Cali: City of atonements

The La Merced church in Cali.

Everyone has a Cali story, which involves salsa, a bowl of hearty sancocho and a bubbly tropical juice not sold in local pharmacies: champús. But I have my own Cali story to tell, one of a more genteel place, and one, easy on the heel.

The departmental capital of Valle del Cauca is really a small town in big city “dancing” shoes, expanding beyond the slopes of the Pacific’s cordillera towards the sugar cane plains of Colombia’s most beloved valley.

While travelers tend to chose Medellín over Cali, as their “party central,” this decision is often misplaced, even though the capital of Antioquia has its well-publicised tourism amusements, such as riding giant escalators into shanties or standing in line for a ride on the country’s only Metro. But once you’ve been wooed by the flowers and coal-fired arepas, caleño hospitality is an easy 30-minute flight from Bogotá.

Many come to Cali to cross over to the “other side,” to Juanchito, with its dimly lit strip of Dantesque salsa clubs. But if an infernal cocktail of sweat, lust and són in thatched gazebos overlooking the Cauca River is simply too much, there are salsatecas scattered across the centro, with live acts and a mix of music from Caribbean, to electronic, hip-hop and tango. Cali’s world-class dance ensemble, Delirio, puts on regular shows and is a must see, for anyone visiting this city.

With its acacia-lined streets and vintage neighbourhoods, Cali has preserved an architectural past; and one, which flourished in the 1950s and 60s when sugar drove the economy. There are vestiges of Cali’s “golden age” everywhere: from the Bauhaus homes of Granada to the grand Republican facades of San Antonio. While many former family homes have now been converted into art galleries and workshops for local fashion designers, there is a retro ambience to much of central Cali and one which has enticed hotels and restaurants to open up. In Granada, the Movich group’s boutique Casa del Alferéz (Ave 9N 9-24 Sector B) is a comfortable option for travelers doing business in the center of town, yet removed from the cries of street vendors and the narrow streets which lead to Cali’s most important meeting place, the palm-lined Plaza Caicedo. Other options for the trendy traveler wanting to be in the heart of Granada, is the Now Hotel and the Aqua.

The Avenida 9N is at the heart of Cali’s food district with plenty of choice for the diner. Take a seat in the sunlit courtyard of D’Toluca with its house enchiladas or enjoy some saucy fusion of Mediterranean with costeño at the very Saint Tropez bistro of Carambolo (Calle 14N No.9N-18).

Cali’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean makes it a humid place. Bright sunny days tend to collide with the fresh Andean winds swooping in from the Cordillera, resulting in fierce, yet short-lived, thunderstorms. The temperate climate during the late afternoon makes for beautiful sunsets and best enjoyed from the steps of the white San Antonio church.

Cali strives for purgatorial atonements with its many beautiful churches. Facing the Río Cali with its turquoise paint scheme and neo-gothic spires, La Ermita, dwarfs against the grand Republican buildings of the Plaza Caicedo. The city’s oldest place of worship, the La Merced church, faces the Museum of Colonial and Religious Art, and its cobble stone entrance is a perfect spot for the watching Cali’s gleeful (yet anxious) couples tie the knot.

Caleños are proud of their city, their street foods (of which pan de bono is pure bona fide pleasure). From firewater-infused luladas to the aphrodisiac borojó blended by Oster in booths along the Río, there’s always an excuse to be outdoors, to contemplate the rhythms and sounds of this city, which has endured some difficult years, yet always with a tolerant and welcoming soul. This is my Cali story.



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