Cali, the salsa capital of the world and the third largest city in Colombia, is not as well-known as it’s more touristic cousins Cartagena and Bogota. While Cali may not have the sights of Bogota or the beautiful beaches of Cartagena, Cali does possess a certain energy that is colorful, gritty and full of life. I’ve spent nearly a week in Cali already and have just begun to get a feel for what makes Cali tick. Here are my first impressions of Cali, Colombia.
Nighttime is when the city of Cali comes to life. During the day, life seems to run at a slower pace in Cali, as the mostly hot sunny weather inspires people to stay inside or laze sleepily outdoors. When the cooler nighttime comes, the people of Cali come out to play. Nightlife in Cali is ruled by salsa and they don’t call Cali the salsa capital of the world for nothing. Salsa clubs and shows are abundant throughout Cali. Calenos are also social animals and during evening times you will find them gathered in the streets or out for a stroll. Cali is truly a nightlife and social city that comes to life once the sun goes down.
Cali has a bit of an edge to it. Unlike Bogota, which I actually found safe, I find Cali to be a city where you do have to be extra vigilant of your surroundings and keep your valuables at home or stashed safely away. On my first day in Cali, I was in for a rude awakening when I was walking in the very trendy San Antonio neighborhood with my phone out. As I stopped to look at my phone, a man on a passing scooter reached out to try to grab it. Luckily, he was only able to tap the screen. He didn’t try to wrestle it away from me as he just continued to drive on. While the experience rattled me a bit, some Calenos saw what happened and reminded me, “Tiene cuidado!” they gently warned me (“Be careful!”). From then on I have either opted to leave my phone behind or if I do need to take it with me, I stash it away and only take it out when I am away from the street. Cali is also the first city where I do actually feel more comfortable traveling with other people. While it is perfectly safe to travel alone during the day, once the evening sets in, it’s advisable to either stick with a group or take a taxi to get where you’re going rather than walking.
Despite the experience with the attempted scooter thief, I’ve found Calenos are outgoing with a friendly toughness about them. Calenos will warn you not to go down certain streets and will warn you to be careful and watch your things. When I got lost and couldn’t find my Airbnb, a street vendor witnessed my struggle as I put my key in the wrong door, and helped me find my place with no expectation of reward. Calenos exhibit the trademark Colombian warmth and will go out of their way to help you. Cali taxi drivers are also surprisingly friendly and less likely to scam you compared to the taxi drivers I dealt with in Bogota. Cali is also a very social city and it’s easy to find ways to mix and mingle with both locals and other tourists.
If you are looking for world class museums and tons of tourist attractions, don’t come to Cali. Cali doesn’t have much in the way of actual tourist attractions, but what it lacks in the tourist attraction department, it makes up for in the way of experience. Come to Cali if you want to experience salsa, friendly people, and roaming different areas while taking in the colorful, lively and gritty energy of the city. Cali is a city you don’t come to sightsee, it’s a city you come to experience.