Cali is a sprawling city of great food, Salsa (not the food), and art. No matter which corner you turn, you’ll probably find all 3.
Today, Cali is quite a nice place to be, but that wasn’t always the case. In the 80’s it was home to a major drug cartel that brought a lot of violence to the city. The competing cartels didn’t care much about bystanders and their acts of terrorism took many, many lives. For this reason, a curious construction habit began that is still seen throughout all of Colombia, but was especially noticeable in Cali.
As the streets were very unsafe, shopping malls became a place of refuge that families could go. Surrounded by security checkpoints and large gates, Colombians could walk around in peace, eat at outdoor cafes, and take a small reprieve from the war-torn streets that the cartels were causing.
Cali had several malls that felt like mini pueblos within the city. Although I am not one for shopping adventures, it is a commonplace destination for meeting friends and finding a restaurant to go to, or simply taking a several kilometer lap around the compound.
Oh yes, you’ll hear it everywhere, even in the grocery store. Dancing is popular all around Colombia, but Cali has their own flavor of Salsa — it’ll tie your legs in knots and make your head spin. I’m certainly no expert, so you probably don’t want my tips, but all I have gathered is that the cowbell will help you know when to step.
If you watch a couple who knows what they’re doing, it’ll probably confuse you as much as me how they move like that to a rhythm I just can’t seem to understand… but they make it work! And make me feel unhappy with my dancing skills… As I’ve been told many times, “it’s just not in your blood.” Sorry gringos…
Don’t even think about trying to dance before midnight, the party starts late here. La Topa is world-famous and sure to make you feel like you have 2 left feet — start there ;).
If it’s a food or drink that starts with a “C” just go ahead and buy it immediately. Champús, Cholados and Chontaduros are a few of my favorites that can be found all over Cali, right on the street as you’re walking around!
I don’t know if they sell these things in actual restaurants, but it just wouldn’t be right to buy them there. Find a cart around the corner.
Champús are a mix of fruit juices, including my all-time favorite Lulo which is another must-try Colombian fruit. Not only is it a juice but there are chunks of pineapple, apple and other random throw-ins from the cart vendor. Don’t let this one scare you off, but they put corn in it too… and it’s delicious!
Cholados are a shave ice treat with a variety of flavoring options, condensed milk, cookies, and a few blueberries and a strawberry on top to make you feel better about it. Once again, find a stand on the street to cool off as you walk around the hot, hot streets of Cali.
Chontaduros are a fruit from a certain variety of palm tree, that are apparently abundant in this region of Colombia. You can buy a big bag for under $1 USD. Initially, the dryness of the fruit and texture threw me off, but after a few and adding some honey, they started to grow on me. According to my initial research, they are also quite healthy.
Ok, ok, something other than a C-food. Similar to the Champú is the Lulada, it has some nice fruit chunks but is heavier on the Lulo, making it more tart and refreshing for us bitter people.
If you’re looking for the healthy stuff… be sure to pick up some Marranitas — they cleverly disguised chicharrones in a deep-fried plantain doughball. Aborrajados are a similar fried plantain snack that are stuffed with cheese. These ones may be better to find at a traditional restaurant, I’ve seen some stands that have had these snacks sitting in them all day. Only have this on the street if you see them pull it from the frier. El Alcornoque Restaurante Bar is a great place to find almost all of these things.
This area is a must-see for any visitor in Cali. Old colonial buildings, a nice park with an old church and tons of great eateries and cafes. For dessert, be sure that you stop by Lengua de Mariposa for ice cream that showcases the many exotic fruits of Colombia. Again, it will be hot, so maybe you’ll have to stop by a few times if you’re in the neighborhood.
Art, art, art
We saw it all on our random walks. Street art on the sides of buildings, statues and monuments everywhere and just around the corner from San Antonio, you can find El Gato del Rio. This little cat park is right along the river and certainly worth taking a stroll through with your full belly of ice cream.
My friend also decided to add some art to his arm, both of them — tattoos are very popular in Cali as well, with some world-class artists located just north of Barrio Granada. Our favorite shop was called Realink Studio — ask for Alvaro.
Like most of Colombia, public transportation is excellent. You can get from one end of the city to the other on the main Mio line. You can buy single tickets on this line, but for the smaller ones, you will need to purchase a rechargeable card at one of the bigger stations.
Cali is a big enough city to have Uber and this is a great way for navigating around the metropolis while also learning what normal fees are before you take street cabs.
The Good Life in Cali
Needless to say, Cali is a lovely city with tons of great food and very friendly people. Definitely worth penciling into your Colombia trip!
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