The Colombian city of Cali is the undisputed salsa capital of the world and the ‘star’ of the final season of Narcos. It’s also got great food, nature on its doorstep and a quirky cat park, too...
Cali is to salsa what Buenos Aires is to the tango. It was here, in the sweaty clubs of south-west Colombia, that this dance from Brazil took hold and flourished. The city is jam packed with dance clubs, hole-in-the-wall salsa joints and a huge salsa stadium. Cali swings to the salsa beat - and dancing well is a point of pride for every resident.
You’ll hear salsa everywhere you go in Cali. It drifts out of bars and restaurants and blasts from passing taxis. Beginners can learn the basics at salsatecas and dance schools like El Manicero, Son de Luz, and Swing Latino.
If the rhythm moves you, the suburb of Juanchito, a rough and ready neighbourhood, is famous for it’s all-night salsa parties. Here, old pros dance alongside tourists and locals are more than willing to give you tips and pointers. Clubs like Zaperoco, Tin Tin Deo, and La Topa Tolondra are a great place to hit the floor or simply soak up the vibe.
If you find yourself in Cali during the annual La Feria de Cali, a festival held ever Christmas and New Year, you’ll be treated to salsa parades, dancing in the streets and concerts by salsa legends. The city swings to the salsa beat in summer too, during the week long Salsa Festival.
Inspired by Cologne’s imposing cathedral in Germany, Cali’s La Ermita Church is a slightly more delicate Gothic creation. A confection of spires vaulted and ceilings, it is a beguiling vision of lightness in the centre of Cali.
Built in 1942, it incorporates Dutch windows, French church bells and Italian marble, and houses a famous religious portrait of the Lord of the Cane. After surviving countless earthquakes, this indigenous saint has finally found sanctuary here.
Set high on a hilltop to the west of the historical centre, you’ll find Iglesia de San Antonio, a humble 18th-century church famous for its collection of tallas quiteñas.
These rare, 17th-century carved-wood statues of the saints are guarded zealously by nuns who will let you look at them, but only in their presence. They are more than happy for you to take in the excellent views over the city from the nearby park, however.
While you’ll have no problem finding all the staples of Colombian cuisine in Cali, there a few local specialities you’ll want to try, too - especially if you have a sweet tooth.
Cholado, for example, is a cup of mixed fruit doused with a hearty slurp of condensed milk. Champus is a kind of corn soup, mixed with fresh fruit. Pandebono, a popular cheesy bread snack sold in bakeries, cafes and street stalls across the city, is a rare savoury treat.
Cali is also famous for lulada, a refreshing drink made from the juice of a lulo, a tart, orange-like fruit popular across Colombia. You’ll find hawkers on every corner selling ice cold glasses of the stuff.
Slip your hawker a few extra peso and he’ll happily add a dash of something stronger from the selection of booze surreptitiously kept out of sight, in a hidden corner of his cart.
Cali is made of up a number of distinctive barrios, each with its own distinct character and places of interest. An intriguing mix of fancy restaurants and abandoned buildings, Granada has earned reputation as the gastro-district of the city.
The old-money neighbourhoods of Santa Teresita and Santa Rita are famous for their stately houses and wide boulevards. El Ingenio, with its huge park, is a popular spot for jogging, cycling and other outdoor activities.
Most visitors gravitate towards bohemian San Antonio, the oldest part of the city, where simply wandering amongst its narrow streets brings unexpected rewards.
This is where the city’s most famous artists and writers lived, as well as the heartbeat of the city’s thriving cafe scene. Take a seat at one of the outdoor cafes, sip on a sensational Colombian blend and watch the world go by.
Cali is surround by mountains, forest and nature parks, a popular escape for locals to cool off on weekends. Río Pance, in the south of the city, is a great place to swim in clear waters, hike lush trails, birdwatch and spot wildlife.
Top tips? Avoid visiting on a Sunday. Locals regard it as a ‘family day’ and it seems most of the city is splashing about in the river. Any other day of the week, however, and you’ll have it pretty much to yourself.
Further up in La Voragine, the crowds are gone and the views are more spectacular. Here you’ll find majestic waterfalls, the challenging Pico de Loro hiking trail and a rustic restaurant that locals claims sells the best sancocho, a heart broth, in Colombia.
Further afield, the tiny town of San Cipriano makes a popular day trip. You can ride on a tiny railway timber cart, tube down a river, swim under a waterfall or visit the local Afro community.
Cat lovers will want to El Parque del Gato de Tejada, aka the city’s famous Cat Park, developed especially to house a giant three-ton bronze statue of a cat, donated to the city by Colombian artist, Hernando Tejada.
Tejada passed away shortly after in tragic circumstances, so other local artists got together to create fifteen more cat statues in his honour. The park has become one of the city’s most famous attractions.
With most of the third and final series of the popular Netflix series Narcos shot on location in Cali, the city is a must-visit destination for aficionados of the show.
Die-hard fans will instantly recognise Edificio Coltabaco on Valle del Cauca. And Plaza de Caicedo, right in the heart of downtown Cali, was featured extensively throughout season three. Sit on a bench under the impossibly tall palm trees and and channel your inner Pablo.
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