Cali is known for throwing great parties, and has earned the reputation as the country’s salsa capital. And it’s not just fans from within Colombia who are drawn to the capital of Valle del Cauca to enjoy the pumping nightlife or learn how to move on the dance floor. Lovers of the Latin dance form and music come from all over the world to experience a taste of Cali’s bustling scene.
In addition to its salsa schools and nightclubs, the city also hosts a number of internationally acclaimed festivals. The most notable events on Cali’s calendar are its Feria, a massive carnival featuring parades and concerts held in the days between Christmas and New Years; the World Salsa Festival showcasing top talent from far and wide; and the Petronio Álvárez Festival, which kicks off this month in its 19th edition.
Every year in August, thousands of revelers descend upon the city to learn about and celebrate the unique cultures of the Pacific coast, and the crowds are expected again from the 10th to the 16th when the party once again pumps an extra burst of energy into the city.
The event draws its name from the late Colombian musician and composer Patricio Romano Petronio Álvárez Quintero, who was born in the coastal town of Buenaventura in 1914.
Petronio’s legacy is brought to life in a spectacle of music typical to the Pacific region predominantly populated by Afro-descendents. At even just a glance, there’s no denying where Colombia’s black population originate from as one immediately feels transported to Africa upon arriving at the festival and hearing the vibrant sound of the marimba and melodic voices crooning out traditional folk tunes.
And it’s not just in the music that the Pacific people’s roots show through. The area is also dotted with people dressed in African attire and stalls offering braids and other hairstyles typical to the Mother Continent.
Despite the Afro-Colombians of today being generations away from their ancestors who were taken from Africa as slaves, their roots remain firmly embedded in the continent on the other side of the Atlantic.
The stalls at the festival are decorated as grass huts, lending a truly tropical feel to the atmosphere, already steaming hot from Cali’s balmy climate.
In addition to the music and dance, visitors are spoiled for choice with food options: top picks include succulent fried fish, fresh from the nearby coast; potato patties stuffed with meat, chicken or fish; and the pineapple shell filled with chunks of fruit and ice-cream is a must-try for those with a sweet tooth.
Meanwhile, those looking to get “merry” with a bit of “festive spirit” will have to settle for the local brew arrechón, a strong liqueur that comes in different flavours like arequipe (Colombian caramel) and tropical fruits.
It’s the only type of alcohol on sale, and as you walk around the festival there’ll be lots of invitations for free shots from punters hoping you might buy a bottle from them if you like it.
This is a good way to try out a few different flavours, but keep in mind that arrechón is claimed to be an aphrodisiac, so who knows what auras the festival might take on after a few tots of the beverage that boasts, according to one advertiser, “you’ll feel the Pacific running through your whole body”.
The event is held at the Canchas Panamericanas, a huge sporting complex built when Cali hosted the Pan American Games in 1971, and even before getting in one can begin to sample some of the area’s delights while queuing up to enter the grounds.
The street outside of the stadium is lined with stalls selling chulado, a refreshing dish of shaved ice topped with fresh fruits, syrup and condensed milk; lulada, a juice made from lulo, a sour tropical fruit that usually has a lot of sugar added to make it more palatable; fruit salad topped with cheese; and a drink made from chontaduro, also known as peach palm.
Once inside the venue, visitors can wander around the stalls browsing arts and crafts, grab a bite to eat at the food tents or check out the different stages hosting smaller shows and competitions before heading to the main stage.
Top acts to look out for this year include Son y Sabor in the chirimia category (a kind of flute typical to the area), Huellas Africanas blasting out Cauca violin tunes, and Sonar de Marimba playing the African piano.
One thing’s for sure: whichever part of the Petronio Álvarez Festival you choose to spend your time at, there is no escaping the tingling atmosphere that will wash over you as you are treated to a feast of rich history, culture and music. Let the rhythms of Africa and the Pacific carry you away.