‘Cali es Cali y lo demas es loma’: Cali is Cali and the rest is mountains. It’s the saying Calenos love to use when they talk about their beloved city. Haunted by the ghosts from its drug-fuelled past, this urban jungle is earning back respect one step at a time.
(more pictures of Cali can be found here)
The industrial metropolis is definitely not for everyone. It is a transportation hub, with asphalt everywhere. The city is sprawling, and despite an emerging middle-class housed in properly organized apartment blocks, most neighborhoods are still ramshackle barrios with low-quality housing. Poverty is still all around, visibly so in the city center, which makes the entire city a hotbed for violent political protests as well.
But bit by bit the city is improving. With a magnificent renovation project along parts of the river. With the old and new neighborhoods around them improving. And with the most important quality of Cali: the energy of the locals, who not only like to party in the salsa capital of the world, but who also try to make the best from the cards they are dealt.
Cali is the biggest city in the south of Colombia. It is tussled between the two mountain ranges that run north-south through the country. These shield the city from too much bad weather: it always feels humid and pleasant in Cali.
Internationally the city is infamous for being the home of the former Cali cartel, which ran part of the lucrative drug business in the 90s. Those days are far behind us, but apart from salsa the city is still pretty much unknown and often ignored by travelers.
The thing is: the visitors that DO make it there, always leave with a smile on their face. The reason? They visit the small part of the city that is not an urban jungle, but a collection of several barrios full of colonial houses, amazing restaurants, galleries and a vibrant nightlife. Combined, those qualities make that part of Cali one of the nicest bits of the entire country. Yes, you have read that right.
To be more precise about the good parts: in the last decade the local authorities invested massively in reclaiming the area around the river. North of the old historic centre (=around the beautiful Parque de Caicedo – but this part of the city is dodgy during the day and dangerous at night) they diverted a stretch of a six-lane way into a tunnel. The roof provided space for a river boulevard without cars, and on the other side of the water a nice park. Towards the west the car traffic resurfaces, but with nice walkways and small green parks on both sides of the river all the way to the Zoo. This entire stretch of 3-4 kilometres is nowadays surrounded by both modern neighborhoods and old colonial barrios that are being renovated bit by bit.
This entire part of the city (Santa Teresita, San Antonio, San Cayetano, Granada) is safe and an absolute joy to walk around in. With ‘safe’ we mean Latin American safety: you will always have to be alert for petty theft etc, but in other parts of Cali that’s much worse.
Food and drinks
Not surprisingly, a big part of a very pleasant nightlife takes place in the barrios mentioned above. The streets of San Antonio are filled with galleries, restaurants and cafes. Zahavi for example is a bit more expensive, but the coffee and gourmet sandwiches are every expat’s wet dream.
Tierradentro is one block further and very popular for its coffee and complete meals. A couple of doors further is a Panaderia Aleman, run by a German woman who has been living in Cali for two decades and who created a daytime bakery and coffeeshop with an open-air lounge that is almost too beautiful to be true.
Zea Maiz, also still in San Antonio (where I stayed) is a heaven for arepas aficionados. El Zaguan provides complete traditional dishes from the Vellecauca region. And walk around the barrio and you will find many more places.
Around the corner is the Parque del Penon. It’s a lovely little square surrounded by amazing eateries (Tortelli for example, a very good Italian place). The surrounding streets feel as posh as Poblado in Medellin, probably the swankiest area in the entire country. On a rooftop in a pedetrianized street I discovered One Way pizza, artesanal creations that you can eat with views over big parts of the city.
To complete the list of recommendations, here some notes from the Lonely Planet and some tips from a local:
- Galeria de Alamedia: a cheap Colombian food market, surrounded by seamarket restaurants (around a kilometre south of the historic centre)
- El Buen Alimento: Colombian classics, southeast of the city center. Local institution
– Chontaduro juice: a fruit drink you apparently can’t get everywhere in the country
- Lulo and Tomato de arbol are two other juices you have to try, though they are not exclusively from the Cali region
Activities / things to do
- historic center:
- yes the area is busy and creepy. But if you don’t flash your valuables you will be fine for a quick walk. The Plaza de Caicedo is architecturally impressive, the surrounding streets a mix of classy colonial architecture and 1960s regeneration plans gone horribly wrong
- Ave Rio is the stroll along the river. You can start north of the center, where there is the first of two open air exhibitions of cat sculptures (Gatas del Rio). Where Berlin has the bear, Cali has the cat
- before you stroll westwards, first visit the beautiful La Ermita cathedral. Hop to the park of the same name on the other side. On the other side of the road is also the Plazoleta Jairo Varela with a museum about the history of salsa. You can’t miss it, left of the giant trompet sculpture
- museums and art:
- Centro Cultural de Cali: as said, the historic centre is at times ugly but there is plenty interesting to see and do. The cultural center is one of them, with an auditorium for performing arts but also with exhibition spaces
- opposite is the Teatro Municipal, a magnificent building from the outside. It was closed when I visited during the pandemic in January 2022
- one block further is the Museo de Arte Religioso La Merced. Located adjacent to the sweet little church with the same name
- when you finally follow the river westwards, you will encounter the Museum Arte Moderno La Tertulia. It has truly excellent temporary exhibitions in three different buildings (all next to each other). It also has an arthouse cinema and a small outdoor amphitheatre/li>
- Lugar o Dudas: in the nice Granada neighborhood north of the river, this art gallery is said to have excellent shows. Didn’t see it myself yet
- Topa Tolandra is a vintage salsa club that features in almost all lists about Cali. Please be aware that most salsa clubs open thursday, friday and saturday only (and sunday for older Calenos)
- Delirio: extravagant salsa and circus show
- Cerro Tres Cruces: next to the nicest parts of town, this mountain towers over Cali. You will get differing advice about whether it is safe to walk there or not, but especially in the mornings when there are plenty of people going up the mountain it ought to be safe. Just use common sense and don’t flash your valuables
- Cristo Rey: the ‘other’ mountain with a view, this one with a massive Jesus statue. Don’t go there: you’re asking for trouble
- the Parque Artesanias is one of the biggest and best artisan markets in Cali. Located fifteen minutes walking south of the San Antonio neighborhood
- Iglesia San Antonio: nice church on top of the hill overlooking the barrio of its name. Great views of the city, though the adjoining little park felt a bit dodgy during daylight. In the evening there were more people present and it felt safer
Getting to Bucaramanga and getting around
- the international airport is a 30 minute drive northeast of the city
- bus: the terminal is a kilometre northwest of the historic center. It is ugly and massive, an enormous transport hub. Outside it’s chaos: just take a cab to get to your accommodation
- within the city: Cali is way too huge to walk everything. But… everything worthwhile is in the relatively condensed area from the historic centre (and Granda) westwards until the zoo. And that entire stretch can actually be walked easily
- Weather: always pretty warm, that can turn into a slightly uncomfortable blanket of humidity. It’s at least 25 degrees every day in Cali, sometimes slightly more. No wonder the locals are always in a good party mood, just like the inhabitants from Medellin who have the same ‘eternal spring’ weather
- Safety: mentioneed many times, the tourist area is in general safe. During daylight be on guard in the historic centre, and don’t venture there after dark