Though nicknamed “A Branch of Heaven on Earth” by locals, Colombia’s third-largest city is still visited significantly less than other major urban areas like Medellín, Cartagena and Bogotá despite the country’s newfound popularity as a hotspot for travelers. Hot, humid, chaotic and short on sightseeing options, Cali will never be a top tourist destination. But therein lies the magic. For those looking for something truly culturally intoxicating, Santiago de Cali (the city's official name) offers up one of the deepest rooted and most authentic experiences on Earth. But you may have to close your eyes and use your other senses to experience it.
Known throughout Latin America as the Capital of Salsa, Cali is a musical Mecca on par with places like New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro and Havana. The syncopated sounds of this tropical beat infect daily life in Cali, and noches Caleñas are filled with dancing till the sun comes up seven days a week. If Cali has a tourism niche, it’s the rising number of dancers who come from all over the world to study the city’s unique and fast footwork.
Then there is the cuisine. The unofficial capital of Colombia’s rainforest-covered Pacific Coast—even though it lies two hours inland—Cali is fueled by heavily spiced Afro-Latin seafood dishes that rank among the best cuisine in the country, if not the continent. This Pacific rainforest, as well as the mighty Farallones Mountains that tower over the city, give Cali an epic natural setting to explore as well. In fact, it’s the most biodiverse place on Earth outside the Amazon Basin.
Ready for more? Cali also happens to be the only major Colombian city located smack-dab in a prime cannabis-growing region, which means the herb is cheap and high quality.
This winning combo of soulful music, bombastic food, epic nature and dank herb makes Cali a special destination for a special kind of traveler—it’s a garden-like city, home to more than three million people, yet with a pace of life on par with a small pueblo. Cali moves to a rhythm all its own, where sensuality and pleasure are the only real motivating factors. The truth is, most travelers simply aren’t ready for this and spend only a night or two before rushing off to somewhere where they can check off sights in their guidebook. For those looking for the real deal, though, welcome to a branch of heaven on Earth.
Checking In: At Home in Cali
While a smattering of tourism exists on the more modern north side of town, planting yourself in colonial San Antonio is a much better option. This historic neighborhood—hugging the hillside just west of the city center and crowned by a lush tropical park and mirador that overlooks the downtown skyline and packs up with lovers and families come sunset—is full of hip cafes, international restaurants and small-scale lodging options, all presided over by Cristo Rey on his mountaintop perch. A small town within the big city, staying in San Antonio is an immersion into a real Cali barrio that has a distinctively Bohemian vibe.
Besides the French-run Tostaky, which enjoys an unbeatable location adjacent to San Antonio Park and a nice outside terrace to enjoy people watching, most of the top accommodations are owned by a matriarchal clan of local female entrepreneurs.Options range from the cozy at-home feel of Paola Lennis’ Casa Café (with a winning combo of rooms above and a café downstairs) to the sheer colonial elegance of Claudia Martinez’s Ruta Sur, an oasis of tranquil Caleño hospitality in the center of the neighborhood. For longer stays, check out the options at Yeimmy Cardenas’s Magic Garden House, where the views over the city alone will have you extending your trip.
San Antonio also places you just south of the upscale riverside El Peñon neighborhood, home to the Parque de los Gatos (Cat Park), the Museo Tertulia (Cali’s best art museum) and larger high-end accommodations like the Hotel Intercontinental and the riverside Haus Hotel. Just blocks south from the hood in San Cayetano, check out the Loma de la Cruz, where artisans have set up an open-air mini mall. Storytellers entertain crowds, and local indigenous groups perform traditional dances under the stars every Thursday night. Wander on past the Loma to Jovita’s Plaza, dedicated to a homeless woman-turned-local Saint, to find the ganja-loving crowd congregating every evening to puff, pass and mingle.
All the faded glory of the Cali city center also lies in walking distance from San Antonio, including the palm-shaded Plaza Cáceres, the Merced Church (home to an interesting archaeological museum) and the brand new riverfront Bulevar—a pedestrian only passageway that runs through the heart of town and attracts a diverse mix of Caleños from different social classes every evening. Cross over the Rio Cali to the north side of the city from here to explore the Miami-esque Santa Monica and Granada neighborhoods, and check out Chipichape, a historic train station turned shopping mall.
Channeling Chango: Salsa and Afro-Pacific Rhythms
Just blocks from the San Antonio barrio lie two of the most popular salsa dance halls: the mighty Topa Tolondra, where you will see some of the city’s best dancers flaunting their skills with technical perfection that borders on a show, and MalaMaña, an underground speakeasy-style salsa club in the city center where three different dance floors and dim lights make things more intimate. For live music, the iconic Punto Baré (conveniently located next to the Topa Tolondra) does Latin Jazz and salsa five nights a week, while the legendary Zaperoco hosts some of the city’s top bands every Thursday night. After hours, head to Donde Fabio, where the crowds don’t even show up until around 4 a.m. and keep grooving well into the next day.
For something more old school, consider ducking into the viejotecas of Barrio Obrero, a ramshackle but historic part of the city center where haunts like Chorrito Antillano have been keeping the party going for decades. To dive even deeper in Cali’s salsa scene, head to Juanchito, the legendary black nightlife district where Cali-style salsa was born and continues to evolve—including the hip-hop salsa fusion style known as salsa choke.
In the 1960s, Afro-descendants from the Pacific Coast that came to Cali to work began listening to the rhythms of Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York in their new urban environment. But bored with the slow pace, they began playing their vinyl records at 45 rpm (as opposed to the standard 33 rpm). Dancing to this faster beat is what created the flying footwork that now typifies Cali-style salsa, which has received accolades and awards from competitions around the world. For those that want to study this art form, Cali offers numerous opportunities like the Salsa Pura school in San Antonio, which does inexpensive drop-in group classes every night of the week, and Swing Latino, where you can learn from former world champion dancers.
Soul Kitchen: Comida Pacifico
African spices from across the Atlantic are infused in Cali’s cuisine: a west coast anomaly usually only found in the Caribbean parts of the Americas. Crab, oysters, mussels, shark and a wide variety of fish come boiling and steaming out of Cali’s Pacifico kitchens in bright-yellow curry-style sauces that light up the palate on several levels at once. Pacific cuisine is relatively unknown outside of Colombia, but it is widely considered the best regional cuisine in the country and honestly gives Mexico and Peru a run for their money.
The best place to chow down on authentic Pacific cuisine is in the area surrounding the Alameda market. Here, besides an awesome kaleidoscopic selection of colorful Colombian fruits and veggies, fresh seafood from the coast is trucked in every morning. In the dozens of Pacific restaurants that surround the market, you can munch on sancocho de pescado or cazuela de mariscos, caught just hours before in the dawn’s early light. Standout eateries include family-run Pedro Junior, which also does a knock-out shrimp ceviche, and La Bodega de Mar, where portions and flavors are bold and beautiful.
Right in San Antonio hit up Valle Pacifico, where authentic Pacific cuisine with a bit of fusion awaits. The barrio also offers visitors a chance to try the aromatic joy of Colombia’s top coffee regions in upscale cafes like terrace-sporting Tierradentro and the artsy Gabriel García Márquez-inspired café/cinema Macondo. San Antonio is vegetarian friendly as well with standout fresh daily lunch specials at Buen Alimento housed in a colonial mansion and delicious dinners on the sidewalk down at Tammy Lunera’s Flor de Loto near the Loma de la Cruz.
Wandering around Cali, you will also notice a bright orange fruit being sold on nearly every corner. The chontaduro, which is not sweet (though served with salt and honey), is a superabundant Pacific rainforest fruit touted as one of the highest natural sources of Vitamin A in the world. Chontaduro is such a staple of Cali life that there are songs written in its praise, while the dark-purple pulp of boronjo (another Pacific rainforest superfood) enjoys a reputation as a potent aphrodisiac when consumed as a juice. The two together make a potent afternoon pick me up.
Cali Green: A Bio-diverse Hotspot
Towering above the city but only visible in rare moments when the sky's completely clear, the craggy Farallones Mountains reign supreme over Cali. This rainforest-covered wonderland—the westernmost of Colombia’s three Andean mountain ranges and reaching heights of more than 12,000 feet—slopes down on the other side into the dense jungle of the Pacific coast. Caleños flock to nearby Rio Pance on the weekends, which sports crystal clear waters running down from these high peaks and serves as the city beach, but it’s also worth heading up a bit further to Pueblo Pance, which sits on the entrance to the Farallones National Park. Grab a cabaña at the lush Anahuac Private Reserve and book a trek up to the Pico de Loro or Pico Pance (three days), both of which offer the chance to lose yourself in pristine wilderness just an hour or two from the city. Consider this: These mountains are home to more species of birds than the entire continent of North America.
When it’s time to visit the vast Pacific Coast, make sure you take a stop in San Cipriano, where brujitos (motorcycles jerry-rigged to a defunct train track) take you deep into the jungle to visit pristine rivers and an exuberant Afro-Colombian community before arriving in the port city of Buenaventura. From Buenaventura there are no roads up and down the wild coastline. Slow travel in lancha boats is the only way to visit places like Ladrilleros, with its awesome rainforest covered cliffs towering over golden sand beaches, and La Barra, where you can fish with the locals and take a canoe trip up a mangrove forest-lined river to hidden waterfalls and indigenous communities deep in the jungle.
Right within the city, take the hour hike up the Loma of Tres Cruzes (Mountain of Three Crosses) for awe-inspiring views over the city and the massive Valle de Cauca that it lies in. Sitting at about 3000 feet above sea level, this super fertile valley is home to several places worth checking out, including Hacienda Paraiso, the former home of writer Jorge Isaacs and a testament to the concentrated wealth of the sugar cane plantations. The Valle is also one of Colombia’s top cannabis-growing regions, especially in the area around the town of Corinto, which even has a landrace strain named for it. With the recent legalization of medical cannabis in the country and an exploding export market it hopes to dominate, the Valle stands to become one of the major cannabis-producing areas in the world, and Colombia Cannabis Tours already offers guided trips into the heart of it.
Cali Bound: When to Come
With a year-round tropical climate and a party scene that doesn’t stop for anything, ever, it’s always a good time to visit Cali, but Christmastime is particularly special. To celebrate the holiday, the entire city turns into a sparkling world of magic as everything from the San Antonio Park to the riverfront Bulevar is decked out in colorful lights.Then, in the last week of every year, the city puts on its biggest throwdown: one of the top three festivals in the country, the Feria de Cali. With top salsa bands from all over the world playing in various outdoor venues and processions of dancers taking over the streets, it’s an affair that will leave you breathless.
But ask locals what their favorite festival is, and the answer will be the Petronio Alvarez Festival, the country’s largest Afro-Latin music festival and one of the most unique affairs on the planet. Near the end of every August, the sounds of drums and chontaduro wood marimbas fill the air for a whole week as the entire Pacific Coast of Colombia empties out and converges in the city. Besides live Pacifico bands from dawn to dusk, and then the many after parties throughout the city, the festival also brings the coast’s best recipes and flavors to town. It’s a treat to both senses at the same time.
Once again, heaven on Earth becomes easily apparent in Cali as soon as you close your eyes.