salsa music serving sailors and dock workers. Few people stay to visit the city.
Most tourists arrive at the bus station and head right to the ‘tourist port’ ‘where booths sell tickets to small boats or launchas regularly carrying locals to the small fishing villages and tourist resorts along Valle’s Pacific coastline. Boats are the only means of transportation as there are no roads to these towns.
The town of Pianguita, Bocana and Maguipi are on the northern tip of the Bay of Buenaventura. While other villages like Juanchaco, La Barra and Ladrilleros are on the Bay of Malaga and in the National Park of Uramba. All these villages offer inexpensive lodgings, restaurants and vast, remote beaches.
(See article on the ‘Pacific Beaches Around Buenaventura‘)
The culture of the Colombian Pacific is African inflected. Most of the people living along the coast are Afro Colombians, descents of slaves brought by the Spaniards to work the gold mines and rubber plantations.
The Pacific coast is poor, underdeveloped and mostly neglected by the Colombian government unlike the Atlantic coastal communities which enjoy more tourism, structural development and resources.
There is also a lot of crime all along Valle’s Pacific coastline with a lot of travel warnings telling people to avoid visiting Pacific coastal areas. For the time being the warning should be taken seriously. Even Valle de Cauca’s residents prefer to vacation on Colombia’s Caribbean/Atlantic coast. But when the coast is clear, this coastline is destined to become a new, hot destination.
Many tourists come to the area between July and October to watch the annual migration of Humpback whales that come close to the coast to give birth. Organized day tours leave from Cali or Buenaventura. Trips take tourists out to sea for a day trip to see the whales rising and to explore a few of the nearby islands.
Bahia Solano and Nuqui to the north, in the province of Choco, are also popular whale watching spots.
Between Cali and Buenaventura lies the small picturesque village of San Cipriano on the Danubio River. It’s a natural reserve in the middle of a jungle surrounded by rivers and waterfalls ideal for swimming, snorkeling and diving.
There’s a Brujita which is a kind of railroad car placed on an abandoned railroad track driven by a motorcycle which will take you deep into the jungle and back. The area is also a nature reserve where one can do day tours tubing down the Danubio River or just spend the day hiking down to the river banks swimming and relaxing.
Calima Darien it the largest artificial lake in Colombia, located just a 90 minute bus ride outside of Cali. Also called Embalse Calima there is a hydroelectric dam at one end of the lake.
Built in 1966, the lake is fed by 2 rivers Rio Bravo and Rio Calima. After the dam was built they say it took 33 years for the lake to fill to its present size.
The lake is 13 km long (8 miles), 1.5 km wide (1 mile) and 40 m deep (130 feet) offering 1,934 hectares (4779 acres) of water surface and a maximum depth of 110 meters (360 feet).
While most lakes with dams have very little recreational development, Lake Calima is well structured for water sports. Most of the tourists come from the nearby cities of Cali and Buga. There are many chalets, cottages and apartments on the lake. Nearby cattle farms offer agricultural tourism, lodgings, camping and glamping.
There are six large beaches around the lake. All beaches, with the exception of one, are far from town but accessible by bus throughout the day. Beach #6 is just a half hour walk from the town of Darien. Locals offer pontoon boat rides around the lake with stops for swimming. People can also rent jet skis and kayaks. And all of the beaches have plenty of food trucks, food stands, restaurants and bars.
Lake Calima is also famous for wind surfing and kite surfing. Situated at an altitude of 1,485 m. (4,872 feet) and nestled between two mountain ridges, Calima Lake has the fastest winds Colombia and they say the 3rd fastest in the world drawing wind surfers from all over Colombia.
Darien – the Village
At one end of the lake lies the village of Darien. The bus stops at the village where there are plenty of hotels, hostels, restaurants, shops and bars. Fondadores Park is the town’s main square. Founded in 1912, the town was named Calima Darien. Calima means fog or haze. Once a cattle farming community, today tourism has replaced agriculture as the town’s main activity.
In town there is an interesting pre-Columbian archeological museum tracing the Calima civilization which is one of the oldest indigenous cultures in the Americas dating back to 8,000 B.C.
There are also ecological trails leaving from town and following the rivers up into the mountains to the Maria Luisa waterfalls and the Tribune lookout.
(For more information see article: Calima Darien – A Mountain Lake in Southern Colombia)
Buga – the Town where Miracles Happen
Buga – the town of Miracles – 46 miles (74 km) from Cali –is easily the most the famous and visited town in Valle. A colonial gem, Buga is a celebrated religious site, a destination for over 3 million pilgrims every year. Why do they come? Because this is the town where miracles happen.
But one doesn’t necessarily have to be a religious tourist to enjoy Buga. The town, part of the Network of Heritage Villages, was once home to many wealthy families coming from Spain during the settlement of the new world. Today the town preserves its colonial historic center which is filled with modern boutiques, hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and religious souvenir stores.
Back in the 16th century, a indigenous woman, washing clothes in the river, found a silver crucifix on the floor of the river bed. She took it home and said the cross grew in size everyday. And then miracles began to happen. Associated with divine intervention, the crucifix was believed to have the power to heal the sick and perform miracles.
A church was built in honor of the miracle dispensing crucifix which was called: El Senor de los Milagros (Lord of the Miracles). Today the cross is on display in a special chapel inside the church.
Faithful Catholics, from around Colombia, visit this church every day throughout the year praying for miracles. Devout, religious pilgrims will walk for days along Cauca’s hot valley floor to reach the shrine at Buga where they pray for a divine intervention. They say the physical sacrifice of a long trip on foot to this sacred place strengthens their resolve.
The church, Basilica Menor del Senor de los Milagos, is a large church with twin towers and a cupola built in 1907. It replaced the old church which had stood on the same site since 1573.
The town is also famous for its Holy Water Ale Brewing Company a microbrewery and one of the few brewery/hostel combinations in South America. It is run by the Colombian government and staffed with Germans.
Guacari is a little village 60 km. (37 miles) to the north of Cali. Not really much to see here of touristic importance other than the main square of Parque Saavedra Galindo. The park is famous for an enormous Sampan tree whose huge trunk and large tree top once covered the entire plaza. The tree in the plaza was so well known it was stamped on Colombia’s 500 peso coin.
But in 1989, the trunk of the Sampan tree split in two in a storm and had to be cut down. Everyone in the village took a piece of the famous tree home as a souvenir. While that tree no longer exists, other Sampan trees were planted and today once again cover most of the town square offering a rich shade that is necessary and delightful.
Trujillo – a story of terror and horror
Visiting the tranquil farming village with a population of 22,000, one would never sense a major tragedy engulfed the town just 15 years ago.
Trujillo – 72 miles (117 kilometers) north of Cali is at first glance a seemingly quiet, sleepy, little agricultural village in the mountains where nothing happens.
But this quaint town harbors deep, dark secrets. If one wants to learn more about the history of recent violence in Colombia, this town has an unsettling history and would be the place to start.
The town is famous in Colombia for the gruesome massacre called the massacre of Trujillo (La Masacre de Trujillo). This was a series of murders in and around town carried out between 1986 and 1994. During these years 350 – 500 progressives, unionists, farmers belonging to the cooperatives and suspected guerrilla supporters were tortured, dismembered with chain saws and thrown in the Cauca River which runs through the town.
The murders were carried out by the Cali drug cartel and paramilitary groups fighting for power and land. This was done with the complicity of the Colombian police and military who ran an aggressive counterinsurgency operation against the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion) guerrilla groups that had occupied the area.
Today on a hill just behind the town there is an extensive memorial museum dedicated to the massacres. Called Monumento a las Victimas, not only does the indoor museum and outdoor memorial commemorate the victims of Trujillo, but of also many of the victims who were killed or were displaced in Colombia during this time.
The park, established 15 years ago, revisits the events of the years of violence where farmers, workers, truck drivers, merchants, politicians, police and priests were killed. There are hundreds of tombs on the hills behind the museum of the desaparacidos – people who had disappeared and were never found.
Tulua’ – 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of Cali – is a city located in the heart of Valle de Cauca. While not a tourist destination it is a major industrial and commercial center. It is the region’s fourth largest city after Cali, Buenaventura and Palmira. A manageable size, with a population of 200,000, Tulua’ is also known as the Corazón del Valle (The Heart of Valley).
The Tuluá River runs through the bustling city center. Sitting at just three degrees north of the equator, the weather in Tuluá is typical of the valley floor, tropical heat, sunny days punctuated by intense storms rolling in over the mountains. Thanks to the diverse climate, a lot of different vegetables and fruits can be grown here.
The city has a botanical garden, a soccer stadium for 17,000 people and the Guadua Park (Parque de la Guadua) a 12 acre park with nature trails, a waterfall and natural pools of warm, thermal water, a pool, playgrounds and restaurant.
The city center is bustling during the day but empties after the shops close in the evening. There are jugo and ice cream shops along the river and busy streets filled with boutiques and sidewalk kiosks with a nice food market and a modern bus terminal on the outskirts of town.
Sevilla – 90 miles (146 kilometers) northeast of Cali -pop. 41,000. It is known as one of the best coffee producing villages in Colombia. At an altitude of 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) above sea level it has a pleasant climate and beautiful landscape. It is a quiet, prosperous village always bustling with activity.
There is a great variety of agricultural products as a result of its climatic diversity: citrus fruits, banana, sugar cane, corn, yucca, and vegetables are abundantly produced. Since the core farming crop is coffee, a coffee culture surrounds the town. There are gold, silver, and platinum mines nearby and a nice lookout just outside of town.
Rodanillo – and the Rayo Museum
Rodanillo – is a pleasant village north of Tulua. The town’s main attraction is the Rayo Museum. Omar Rayo (1928-2010) was an artist from the town of Rodanillo. The artist returned to his hometown in his later years and built a museum to feature his paintings and sculptures. The artist liked pre-Columbian art along with pop art and cubism. His works reveal a composition of these 3 movements. He lived for most of his life in New York and Mexico City during which time he gained fame and success. The village is delightful and makes for a pleasant visit.
La Union – National Park of Grapes
La Union – Parque Nacional della Uva – 97 miles (157 km) from Cali – It may come as a surprise but Colombia is a wine producing country, too. But then today, what country doesn’t produce grapes and wine? Chile and Argentina are the big South American wine producers while Colombia only has a few working wineries.
La Union is a small village in the foothills of the Andes. It is known for The Parque Nacional de la Uva (the National Park of Grapes) a somewhat newer addition to the town. The park features tours of the Grajales Winery to explain the grape growing and wine making processes.
The tour, costing $8 per person, offers a petting zoo and exhibits on how to manufacture sugar cane (panella) and how coffee is produced. There is a hotel and restaurant adjacent to the park with much more lodging available in town. Wine, table grapes and arts and crafts can be purchased in and around the winery. At Grajales they make white, red and rose wines – simple wines, mostly on the sweet side, which taste best chilled.
And few people know of Colombian wines because they aren’t exported and remain unknown to wine consumers around the world. In Colombia there is a growing selection of supermarket wines throughout the country. The taxes on imported wines in Colombia vary by region but remains steep at 20%-48%. Imported South and North American wines cost as much as they do in the USA and Europe. Wine prices need to come down if Colombia wants to make wine more of a national beverage.
Still, El Parque Nacional de la Uva is a good showcase for introducing visitors to the world of wine and a developing industry. With the diverse micro-climates in and around Colombia’s mountain ranges, it’s only a matter of time before quality wines, matching Argentina and Chile, are developed here.
For more see: The Wines and Wineries of Colombia
La Victoria – 94 miles (152 kilometer) from Cali just down the road from La Union is the quaint little village of La Victoria, pop. 2,000. It’s a small town sitting in the middle of farms growing coffee, corn and cotton. Here roosters can be heard at dawn and people ride through town on horses.
There are two bakeries on the main square and when the smell of bread and freshly brewed coffee wafts down the street on a fresh mountain breeze and one feels a few steps closer to heaven. There’s a restaurant in the square and a few descent lodgings in town. While there’s not a lot to see and do in La Victoria it’s a delightful village – simple, unpretentious straight forward and very relaxing.
Cartago – Embroidery
Cartago – 111 miles (180 kilometers) from Cali is a small, hot, busy city in southern Colombia, about 187 miles west of Bogotá. It is in the extreme northern portion of the Valle de Cauca Department, located very close to the city of Pereira, a 20-minute drive away. With a population of 132,000, Cartago is the fourth largest city in Valle.
It is famous for it’s hand embroidery work which was introduced by the Spaniards in the 1500s.
Hand embroidery became an institution in the city in 1890 when the Vincentine nuns began teaching it to the local women at a school they ran. The local women learned the craft and devoted themselves to the activity of embroidering establishing small family enterprises. They embroider blouses, skirts, pants, ruanas, shirts and tablecloths.
One can purchase hand-embroidered items at retail outlets throughout the town. One can also tour one of the embroidery factories in town. Fixio offers guided tours of its entire plant where tourists can observe the art of hand embroidery and purchase pieces to take home.
El Cairo – a Remote Mountain Village
El Cairo – is a village in the mountains in the northern end of Valle de Cauca. It’s a 3 hour bus trip from Cartago with a bus or chiva. Buses leave from the Trans Argelia bus company located in the center of Cartago.
A small village with just 10,000 people, El Cairo sits at an altitude of 1,850 meters (6,069 feet). It’s a quiet and remote village famous for its production of high altitude, quality coffee. The locals are very friendly and the town has a pleasant climate year around but offers little to do.
There are a number of hotels and restaurants in the village and they fill up on the weekends and holidays with people who once lived there but return on the weekends and holidays to visit family and get away in the mountains.
If you enjoy discovering new places, Valle de Cauca has an abundance of cities and mountain towns to explore.
These were just a few of my favorites.
So before blowing through southern Colombia on the overnight bus to Ecuador try stopping here for a few days to explore Valle de Cauca. It’s waiting to be discovered.