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Things to do in Cali: my trip to Colombia’s salsa capital

I’ve visited a few lovely places in Colombia outside of Bogota. I’ve been to Cartagena FOUR times (I’ll never get tired of that city :)), Santa Marta, La Guajira, Villa de Leyva, Paipa, Medellin and a few rural areas and pueblos around Bogota. I’d wanted to visit Cali, the Colombian salsa capital, for a while, and this month I finally went!

View of Cerro de Tres Cruces from Parque Artesanal Loma de la Cruz, Cali, Colombia
View of Cerro de Tres Cruces from Parque Artesanal Loma de la Cruz, Cali

My partner Javi does trading on the NYSE and was on a course in Cali. I tagged along knowing I’d be on my own to explore for most of the trip. But that was cool – I love exploring! I also knew I wanted to take advantage of being in a city of salsa experts, so I booked 10 hours of private salsa classes at the Arrebato Caleño salsa school. But more about that later!

Getting Around in Cali

There is a bus system like the TransMilenio in Cali called Mio, but we didn’t use it as we were only there for a few days and stayed quite close to our hotel. We either walked everywhere or took Uber.

Things to do in Cali

Where we stayed: Barrio Granada

We stayed at two hotels in the Granada neighbourhood, close to the Marriott. We had to move from the first one as it was noisy, dark and we got eaten alive by mosquitos (no joke in a region that suffers from Dengue). So yeh – I don’t recommend Hotel Portón de Granada. It was one of those cases where the hotel looked much nicer on Booking.com than in real life!

The second hotel was perfect. The room in Hotel Aqua Granada was bright, comfortable, quiet, large with a fridge and a kitchenette, seating area and a comfortable bed. It also had a decent restaurant downstairs, a water dispenser, and most of the staff were quite friendly.

Barrio Granada is full of restaurants and bars – especially on Avenida 8 and 9 – with a range of Colombian and international cuisine on offer. I enjoyed the burgers at Local Burger (they have beef, Angus beef and vegetarian). I was shocked to discover that I also enjoyed the craft beer at Einstein Kaffee & Bier Haus – I’ve always disliked beer but I actually liked (and finished!) the Mangoviche flavoured light beer at Einstein. They have about ten different craft beers on tap to choose from. You charge up a card that they give you when you go in, and then scan it each time you want to fill up your glass. Cheers!

Drinking beer at Einstein Kaffee and Bier Haus in Cali, Colombia
I finally found a beer I like at Einstein Kaffee & Bier Haus in Barrio Granada, Cali!

Museo de la Salsa

Just a few blocks south of the restaurant area is the wide open space of the Plazoleta de Jairo Varela (dedicated to the famous salsero!). I was a bit disappointed by the Museo de la Salsa (the Salsa Museum) – I expected something better. That said, the staff are very friendly, and if you have a guide who can talk you through the exhibits, the history of the museum and explain the significance of Jairo Varela and his band Grupo Niche (to whom the museum is mostly dedicated), you would probably get more out of the experience.

Musical Sculpture at Plazoleta de Jairo Varela

The square, Plazoleta de Jairo Varela, right in front has a very cool sculpture, kind of in the form of a brass instrument. If you stand underneath the brass cones at the bottom, you’ll be surrounded by classic salsa music, with famous salsa lyrics covering the inside of the sculpture.

Musical sculpture at Plazoleta Jairo Varela in Cali, Colombia
Musical sculpture at Plazoleta Jairo Varela in Cali, Colombia (Photo: Tefita228)

El Parque del Gato

Cat sculptures in the Parque del Gato in Cali, Colombia.
The Cali-Cats, as I’ve rechristened them, at the Parque del Gato, Cali

As a cat-lover I was intrigued when I saw El Parque del Gato (the Cat Park) on the map. This small park is on the other side of the Cali river to the upmarket El Peñon neighbourhood. On Google Maps you’ll see a famous landmark called “El Gato del Rio” (the River Cat). The ‘Gato de Tejada’ was the original cat sculpture by famous Colombian artist and sculptor, Hernando Tejada. He created it in Bogota, and it was quite an endeavour to get it to Cali, so much so that they had to knock down the walls of the workshop in Bogota to get it out!

Cat sculpture at Parque del Gato in Cali
Hernando Tejada’s iconic cat sculpture at the Parque del Gato

It was unveiled in the Parque del Gato in 1996, and sadly Hernando Tejada died just over a year later. To commemorate the artist, other Colombian artists were invited to create ‘novias del gato’ (‘girlfriends’ for the main cat)! Nowadays, around a dozen colourful cats roam this riverside park, created by artists that include Tejada’s nephew, Alejandro Valencia Tejada, and other well-known Colombian artists such as Maripaz Jaramillo y Omar Rayo.

These are some of my favourite photos of the Cali-Cats.

Selfie with cat sculpture at Parque del Gato in Cali, Colombia
This one reminds me of my lovely ginger cat Tom (RIP)
Selfie with cat sculpture in the Parque del Gato in Cali, Colombia.

Parque del Peñon

Crossing the bridge by the Parque del Gato, a couple of blocks away on the other side of the river is Parque del Peñon, (which is more of a square than a park). This is a pleasant place to sit down with an ice-cream and do some people-watching at the centre of one of Cali’s nicer neighbourhoods. You’ll see people selling jewellery and art, and on Saturdays there’s a farmers’ market there from 9am – 4pm.

Parque del Peñon Cali

There are lots of upscale international restaurants in El Peñon neighbourhood, which reminded me a bit of El Nogal or Rosales neighbourhoods in Bogota. This area is therefore a good choice to consider, alongside Barrio Granada, if you’re making dinner plans.

Barrio San Antonio

Within about 15 minutes’ walk of El Peñon neighbourhood is the Cali’s historical center, San Antonio. This hillside neighbourhood dates back to the 16th century, so naturally the buildings here are low with a colonial charm about them. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes (cheap and mid-range) to choose from and lots of hostels if you’re traveling on a budget and/or want to meet fellow travellers. Many hostels also offer salsa classes in the evenings and can recommend teachers for those wanting private classes.

San Antonio neighborhood, Cali, Colombia
Street art in San Antonio

San Antonio also has artisanal workshops where you can buy souvenirs, and great views over Cali as the streets slope upwards to the Iglesia de San Antonio. I didn’t find there was that much to do in San Antonio compared to Bogota’s Candelaria, but it’s nice to walk around. If you want a good, cheap, traditional Colombian lunch, I recommend Ciro’s. You get a soup, main course and drink for 10,000 pesos.

San Antonio church, Cali
San Antonio church, Cali

Parque Artesanal Loma de la Cruz

Walking south for 10-15 minutes from San Antonio, I found myself at the Parque Artesanal Loma de la Cruz. Here I found many souvenir shops and an artisanal market. I liked the area immediately. You might compare it with Usaquen in Bogota, except that it’s a much smaller area.

Market at Parque Artesanal Loma de la Cruz, Cali
Colombian souvenirs at the artisanal market

It’s also in a high area of the city and has really pretty views across to the Cerro de las Tres Cruces hill. Look out for the sculpture of the rooster, stroll around and admire the graffiti and sit down with an ice cream on the wave-like wall at the edge of the round square to relax and admire the views.

Views from Parque Artesanal Loma de la Cruz

Downtown Cali

Like the downtown areas in most Latin American cities, downtown Cali is nothing to write home about. That said, it’s a great place to see the locals going about their daily lives. As the commercial centre of town, you’ll see lots of cheap shopping arcades, and people selling fruit, panela, juices, cholado, and all manner of goods on the street. It’s crowded, a bit grubby, and you do feel like you need to be more aware of the people around you and keep your belongings close.

Iglesia Ermita

We visited the pretty Iglesia Ermita, probably the nicest church in Cali. Its blue and white exterior with Neo-Gothic features appear in many depictions of Cali, though it only dates back to 1948. When the church opened, we ducked inside to escape the heat.

Ermita church in downtown Cali

Cali Free Walking Tour

We were expecting the Cali Free Walking Tour to begin outside the church at 4pm, but as a small crowd of expectant tourists gathered, no-one showed up. I called the number that came up on Google Maps, and they answered saying sorry, but the tour isn’t running until Monday (this was on Friday afternoon!). A bit disappointing, but the tour does have good reviews, so if you’re in Cali, it may be worth passing by the church at 4pm to see if it’s running.

Parque de los Poetas

Just behind the church is the Parque de los Poetas (Poets’ Park – which is actually just a square). Here you’ll see men with old-school typewriters dotted around the square. For a fee, they fill out forms for people who need their service, or will type out a letter to your beloved. Why would you send a postcard when you could send a lovely, authentic souvenir from Cali?

Plaza Caicedo – Cali’s Main Square

The Plaza de Caicedo is the palm-filled main square in Cali, nice for sitting down and taking a break from walking. When we were there, there was a political rally with a band and dancers as one of the Mayoral hopefuls endeavoured to stick in the minds of Caleños as they go to out to vote later this month.

Tertulia Museum

Across the river from the Parque del Gato is Cali’s main museum, Museo La Tertulia. On the day I went, they had an extensive exhibition of art, photos, short films and testimonials relating to the armed conflict in Colombia, a homage to the victims. None of the descriptions were in English so although the images and exhibits were powerful on their own, you might feel a bit lost if you can’t read Spanish. Outside the museum on this Sunday afternoon, there were groups of young people practicing salsa and break-dancing, which was nice to sit and watch for a bit.

Tertulia Museum, Cali
Tertulia Museum

Salsa in Cali – My Salsa School Experience!

As you might imagine, there are lots of salsa schools to choose from in Cali. I’d read about Arrebato Caleño and a couple of others on various Colombian blogs, so I emailed all of them. Arrebato Caleño got back to me quickly with reasonable prices, plus it was only a short Uber ride away (or a 25-minute walk) from my hotel. I therefore went ahead and booked a couple of classes with them to see how I got on.

On the first afternoon, I did an hour with teachers Andrés and an hour with Yused to start off. Andrés was very focused on technique and posture, which makes such a huge difference in terms of how good you look on the dance-floor. Yused focused more on teaching me all the many different (and complicated!) steps of salsa caleña, and practising them over and over until I got them (more or less) right. Below is a video of me practicing with Yused!

Feeling happy with my first two hours, I booked a package of 10 hours over three days (ambitious, I know, and I needed a couple of days to recover once I was back in Bogota!). When I was booking, I asked whether they would recommend that I stick with the same teacher or whether I should have classes with different teachers. They told me that it can be good to book classes with different teachers, as they all have their different strengths and teaching styles, and you can learn something from all of them. So I booked five more hours with Yused, two with Andrés and one with Cristiana, who helped me work on my styling (especially my arms and hands) and the psychology of learning how to dance.

It was intense but I really enjoyed the course and would highly recommend taking classes at Arrebato Caleño.

Arrebato Caleño School of Salsa

This school was founded by Alejandra Tovar, the school’s Director, and one of the teachers at the school, ‘Kanelo’, and is about to celebrate its five-year anniversary.

Arrebato Caleno dance studio Cali
In the studio with the outline for my class on the board

Group salsa classes

Thursdays: 19.00 – 21.00
Saturdays: 14.00 – 16.00

As well as salsa, they also teach other dance-styles, including champeta, merengue, bachata, cumbia, bolero, son, cha cha cha, salsa choke, salsa afrocubano and boogaloo.

Private Salsa Classes in Cali

Private classes start at 55,000 pesos per hour or you can choose one of the following packages:

  • 5 hours – 225,000 pesos
  • 10 hours – 400,000 pesos
  • 20 hours – 600,000 pesos

You can choose to stay with one teacher or you can have different teachers. I recommend trying three or four different teachers and seeing what each one has to offer. You might then decide to stick with two, depending on how frequently you have classes.

Fellas: it’s good to learn salsa from a male teacher, who can pass on tips about how to move and lead your partner (though the female teachers can, of course, also help with this). However, you might be concerned about not having the opportunity to practice dancing with a woman during the class. Don’t worry. There are female volunteers at the school who will step in when you practice the routines that the teacher has just taught you.

Ladies: I enjoyed my classes with both the male teachers and the female teacher I had. All three were able to help guide me with footwork, posture and styling, so I don’t think it matters whether you have a male or female teacher.

Volunteering at Arrebato Caleño salsa school

If you’re interested in volunteering in Colombia, and particularly Cali, you can do so at this salsa school. The school accepts several volunteers at a time, who work in the office, assist in the private salsa classes when the students are practicing routines and take photos of students and classes for publicity purposes.

Volunteers can also offer other skills, such as translation or DIY skills. In exchange, you’ll get a free bed in a shared room at the school. You also get a number of free salsa classes depending on how long you volunteer for, and all group classes in the evenings are free for volunteers to attend.

Volunteers must stay for a minimum of six weeks, and these are the perks:

  • For the first month, volunteers receive 6 hours of private classes for free + 16 hours of group classes (there are four hours of group classes each week)
  • For the second month, volunteers receive 8 hours of private classes + 16 hours of group classes.
  • For the third month of volunteering, volunteers get 12 hours of private classes, plus the group classes. Volunteers who stay for three months also get to perform in a salsa show with professional salsa dance partners. Many long-term volunteers are able to start teaching salsa.
Arrebato Caleno Salsa School in Cali
The Arrebato Caleño XIV dance group at the Festival Mundial de Salsa de Cali 2019 (World Salsa Festival in Cali) This group was a mix of locals, teachers, and foreign volunteers. (Photo: Arrebato Caleño)

It’s not necessary to have a high level of Spanish to volunteer at Arrebato Caleño, but if you don’t have at least a basic level of conversational Spanish, you will be expected to take Spanish classes during your time in Cali. The salsa school has links with a local Spanish school and can help volunteers to arrange Spanish classes (which would have to be paid for separately).

Salsa Clubs in Cali

I didn’t go out dancing while I was in Cali, as Javi was busy with his course until late in the evening and I didn’t fancy going alone. However, check out this blog post from the Cali Adventurer on the best places to dance salsa in Cali!

Places I didn’t visit in Cali (but that you might like to)

Many blogs recommend visiting the Cristo Rey statue (Christ the King), which is on top of the hill just outside the city. Apparently there are spectacular views from the top. The butterfly sanctuary, Mariposario Andoke, is also a popular attraction, on the same road to the Cristo Rey statue.

I’ve heard rave reviews about Delirio, a salsa-acrobatics show in Cali. If you want to go, be sure to book your tickets waaay in advance!

The Centro Comercial Chipichape (in the north) and Jardin Plaza (in the south) shopping malls are the places to go shopping in Cali!

My favorite things about Cali

Apart from my salsa course, which was the best thing about my trip to Cali, I loved the hot (but not too hot) weather. I also found the people in Cali (the caleños) to be the friendliest people I’ve met in Colombia. Although you need to be careful in Cali in terms of not flashing valuables, when I was walking through the areas I visited, I never felt uncomfortable. I actually felt safer than I do in Bogota. That said, there are parts of Cali that are more dangerous than others (one Uber driver told me you need to be careful in the east of Cali). Just take the usual amount of precaution, and have an amazing trip!

Have you been to Cali? What was your favorite thing? Did you do salsa classes, and if so, where? Let readers know in the comments section!

P.S. If you’ve found this blog helpful or entertaining, you can now buy me a digital cup of Colombian coffee! 😀

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