My first stop in Colombia was Cali, the largest city in southern Colombia. Its full name is actually Santiago de Cali, but noone really bothers. I spent two days here and think one can easily misunderstand Cali as short-term visitor given it doesn’t really present itself very well – a view a 3w Cali visitor from Ireland and an american woman (lived here for a year) confirmed when raised the topic. Speaking spanish and meeting some locals would help i guess. Anyway, welcome to Colombia. May the adventure begin.
Cali es Cali y lo demás es loma.(Cali is Cali, and the rest [of Colombia] is just hills)
Long, but trouble-free journey
Admittedly i arrived a little tired after a sleepless 10h flight from london (3.20am!), 7h stopover in Bogota and another 1h flight domestically. I think only madrid offers direct flights to cali from europe. On the other hand, neither immigration or airport transfers (COP 6,500 from cali airport to bus terminal) were any trouble and rather a pleasant experience. Even got my local SIM in a matter of minutes and met cathrin & co minutes after getting to the hostel myself.
A few first basics for newbies
- Confusing cash: there are newer and older versions of banknotes and even coins in circulation. So don’t get alarmed about fake money too quickly. Each EUR gets you ~COP3,500 at this stage.
- Easy, but not cheap to go mobile: I picked ‘claro’ as my provider with presumably the best coverage. A prepaid SIM is COP5000 and another COP40000 for 1GB and call minutes. Whatsapp, facebook and twitter are free for 30days.
- Love for fried stuff: You’ll often see bakeries on the street corners equipped with little ovens to bake fresh stuff. Tasty though not without a good amount of calories. Same goes for a lot of the meat you get in local lunch places. Cost of two course lunch (soup & rice, chicken, beans) with a beer is about COP9,000.
- Cafe tinto por favour: Tinto in this case doesn’t stand for red (as is the case for wine aka viño tinto), but for “ink”. Colombians basically export all their good coffee and drink the lower grade beans. And they seem to love it.
- Poor beer, expensive wine: I don’t want to judge too quickly, but the local beer (Poker et al) is’t great and wine surprisingly expensive. Must be high import duties.
Cali city tour
We took a free tour (http://www.freetourcali.co/) more or less straight after settling into our hostel (hostel havana, recommended). Tours start every other day at 4pm from the Eremit church. The guide was average and my attention span somewhat limited after my journey. So I only participated to about half way and wandered off wkth Cathrin. In return I now have some friendshiop bracelet a weird local guy gave/sold us.
- Calima: The name Cali comes from calima, a pre-Colombian culture. The city is located on 900m altitude and thus considerably lower than Bogota’s 2,500.
- Sugar cane: Spanish brought sugar cane to Colombia. 70% of domestic sugar production is now produced here in the vast fields surrounding the city. If you wanna get a little taste, just get one of the sugar cane juices sold all over and made with antique presses and a lot of love.
- Eremit church: One of three churches on the tour is a rather young one that is only 80y old after it has been reconstructed in German gothic style.
- No3 city in Colombia: There are five cities with 1m+ inhabitants. Cali is at c2.5m.
- Scribes at Plaza Caicedo: Fascinating to see old men sitting there under umbrellas with old school typewriter. They help fellow Colombians with paperwork for official business eg in the nearby city-hall.
- Chontaduro: It grows on palms and needs 3-5h cooking before its edible. It contains huge amounts on vitamin A (15x your daily need), but when it comes to taste it seems like the marmite of Cali. Its pretty dry and you eat it with salt and honey. From memory, i was one of the very few that didn’t deem it disgusting. If you wanna try, they sell it everywhere for COP2,000.
- Many homeless: you see homeless people lying everywhere. On busy pavements, in front of shops … you name it. They sleep in little more than bare clothes.
- Loads of graffiti: you will find many places upgraded with graffiti in cali. Just take a stroll around.
A few more shots on our tour
Cerro de las Tres Cruces: While Cali might not look all that nice close-up, there is a few spots on the surrounding hills that offer some good panoramic views. The three crosses are one of them. My initial idea to hike up the c600m from Cali center wasn’t met with any enthusiasm by Cathrin or Daniel. So we jumped in a cab (COP40,000 return for 30-40min trip one way) to get up there. Probably also the safer option, as the route appearantly takes you through some more dangerous neighborhoods. Once arrived, we felt fine given a nice policemen guarded the place (different to the info of our guide the day before). Great views from there indeed. Makes you understand how little of Cali we had actually covered. If you feel like, you can also do a bit of fitness in the outdoor gym right up there.
Hanging out with Cathrin & her companions: Need to learn Salsa!
Cathrin had been travelling for a few weeks with her childhood buddy Dennis and Sheela, who she met on previous travels I believe and is touring South America until mid December. On top, there was Daniel. He is originally Colombian though now lives in Alaska and works as cargo pilot. He is doing the panamerica on bike … I might just have a few questions for him once I get my bike license.
On Monday night, we hit some American burger place that had tasty (be it not cheap) burgers. Downside, we were pretty much alone and it didn’t feel a bit like Colombia to me. Afterwards, we hit La Topa Tolondra salsa club (COP5000 cover) given Cali’s huge Salsa reputation. Busy place and very colombian for a change. Yet, not much fun for us stiff Westerners. We all felt pretty misplaced here given none of us can dance salsa. I am glad my language school offers free courses – consider me signed up. So we admired the locals for a while before we called it a night. Next morning it was already time for some good byes – Hasta Luego Dennis & Sheela!
Tuesday was halloween! After our tour up the three crosses we hit the bar/restaurant area of Granada. Most places and many people halloween themes. We opted for a thai / japanese place we came across (good food, be it i left the place still a bit hungry). Again, niot very colombian. We tried another roof top bar nearby for a drink before returning to the hostel. Cathrin & Daniel retired while I had spotted some pretty lifely bars on the way and figured it was time to dive into Cali nightlife by myself.
Turned out to be really good fun. I was the only tourist around, but met three locals pretty quickly. One, a cab driver, spoke english and with the other two it was a mix of my rudimentary Spanish and their bits in English. It worked enough to keep a conversation going. Its remarkable how quickly you become part of the scenery once you hang out with locals. Noone bothers you or tries to rip you off anymore. Just feels real suddenly though arguable warrants caution and a good measure of street smartness.
Welcome to Colombia Amigo!
Loads of fun, but had to call it a night some stage given our travel plans to Popayan next day. Adios Cali. I think there is more to you than meets the eye.