This week I returned to the Colombian mainland as I made my way to Cali, Colombia’s third largest city and considered by many to be the salsa capital of the world. Like Medellin, Cali is attempting to overcome its reputation as a dangerous city thanks to the violence committed by the Cali Cartel in the 1970s (featured on season 3 of the Netflix series Narcos). After spending a week in the city, I would say the rebranding effort has been a success. Modern Cali has proven to be a cosmopolitan city with plenty to do and see most which are unrelated to the city’s violent past.
Arriving to Cali-My flight from San Andres was supposed to leave at 9:45 am last Tuesday morning. Given the proximity of my Airbnb to the island’s small airport (literally right across the street), I was at the gate with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately, that did me little good as I was still sitting in the terminal at 10am. My flight was going to be delayed until 11:20 am. As a seasoned traveler, I have come to expect things like this to happen, however, I was flying back to Bogota to catch my flight to Cali in which I only had an hour layover. As I was sure to miss my connecting flight, I went to go find an airline representative. I was told by three people that my connecting flight in Bogota would be pushed back in order to accommodate the delay. With that in mind, I patiently waited for the flight. I arrived in Bogota at 1:20 pm in which we had to deplane on the runway and take a shuttle bus to the terminal which took about 25 minutes. Unfortunately, during that time, my flight to Cali left without me as it departed at the original time. I had to make my way outside the security checkpoint to explain my situation to the airline representative. I was eventually able to get on the next flight with a partner airline for no cost. I arrived in Cali at about 4:30 pm. The airport was pretty modern; however, it was about 35 minutes from the city. Fortunately, there were public buses in the parking lot which were available to take me to the bus terminal in the center of the city for only 8k Colombian Pesos (COP) or $2.50 USD. After the 30 minute ride to the terminal, I was able to take a taxi to my hotel for about 7k COP ($1.75 USD).
Iglesia La Ermita/El Centro- My hotel was located in the Granada neighborhood of Cali. In the 1970s, it was considered to be an upper-class neighborhood, however today it is more of a tourist zone with clubs, restaurants and hotels. I was about a five minute walk from the center of the city where Iglesia La Ermita, or La Ermita Church, was located. The church was also located in the cities central park. My first impression of Cali was how green and lush the city was especially considering its location right next to the equator. There is a popular local saying Cali es Cali lo demás es loma which contextually translates in English as “Cali is a beautiful valley city while the other cities are in the mountains”. From someone who has already been to both Medellin and Bogota, I can say that statement is somewhat accurate. Next to the church the Cali River which ran through the park and most of the city. I also went to the Palace of Justice which is where several scenes were filmed during season 3 of Netflix’s Narcos. Further north of the central plaza were the various neighborhoods which had more of the Spanish colonial architecture. Specifically, Barrio Peñon (the city’s modern upscale neighborhood) was home to Cali’s cultural and tourist center where I was able to get additional information on tourist attractions both in the city as well as the surrounding areas. Overall, I found that the city itself was very tourist friendly and there was plenty of activity going on even on the dreary Wednesday morning which I walked around downtown.
Barrio San Antonio- As I was walking around downtown Cali, I could see a church off in the distance. Turns out that it was Iglesia San Antonio, or the San Antonio Church. My curiosity got the better of me and I ordered an Uber to take me to the neighborhood. I arrived at the church and it seem to be pretty well kept. However, there really wasn’t much to do outside of snapping a few photos of the building and of the city. The city view is decent but is far from being the best in the city. There were a few locals and vendors hanging around but the atmosphere wasn’t really lively. I walked around the surrounding area which lived up to its reputation as a backpacker hangout. There were several hostels and boutique hotels scattered throughout the shanty neighborhood. I did find a nice modern coffee shop which served a decent cappuccino for a cheap price (4k COP or $1.25 USD). In the end, while Barrio San Antonio was an interesting place, it wasn’t a place where I would spend a lot of time if I wasn’t staying in the area.
Cali Pachanguero- Although art and music don’t generally interest me, considering Cali’s reputation as a world class salsa hotspot, it would have been a crime not to learn more about its roots. I ended up signing up for the salsa walking tour. While the tour itself is free, it is expected that you tip the guide about 20k COP or $6 USD for two hours. We met at Iglesia La Emitra and walked around to different spots in the immediate area. While I likened the tour to a music history class, I did learn a lot of interesting information about how salsa’s relationship to Cali. For example, salsa was imported into the city in the 1970s from New York City and was spread through African immigrants, narcotrafficking funding, and the 1971 Pan American Games. Today, the city also holds its annual International Salsa Competition during the last week of September (this week). The tour took us to a small museum in the public square largely dedicated to Jairo Varela and Groupo Niche who are responsible for creating Cali Pachanguero, the salsa based municipal anthem. There was also a huge trumpet shaped monument in the middle of the public square which continuously played the anthem. Paul, the tour guide, gave us a map of the city as well as several recommendations for salsa schools and clubs to try out. I would definitely recommend taking the salsa tour if passing through Cali in order to get a better understanding of the city’s salsa roots. (You can listen to the song here)
Cristo Rey- Cali has its own version of Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer statute known as Cristo Rey which overlooks the city. I decided to visit it in order to “check it off my list”. The statute is located about 20 minutes outside of the city with public transportation only getting you to a certain point (in which you would have to walk 2 miles uphill to the entrance). The best option to get to the statute is via Uber or taxi. As my preferred method, I decided to take an Uber for 11k COP or $3.50 USD. There really wasn’t much to see on the journey to the statute as the surrounding neighborhood was pretty run down. There were a few vendors on the path leading up to the statute with a sit down restaurant on top. The statute itself wasn’t really impressive considering that it was an imitation. Fortunately, it was a clear day so I could see some pretty nice views of the city. The only good thing about the trip was there was no entrance fee to see the statute, which would have been criminal. I stayed and took in the view for about 20 minutes but there really wasn’t much to do beside that. Luckily, I convinced the Uber driver to wait and take me back to my hotel for 15k COP ($4.50 USD). It’s a good thing he agreed, because there weren’t really any taxis hanging around the entrance and my phone did not get service to call another Uber. In my opinion, Cristo Rey isn’t a must-see destination considering the plethora of the other things to do and see in the city.
Las Tres Cruces- From almost anywhere in Cali, you can see three crosses overlooking the city. These crosses are known as Las Tres Cruces and are a popular hiking destination by locals and tourist alike. Even though the hike is 8 kilometers uphill, I decided to do it on Sunday morning. There are a lot of “hikes” which can be done by your 250 pound uncle who hasn’t set foot in a gym since 2006, Las Tres Cruces isn’t one of those hikes. Although I am not in optimal shape, I still consider myself to be fairly fit. I started the hike at 7 AM and walked to the secondary entrance located in Granada. Even walking up to the entrance was about a 15% gradient incline and I found myself starting to sweat. That walk would end up being a harbinger of things to come as the next hour consisted of more of the same. Although the trail was well defined, there were shortcuts that shortened the trek significantly. While the shortcuts did save me time, they were significantly more physically challenging than the proper trail. Walking up the main path, I did get some of the best views of the city as I could see everything from my hotel to the municipal soccer stadium. After about an hour I arrived at the foot of the hill which the cross was located, there were a few vendors selling fresh juices as well as people flowing in from the parks main entrance. The final hike up the trail was a beast. Not only was it physically exhausting, but I was literally climbing on all fours for most of it with one bad step potentially resulting in pretty steep fall down the side. Throughout the ascent, there were 5 instances where I literally had to sit down and rest. The only thing that kept me going was watching people twice my age do it with ease. Despite my struggles, I did finish the ascent in an hour and 30 minutes which was half an hour faster than the Google Maps projection of 2 hours. The peak was very lively, as people were literally working out in the outdoor gym next to a Catholic mass. Personally, I couldn’t imagine lifting weights after the beating my body took climbing the hill but to each their own. I bought fresh squeezed orange juice from a vender for 3K COP ($1 USD) which was cheaper than the prices at the base of the hill. After about 20 minutes, I headed back down and, while going down was physically easier than going up, I still had to concentrate on nearly every step due to the risk of falling. I was back in my hotel at 10 AM. I definitely would recommend hiking Las Tres Cruces but only if you are in above average shape. In addition, while Las Tres Cruces is open 7 days a week, the best time to hike it is Sunday morning because many locals do the trail and there are police officers staged at various points. There have been instances of robberies on the trail during less busy times. I also recommend going as early as possible (before 9 AM) as you are asking for trouble by doing the hike under the scorching midday sun.