City Travel Guide – Cali, Colombia

Cali, Colombia may not be on top of your Colombia travel to-do list, but beware: Our  City Guide to Cali, which is full of things to do (including salsa clubs for newbies), hotels (in all price points), plus restaurants, and bars, will change your mind.

dancing salsa club Cali Colombia

Cali, Colombia is a hot city in every sense of the word, especially on the dance floor at one of the city’s famous salsa clubs, like La Topa Tolondra.

20 reasons to put Cali on your Colombia travel to-do list

The self-proclaimed Salsa Capital of the World is hot in both senses of the word so be prepared for sexy and sultry. Santiago de Cali (almost always just called Cali) is also increasingly safe. According to Insight Crime, Cali recorded a 54 percent decline in gang-related youth homicides in 2016 and in February 2017 the city government announced it would strengthen gang member re-integration programs in the city to give at-risk youth an alternative to gangs.

Certainly troubles persist, but modern Cali offers travelers great food, cool neighborhoods, and a Caribbean vibe that flavors it all.

What do do in Cali, Colombia

Like many people, we have mixed feelings about zoos. Cruel prison for animals, or valuable tool for educating the public about the value and wonder of our natural world? Maybe both. It is fair to say that when the Zoologico de Cali opened in 1971 it was an unforgivably bleak place.

King Vulture Cali Zoo

We saw our first up-close King Vulture at the not-heinous Cali Zoo.

Over the years, the Cali Zoo has eliminated tiny, dirty cages and improved general quality of life for the animals. Now operated by the Cali Zoologico Foundation, the number of animals went from about 250 examples of pretty common species (doves, ducks, etc.) to a current population of a few thousand animals representing a wide range of species (Andean bears, anteaters, etc.) that live within a garden-like 25 acre facility. Research, education, and children’s programs are also part of zoo’s mission. We toured the entire zoo and the enclosures we saw were cages, yes, but very far from the worst we’ve seen.

Parque el Gato Tejada - El gatos del rio Cali - Gachuz

Gachuz by artist Angela Villegas is one of more than a dozen cat installations in Parque el Gato Tejada in Cali, Colombia.

Parque el Gato Tejada started out with one bronze cat sculpture on the banks of the Rio Cali which runs through the city. Soon there were 15 more, each created by a different artist. Green spaces and walkways along the river link the cats together and it’s a peaceful place for an art-filled stroll.

Zaperoco Salsa club

Even newbies are welcome at Zaperoco salsa club.

And what about salsa in Cali? A no-pressure place for newbies to experience salsa culture in Cali is the Zaperoco Salsa Bar which opened in 1991 in the Granada neighborhood. Every Thursday the bar waives its usual cover charge and features a different salsa band every week. This is a great opportunity to see live salsa bands, experience an intimate, authentic salsa club, and maybe even dance a bit. We went on a Thursday night and we felt welcomed into the festive, casual, sweaty atmosphere of this popular place by the all-Caleño crowd.

Salsa DJ Ara Kazarians La Topo Tolondra Cali

Salsa DJ Ara Kazarians handling the tunes at La Topo Tolondra salsa club in Cali.

Ara Kazarians, the owner of the Hotel Salsa Peñon Inn (more below), is a passionate salsa lover and a salsa DJ as well. He tipped us off to La Topa Tolondra, a packed, sweaty, gritty salsa club where Ara DJs sometimes. The place reminded us of our favorite dive bars and music joints from New Orleans, but with salsa music instead of jazz.

La Topa Talondra salsa Club Cali Colombia

We loved the mural outside La Topa Tolondra.

If you’re way more serious about salsa than we are, plan your visit to coincide with the annual Mundial de Salsa festival and competition which attracts the world’s best salsa dancers and musicians.

Restaurants in Cali, Colombia

We did not expect to find a lot of great eats in Cali. Then we spent a day with Cali-born chef Paula Silva (who now presides over her luscious Hippie in Bogotá) and she took us to school. Check out Paula’s top Cali eats in our story for TheLatinKitchen.com, including the city’s famous sugar bomb the cholado (it’s got to be seen to be believed), Calathea artesenal ice cream, and El Bar de al Lado at Restaurante el Escudo del Quijote, and Azul Restaurante.

Azul Restaurant -Cali, Colombia

Azul Restaurant in Cali, where the “surprise me” menu is the way to go.

Here are some other great eats in Cali:

La Sanduchería del Escudo Cali, Colombia

Pick your ‘wich at La Sanducheria del Escudo.

La Sanduchería del Escudo in the El Peñon neighborhood right next to Restaurante el Escudo del Quijote, offers a long list of sandwiches including burgers and a Vietnamese bhan mi. The fresh-cut fries are terrific and they also sell Bogota Beer Company craft beer.

Platillos Voladores - Cali, Colombia

Platillos Voladores in Cali.

Platillos Voladores restaurant is located in a house where chef Vicky Acosta has created a casual environment with chic found-object decor and a lovely garden patio dining area that attracts a mixed crowd (hipsters and sophisticated older couples) who come for creative takes using Caribbean ingredients and yummy cocktails that pack a punch.

desert Platillos Voladores - Cali, Colombia

A dessert at Platillos Voladores, a classic in Cali.

Distilled sugarcane called aguardiente is basically the national drink of Colombia. Because of complicated laws about shipping alcohol around the country, each province has its own brands of aguardiente. In Cali, two big brands are Origen and Blanca. A good place to try some local aguardiente or a cold beer is the Public House bar in the San Antonio neighborhood, not far from the Granada neighborhood. Great music (heavy on the Rolling Stones), a simple but inviting indoor and outdoor space, and fair prices.

Even as a steady stream of hip newcomers open in the El Peñon neighborhood, one age-old institution remains. The Hotel Obelisco has a lobby restaurant that serves heaping plates of mini-empanadas along with famous lulo juice (a refreshing fruit that’s sort of a combo of orange and tomato). Other Empanadas Obelisco outlets have opened up around Cali, but the original is in the hotel in El Peñon. Sit on the patio if you can snag a table.

Pacifico Restaurante Cali

Flavors of the coast at Pacifico Restaurante in Cali.

The sleek Pacifico Restaurante you find in the Granada neighborhood today opened in 2002, but its roots go back to 1975 when the father of the current proprietor, Claudia, opened the first Pacifico on the coast in Buenaventura. When we had lunch at Pacifico the original chef was in the kitchen whipping up Caribbean seafood dishes like shrimp stew which really reminded us of Creole cooking from Louisiana. There are meat dishes on the menu, but seafood is where the kitchen really shines. And don’t miss the coconut flan, a signature dish that’s more coconut than flan and studded with raisins. It’s a family recipe that will never be taken off the menu.

Hotels in Cali, Colombia

We usually do not get too excited about chain hotels. Sure, international hotel chains like Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, etc. are perfect for business travelers who want to know exactly what their hotel will deliver so they can get their work done during a short working stay. But staying in an international chain in Cairo is going to look and feel a lot like that same chain hotel in Cleveland, so leisure travelers looking for a hotel that enriches their sense of place are normally better served by non-chain hotels.

Sombrereos Movich Hotel Cali

Traditional Colombian hats give the lobby of the Movich Hotel Cali a national flare.

In Colombia there is a local micro-chain called Movich Hotels with hotels in Bogota, Cali, Cartagena, Pereira and Medellin. We stayed the Movich Casa del Alferez Hotel Cali where we were pleasantly surprised by the balance of city business hotel services (everything you’d expect) and actual personality and cultural style (like a lobby wall decorated with traditional Colombian hats and inventive use of the same weaving technique to create rugs as well). The Movich Hotel Cali was familiar without being cookie cutter.

Movich Hotel Cali, Colombia

The Movich Hotel Cali.

On the other end of the spectrum is the La Pinta Boogaloo hostal, part of the La Pinta group of hostels and apartments all over Colombia, offers a range of rooms, a big pool in a big garden, and plenty of lounging areas.

Now Hotel, Cali Colombia

A room at the Now Hotel, the hippest boutique hotel in Cali.

We stayed at the playfully hip NOW Hotel in the San Antonio neighborhood, close to many bars and restaurants. The NOW could hold its own in San Francisco or Buenos Aires, as you can see in our story about the NOW Hotel for AHotelLife.com.

Hotel Salsa Peñon Inn - Cali, Colombia

We got over our fear of theme hotels and loved out stay at the mid-range Hotel Salsa Peñon Inn.

Hotel Salsa Peñon Inn in the cool El Peñon neighborhood, was created by salsa-loving Ara Kazarians. We are usually suspicious of themed hotels, but this one is a charmer with vintage salsa posters and album covers everywhere you look. Plus, the location is fantastic and the mid-range prices are good.

So-called love motels are common in Latin America, providing an affordable escape for couples (even married couples) that may have no privacy at home. Yes, some are sleezy dives located next to strip clubs. But some are upscale. Take, for example the Geisha Love Motels around Cali. They offer great design, an amusingly random Japanese theme, and rooms (some of which “will accommodate 3”) that come with sex chairs, and medical assistance. How thoughtful.

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Photo Essay: Grand Tour of Oscar Niemeyer Modernist Architecture in Brasilia, Brazil

In 1956 the newly elected president of Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek, spoke with the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer:  “I am going to build a new capital for this country and I want you to help me,” he said. With that, Oscar Niemeyer became the planner and chief architect of Brazil’s new capital. In April of 1960, Brasilia, the purpose-built modernist city in the middle of the highland jungles of Brazil, became the country’s capital. More than 25 of the monumental and government buildings in Brasilia were ultimately designed by Oscar Niemeyer. UNESCO made Brasilia a World Heritage Site in 1987 due to its modernist architecture and premeditated urban planning. Here’s our grand tour of Oscar Niemeyer modernist architecture in Brasilia.

Modernist Architecture of Oscar Niemeyer in Brasilia, Brazil

Oscar Niemeyer National Congress Brasilia, Brazil

The National Congress (Supremo Tribunal Federal) of Brazil, pictured above, is home to the national legislature and is the centerpiece of Brasilia’s “Monumental Axis” which is the grand avenue that the city of Brasilia was built around. This avenue is where most of the government buildings and monuments (including all but the last two buildings mentioned in this post) were built.

 

Monumental Axis Brasilia

In the middle of the Monumental Axis (Eixo Monumental), pictured above, stands the TV Tower (Torre de TV). From its observation deck you get a great overview of the Monumental Axis and Brasilia’s modernist design (pictured above).

 

Oscar Niemeyer Planalto Palace

Oscar Niemeyer Planalto Presidential Palace

The Planalto Palace (Palácio do Planalto) is the official office of the President. It stands on Three Powers Plaza (Praça dos Três Poderes) because the plaza represents the meeting of the three governmental branches of powers: the executive branch represented by the Planalto Palace, the legislative branch represented by the National Congress (pictured above), and the judiciary branch represented by the Supreme Federal Court (pictured below).

 

Oscar Niemeyer Supreme Federal Court Brasilia

The Supreme Federal Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal) is the highest court in Brazil.

 

Oscar Niemeyer Cathedral of Brasilia

Oscar Niemeyer National cathedral Brasilia

The Cathedral of Brasilia, more formally known as the Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of Aparecida (Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida) is one of Brasilia’s signature buildings and an iconic Niemeyer design both inside (pictured above) and out (pictured above that).

 

Oscar Niemeyer Tancredo Neves Pantheon

Tancredo Neves Pantheon of the Fatherland and Freedom (Panteão da Pátria e da Liberdade Tancredo Neves) also sits on the Three Powers Plaza. Following the 1984 death of Tancredo Neves, the first civilian president elected to office after twenty years of military rule in Brazil, the Tancredo Neves Pantheon of the Fatherland and Freedom was built to honor national heroes.

 

Oscar Niemeyer Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The Ministry of External relations is based out of the Itamaraty Palace (Palácio Itamaraty). The building is also known as the Palace of the Arches and is seen above with the National Congress towers in the background.

 

Oscar Niemeyer Ministry of Justice

The Palace of Justice (Palácio da Justiça) is home to the Ministry of Justice.

 

Oscar Niemeyer National museum

Part of the Cultural Complex of the Republic. along with the National Library, the National Museum of the Republic (Museu Nacional Honestino Guimarães), pictured above, hosts temporary art exhibits.

 

Oscar Niemeyer Memorial JK

Niemeyer’s JK Memorial, pictured above, is a museum and memorial dedicated to Juscelino Kubitschek who was President of Brazil between 1956 and 1961. Kubitscheck is viewed as the father of modern Brazil and he was responsible for the creation of Brasilia.

 

Oscar Niemeyer Brasilia Palace Hotel

The Brasilia Palace Hotel, pictured above, was one of the first buildings to be built in Brasilia. It was nearly destroyed by fire in 1978 and was abandoned for nearly a decade after that before Niemeyer was brought in to oversee a gorgeous restoration of his original design.

 

Oscar Niemeyer Brasilia Alvorada PalaceThe Palace of Dawn (Palácio da Alvorada), pictured above, is the official residence of the President of Brazil. Though recent reports in Brazilian newspapers say the current president no longer lives there because of ghosts in the building.

 

Below is a little dash-cam time-lapse video shot while driving around the Monumental Axis in Brasilia.

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Market Day – Silvia, Colombia

Tuesday is market day in the small town of Silvia which is about two hours from Popayán in southern Colombia. If you’re looking for cheap souvenirs, look elsewhere. If you’re interested in seeing why markets remain a vital way of life for so many people in Colombia, check it out.

Sylvia Colombia market day

Women heading to the Tuesday market in Silvia, Colombia. You can see the two distinct types of hats that Guambiano women wear.

Exploring the traditional market in Silvia, Colombia

Every week, sleepy Silvia fills up with Guambiano indigenous people who come to “town” from their nearby villages to sell what they’ve grown or made and buy what they need in the very traditional market. Some tour companies bring travelers to Silvia to see the weekly market, but we only saw one or two other travelers during our exploration of the market.

Colorful Potatoes Sylvia Colombia market

Potatoes and tubers for sale included those hot pink stunners which are naturally that color.

What we did see was plenty of fruit and vegetables (including long, thin, impossibly hot pink tubers), meat, cheap clothes, hardware, medicinal plants, and all kinds of other everyday needs.

fortune parakeets Sylvia Colombia market

For a few pesos these birds will pick your fortune out of a drawer.

Perhaps not an every day need, but interesting nonetheless, were the parakeets that, for a fee, will choose a fortune for you. Also intriguing: the proliferation of glow-in-the-dark shoelaces on offer. We were looking for something much more mundane: a sheath for our machete. However, they are all too short, perhaps sized for the local population.

Guambiano indigenous Sylvia Colombia market

Traditional skirts are still commonly worn by Guambiano men in Colombia.

As usual, the shoppers were the most interesting part of the market in Silvia. Around the world it’s increasingly unusual to see men in traditional dress. Many have moved to jeans and t-shirts even in places where women and girls still wear traditional clothing. But in Silvia we saw many Guambiano men in traditional bright blue, heavy, sarong-like wrap-around skirts.

Woman Sylvia Colombia market

Traditional dress for Guambiano women in Colombia is pretty uniform: dark skirt, woven bag, hat, blue shawl. Many women personalize their look with glow-in-the-dark shoelaces.

Guambiano women wear flowing black skirts with thin bands of color. Many men and women also wore tiny, rigid, wool bowlers perched on their heads. Some women opted for pancake flat, woven reed hats that looked like flattened tortilla warmers. Most women also wore work boots, often with glow-in-the-dark shoelaces.

Sylvia Colombia market day

Socializing in the central square is a big part of market day in Silvia, Colombia.

Older Guambiano women, whose hands were perpetually busy spinning wool, also had unusual short haircuts that gave them poufy bobs. Many women also seemed to be in a contest to see who could wear the most white beaded necklaces.

Men Colombia market day

Many Guambiano men in Silvia, Colombia still wear traditional clothing including blue skirts, bowler hats, and scarves.

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Meet the Border Dicks!

We’ve crossed 58 borders so far on our Trans-Americas Journey road trip through the Americas. And while 90% of the border officials we’ve come across have been pros, the other 10% have been, as we say in the travel business, border dicks. They come in many shapes and sizes. Here are a few of our favorites.

Meet the border dicks!

The Career Dick – Possibly the most common border dick of all, the Career Dick is usually old and fat (the truth hurts). He or she probably sleeps in his or her uniform and boasts about their authority to all who will listen, but lost any interest in actually doing the job many, many years ago.

Problems at Argentina border crossing

The Flaccid Dick – On the border between Bolivia and Argentina we encountered a Flaccid Dick, that is: a border official who talks a big game but, when push comes to shove, doesn’t have what it takes to follow through. Our Flaccid Dick insisted that we had to remove the entire contents of our truck and put said contents through an airport-style X-ray machine. We did that for about an hour until the Flaccid Dick was over ruled by another border official and the very real limits of his power were made clear. That’s when the Flaccid Dick usually turns into the even more offensive and potentially dangerous Frustrated Dick.

Peru border crossing wait

The Out-To-Lunch Dick – Not all border dicks are male (though the majority of border officials we’ve encountered are). The first time we entered Peru we were stuck at the border for more than an hour waiting for the woman in charge to return from her hours-long lunch break.

The Pompous Dick – The border official at a crossing from Honduras into El Salvador really was just doing his job and we really did inadvertently violate Central American border rules resulting in not being allowed to enter El Salvador. But did he have to be so obnoxious about it? Turns out, yes. That’s what made him a Pompous Dick.

USA border crossings

The Picky Dick – You will not believe the hoops we had to jump through (cash, forms, reservations, letters of recommendation, inoculations) to get past Picky Dick border officials in Bolivia because of our US passports…

The Know-Nothing Dick – It is alarmingly common that customs officials do not speak to immigration officials (and vice versa). That lack of communication, and a world-class Know-Nothing Dick customs agent, created infuriating chaos during a crossing into Ecuador from Colombia. After purchasing visas at the Ecuadorean consulate in a nearby Colombian border town, we headed for the border. The problem: the consulate agent, perhaps distracted by the strong earthquake which occurred in the midst of our transaction, failed to write the number of days on both visas after they were stamped into our passports. One visa clearly noted 90 days while the other had no days noted. Despite the fact that the visa we purchased is, by law, a 90 day visa, the customs official at the border would not let our truck into Ecuador with us, claiming he did not know how many days to give the truck because our visas were unclear. After hours of explaining Ecuadorean immigration and visa law to the Know-Nothing Dick we finally begged the extremely reluctant head of immigration at the border to intervene. In what may be a world first, representatives of these two agencies spoke (so awkward) and we were finally let into Ecuador with a glare for good measure.

South American border crossings

The Chicken Little Dick – Borders are tense places under the best of circumstances. Add in a Chicken-Little-Dick border official, like the customs woman we dealt with while exiting Peru and entering Chile where delays caused by TWO tire blowouts on the road to the border had resulted in overstaying our visa and truck importation permit by 14 hours. But surely there’s a way to overcome such an unavoidable and inadvertent breaking of the rules, no? Well, yes. But the Chicken-Little-Dick border agent had to make it as nerve-wracking as possible with her end of the world attitude, pointing out that under Peruvian law any importation permit overstay gives officials the right to confiscate our vehicle. Blood pressure rising, we spent two days rectifying the problem with Peruvian officials, employing a time-tested recipe of begging, Spanish language documentation, and the help of local businessmen. Unbeknownst to us, the Chicken-Little-Dick border official was reprimanded for her handling of our situation, so when we returned to the border with our papers in order she had transformed into a particularly sour Mopey Dick.

The Half-Hearted Dick – During a crossing from Peru to Chile, a Chilean customs official made a lot of noise about needing to see EVERYTHING in our truck. Lucky for us he was a Half-Hearted Dick and almost immediately lost the will to follow through on his threats and we passed without unpacking.

Have you come across other types of border dicks in your travels? Tell us about them in the comments section, below.

Central American border crossings

 

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