what to visit (and eat) in the world capital of salsa
In Cali, located in Colombia’s Cauca Valley, the beauty is in the salsa rhythms, in the tasty food, and in the passionate charisma of the locals
It’s hard to explain exactly what makes Cali so special.
Colombia’s third biggest city is not a place known for stately monuments, grandiose museums or lush nature. Cali is famous for its dance scene – it’s home to the annual world salsa championship –, and, aside from this, it doesn’t seem to have much tourism appeal. That is, until you start talking with a caleño.
The locals are the ones who reveal everything that’s unique about this city. Cali is a portrait of the people who live in it: happy, surprising, and captivating. A place where a 70-year-old woman takes a young backpacker to dance merengue, where pedestrians compliment each other on their outfits, and where a salesman invites tourists walking by to come up onto his store’s terrace to watch the sunset.
During your visit, try to ignore (while still cautious) the advice not to speak to strangers. Cali should be appreciated with tranquility and, preferably, with a local resident in tow. That way you will be able to understand what they mean when someone asks them why they like their city so much: “Because Cali is Cali.”
The charm of San Antonio
Purple, coral, turquoise, pink, yellow: every single color is represented in the facades of San Antonio, Cali’s most charming neighborhood. Located in the western region, its cobblestone hills lead your tour (which every now and then includes another pleasant area, called El Peñon) heading towards the main local attractions.
Macondo: Carrera 6, 3-03
When it comes to Colombia, starting your day with coffee is almost a civic duty and there is no better option in San Antonio than Macondo, which brews the beans with several methods. It also deserves to be visited at night, when the café organizes movie screenings and intimate jazz shows. The itinerary in the neighborhood is simple: it includes spots such as Calle de la Escopeta, with its graffiti-covered walls doubling as facades for urban fashion stores, Bulevar del Río, a tree-lined promenade where the breeze soothes people on hot days, La Ermita church, a neo-Gothic cathedral; and La Tertulia museum, dedicated to modern and contemporary art from Colombia.
Bulevar del Río: Carrera 1, s/nº
Iglesia La Ermita: Carrera 1, 13-0
Museo La Tertulia: Avenida Colombia, 5-105 Oeste
Calle de la Escopeta: Calle 6, s/nº
But it’s worth emphasizing that Cali’s seductive power resides in its living present rather than its historic past — and the journalist and ballerina Gigi Bohórquez agrees. “Years ago, I went to a festival in a minuscule little pueblo where they played beautiful music. It seemed unbelievable that there was such little information on what they produce here,” says the performer with folk dance group Raíces de Colombia. After that discoveryn, she partnered with a friend to create the blog Las Mochileiras, dedicated to promoting the city’s cultural initiatives. “Art has a power for social transformation like nothing else.”
In recent years, traditional colonial manors have been occupied by ceramic galleries, and African hair braiding competitions have taken over spaces inside museums. Once a historic neighborhood, San Antonio has turned into one of Cali’s main cultural epicenters.
First came the son, a Cuban rhythm which was very popular in the early 20th century. Then the guaracha, charanga, mambo, and cha-cha-cha followed. After that, pachanga, bugalu, and merengue came along. What is currently known as ‘salsa’ emerged later as a mixture of all these — and other — musical styles.
“Salsa is not a rhythm, it is a social movement,” claims Benhur Lozada, producer and genre expert. “Nobody teaches caleños how to dance to what they hear on the radio — they dance to what they feel.” The result is faster steps than everywhere else where salsa is danced.
Delirio: Carrera 26, 12-328
The dance clubs are an institution in Cali, and there are options for all kinds of dancers: beginners can go to La Topa Tolondra, where you don’t need to bring a partner — just wait until someone asks you to dance. The loud music suits the young atmosphere, where locals teach tourists the dance steps. A quite different atmosphere can be found at El Habanero, though: the decibels are high there too, but you will not spot any clumsy steps or sloppy outfits. To the sounds of salsa anthems, couples swing in spontaneous movements whose fastness make it seem like rehearsed performances.
Those who prefer just to watch should plan a visit during the Delirio, the biggest spectacle in Cali. A mixture of salsa, circus, and orchestra, the show features 200 artists and over 400 behind-the-scenes professionals, including set designers, choreographers, cleaning staff, and stage technicians. In this city, dancing doesn’t just move people’s feet — it moves an entire industry.
La Topa Tolondra: Calle 5, 13-27
El Habanero: Calle 7A, 23A-01, Parque Alameda
A different kind of salsa
In the busy aisles of Galería Alameda, one of the main markets in Cali, chef Luis Fernando Ramírez opens up banana leaves, smells branches of basil, and bites a sweet pepper. The visit is the first stage in a different kind of culinary tour: instead of taking the tourists to restaurants, Ramírez teaches them to make traditional dishes from the Cauca Valley at his school, Alquimia.
Alquimia: Avenida 9 Norte, 13N-53
Galería Alameda: Carrera 26 y Calle 8 / Platillos Voladores: Avenida 3 Norte, 7-19
“Up until the 1980s, the culinary scene in Cali was very empirical,” he explains, directing the amateur cooks in their preparation of arroz atollado mixed with potatoes, chicken, pork, and vegetables. “In recent decades, a movement of professionalization started taking place.”
One of the best examples of this movement is María Claudia Zarama, from the restaurant El Escudo del Quijote. As the name suggests, the chef is not only passionate about cooking, but literature as well. “Both are ways of telling stories,” she reflects. “Sometimes completely abstract ideas come to me and the only way to translate them is through food.” On the table, this is revealed in dishes made with local produce like shrimp served in a reduction of lime and sweet peppers.
El Escudo del Quijote: Calle 4 Oeste, 3-46 / María Claudia Zarama
Tradition dictates we leave the best for last, and in Cali that means going to Platillos Voladores. A pioneer in sophisticated Cali cuisine, chef Vicky Acosta opened a fantastic family-oriented restaurant. Installed in a mansion, Platillos occupies several rooms. In the kitchen, nothing is prepared beforehand, so each dish is made from scratch when the customer orders it. Therefore, it takes time to eat here, but it’s worth the wait. Medallions of lomo viche, a tasty beef cut, are served with coconut milk and banana purée; chontaduro, a fruit that resembles palm heart, appears twice: as the spring roll’s filling in the appetizer and in the dessert as the crust of the mini-cheesecakes.
In the end, you should ask the waiter to bring you la fruta mágica, a small, round reddish fruit from West Africa which, when eaten, has the power to turn sour flavors into sweet ones. The fruit should be sucked until its pit is completely smooth. Then comes a spoonful of passion fruit, a slice of lime, and the lulo pulp. With each one, your face will light up in surprise with the suavity that replaces the natural flavors Just like Cali, a hidden surprise that is more than welcome.
LATAM has direct flights to Cali from San Andrés, Cartagena and Bogotá.
Buy a complete package with accommodations and tours in the destination with LATAM Travel or atlatam.com