As an expat living in the states and married to a non-Colombian, I see Cali with the familiarity and critical eye of an estranged daughter.
Cali is growing and changing, the expanding infrastructure, the new public transit system and the desire for progress that fuels the spirit of a city and its people ready to shed their past and proudly wear a new face. It has been an uphill battle with a reputation gained during decades of violence that froze the city, its development and the dream of many, finally thawing out, and a with a younger generation ready to showcase Cali’s potential.
Cali’s constant festive atmosphere with its feathery palm trees, fruit stands on every corner, the hot-from-the-oven pandebonos and the backdrop of the Andean mountains embodies the passionate Caleños. You can start with two days in Cali, exploring the various small neighborhoods near the city center where some of the cultural sites have stood for decades like Museo Arqueológico La Merced, Teatro Municipal and Iglesia La Ermita; and where new developments, like the Ermita Boulevard, are opening the door for artists, chefs and business owners to set up shop and repaint the façade of the old Cali.
Stay and Explore
Located west of the city’s center, the historic San Antonio neighborhood with its colonial style homes of stucco façades, iron and wood spindles is a personal favorite. Locals and tourist alike pass the time strolling around its steep streets peppered with small art galleries, independent theaters, restaurants, cafés and boutique hotels.
Stay at the San Antonio Hotel Boutique a renovated, colonial house with the traditional fountain and courtyard in the middle of the main room, a tranquil atmosphere and attentive service. Visit the San Antonio Church on top of the hill, built on 1747, a gathering place to view the city at night and buy crafts.
El Peñon neighborhood sits on the lower edge of San Antonio surrounded by a canopy of mature trees and fenced by the river. It offers plenty of small boutique shops and a vibrant restaurant scene and nightlife for every taste, from bars to dance clubs. I love to sit in one of the many cozy coffee shops to read a book and cool down with the river’s breeze before visiting the Museo de Arte La Tertulia’s latest exhibition, or the zoo if I’m out with the my brother’s little ones.
Across the river is the base of the mountain and the Normandia neighborhood, where dozens of sports enthusiasts gather every Saturday and Sunday, early morning before the heat of the day and the massive crowds awake, to hike to the Cerro de las Tres Cruces. It’s a steep hike to the 4850ft summit, ideal for those looking to join the locals, eat some sliced fruit on the way, and gain a different perspective of the city.
Caleños love to eat, a statement made by the bakeries in every corner, street-food joints offering favorites like empanadas, morcilla and arepas, and restaurants of every size and styles, from traditional menus to modernist cuisine. El Peñon de San Antonio (Calle 2, Cra 4 #1-108) is an unassuming, picturesque restaurant that offers traditional Colombian cuisine like Sancocho de Gallina, Bandeja Paisa, and the best Tamales Vallunos to please my mother’s difficult palate. La Casa del Pandeyuca (Ave 6A No. 26 N-22, a cab-ride away from San Antonio) is a local favorite for traditional breakfast items like pandebonos, buñuelos and pintado – coffee with hot milk; or a mid-afternoon snack of the best empanadas on this side of the city.
La Guacharaca Café, (Cra 6 #7-12, (+57+2 8833344) is the dream of Pablo Ravazza, a Caleño chef, and Luis Domínguez, a Spanish-born chef; their impressive résumés include a culinary education in Barcelona followed by work with renowned chefs like Alan Ducasse and pastry chef Laurent Duchamp (MOF). I was enamored with the historical building in the center of the city, an area few would dare to go let alone open a brilliant restaurant.
The chef’s use of local ingredients in their more avant-garde cuisine bows to the culture’s favorites while giving them a newfound exciting approach; like guarapo, a drink made from sugar cane, use in the vinaigrette for the green papaya salad with wine-poached calamari, or the cochinillo confitado con papitas criollas and guayaba – a local favorite, a small pig they source from a farm nearby, cooked slowly in its own fat, served with small yellow potatoes, indigenous of Colombia, and guava sauce.
El Falso Olivo, (Calle 16 # 103-00, +57+318 8585182) from Caleño chef/owner Lukas Garcés, a literature major whose passion for cooking took him to Le Cordon Blue in Paris, and in 2013 to open a restaurant as a dream to offer a new concept to the city.
This beautiful, modern restaurant is located in a residential area south of the city, offering contemporary, eclectic cuisine incorporating local and indigenous ingredients, like the coconut and nut torte with thin layers of dragon fruit, chontaduro- an indigenous fruit, and agraz puree – an Andean berry. The cocktail menu also relishes with the vast variety of Colombian fruits like passion fruit and pineapple; and a well-curated wine list heavy on Spanish and Latin American labels. This restaurant has become on of the favorites amongst the youngsters in my family.
After dinner head to Penélope Martini, an open air cocktail lounge in El Peñon neighborhood, where music and load conversation mix with the refreshing Cali night breeze courtesy of the nearby river. A great place to warm up and get the party started before the dancing begins. Caleños hit the clubs later in the evening; no decent dance floor shows its potential before 11 p.m. or even midnight, so a few drinks before aids with time and dancing skills.
No better place in Cali to try your salsa moves without reservations than Tin Tin Deo, a nightclub with an international crowd. Here all visitors, including my husband who loves this place, enjoy the beat of the clave, congas and timbale, and the intricate sound of Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz and their Sonido Bestial, and locals shout of pride with Grupo Niche’s Cali Pachangero; all in a comfortable atmosphere adorned with pictures of salsa heroes like Celia Cruz and Tito Puente. Arrive after 11p.m., grab a table close to the dance floor, enjoy the ease and finesse of the locals’ dance moves, and order a bottle of Aguardiente. Open Thursday to Saturday from 8p.m. to 3a.m.
- Order taxi services through reputable companies rather than flagging one on the street.
- Keep your valuables safe, including your smartphone, like in any big city there’s always the chance to get taken for an unaware tourist
- Hydrate! Cali is hot and humid and walking around under the blistering sun can be detrimental to the night festivities. Juices are readily available and nothing beats the heat like a cold lulo or maracuya juice.
If you have more time and would like to explore around the city, you can:
- Go for a bike ride either early morning or late at night with the many groups of bikers that meet around the city. Group biking ensures you have others watching your back, plus the places they visit are outside the tourist’s rounds.
- Visit the Sugar Cane Museum, located about 1 hour drive from Cali in a lush area surrounded by the Andes Mountains. There are many tours available, or you can find your way and take your time stopping by the roadside stands for juices or fresh cut fruit.