Stunning nature, delicious food, fascinating history, and an energetic music and dance culture await visitors to Santiago de Cali.
When travellers visit Cali they generally have one purpose in mind: dance salsa, and although Cali is recognized as “salsa capital of the world”, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is the only thing to do.
As a society created by the merging of Indigenous, African and Spanish traditions, diversity in architecture, cuisine, celebrations, and music form the base of the caleño culture. To truly appreciate the city’s passion with honoring their multi-faceted heritage, make sure to be in town from 25-30 December when Cali celebrates its 60th anniversary of the Feria de Cali – a festival that sweeps through the streets, bringing colorful and cultural parades, live local and international music shows, circus performances, Tango championships, and salsa parties that continue until dawn.
Cali’s geographical location in the luscious Valle de Cauca – in between the mighty Farallones National Park and the Cauca River, and less than 3 hours from the Pacific coast – make the city a perfect destination for nature lovers.
Culture and history
The city center boasts several historical monuments, churches and museums worth visiting. People-watch in the palm-filled Plaza de Caicedo framed by the Republication-style Edificio Otero and the neoclassical San Pedro Cathedral and Palacio Nacional. Appreciate the beautiful paintings that adorn the ceilings of the San Francisco church, or the gilded altar at the 472-year-old La Merced, the city’s oldest church.
From the Plaza de los Poetas, where the 20th-century Gothic-style Ermita Church stands, take a stroll along the shady boulevard that runs parallel to the Cali River until you reach El Gato del Río. The 3.5-ton cat statue was created by Hernando Tejada and has since inspired other artists. Pop into Museo La Tertulia where their changing exhibitions won’t disappoint. The museum also hosts the La Cinemateca movie theatre that screens independent, local and international films.
For a glimpse into the fascinating culture and textile artwork of the Gunadule Indigenous tribe, visit the Museo de Oro’s Molas: Layers of wisdom exhibition on display until 21 July 2018.
Explore the 16th-century hillside neighborhood San Antonio – “Old Cali” as it’s called – where street musicians entertain passersby, and old colonial buildings house hipster cafes, restaurants and antique stores. Popular with travellers, the barrio was once home to writers, artists and musicians, and is considered Cali’s bohemian quarter. The steps of the18th-century San Antonio church offer great views of the city centre below.
Eat and drink
Dig into a traditional chuleta valluna – a marinated, breaded and fried pork cutlet – at Ringlete, a welcoming restaurant in Barrio Granada that promotes itself as Nueva Cocina Valle Caucana. Alternately, order the highly recommended cazuela de mariscos, a steaming bowl of seafood and fish cooked in coconut milk. And if you love pegao – the crunchy, semi-burnt rice that sticks to the bottom of the bowl – they serve this too.
Dining in the visually impressive mansion of Antigua Contemporanea, located in San Antonio, is an enchanting experience. The indoor garden, water features, Greek-style columns and Buddha statues are a perfect match to the creative menu. Good options for mains include the beef tenderloin medallions, or the salmon fillet encrusted with sweet pepper and served with plantain purée immersed in walnut butter. A block away you’ll find Casa Antonia which serves an appetizing mango ceviche.
Be blown away by the extravagant Delirio show that takes place at the Valle del Pacífico Centro de Eventos every month. The two-hour spectacle of salsa dancing and circus acts propelled by a live orchestra will leave you breathless even though you didn’t move a muscle. Practice your own salsa steps at the popular La Topa Tolondra bar in Calle Quinta, but best arrive early to beat the crowds. Tintindeo in the San Fernando barrio provides a friendly atmosphere for beginners, and don’t worry if you lack a partner as everyone dances with everyone.
Join caleños in an energizing, hour-long morning hike up to El Cerro de las Tres Cruces. The Three Crosses Hill provides a stunning panorama of the city and surrounding mountains. Alternatively, drive up to the imposing 26-meter high statue of Cristo Rey, which looms over the city to the West.
For a greater outdoor adventure hike up to Pico Loco, a mountain peak reaching to 2,832 meters a.s.l in the Farallones National Park. The path is steep and takes approximately 3 to 4 hours depending on your fitness level. If you prefer to relax, spend a day swimming in the refreshingly chilly water of the Pance River just 25 minutes from Cali.
Birdwatchers will be delighted with the 103 registered endemic bird species that flock to Finca Alejandría, a bird paradise set high in a cloud forest one hour west of Cali. The Finca was started by Raúl Nieto and Elsa Ruíz who wanted to help recover this delicate ecosystem, in addition to allowing the public to enjoy the wildlife here.
Spend a morning exploring the extraordinary clay sculptures covered in moss at the Bichacue Yath Nature Reserve, located just 50 minutes from the city in the rural district of La Leonera. Founded by Tomas Muñoz, Bichacue Yath is committed to preserving native flora and fauna by creatively mixing art and the environment to stimulate ecological awareness.
With huge investments by the local mayor’s office into Cali’s tourist infrastructure, the city demonstrates that its more than just a salsa headquarters, but also a multicultural hub that offers a wide variety of tourist activities.
This article was made possible thanks to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism (MINCIT) and Fontur.