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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Where to eat 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 The Latin Kitchen, 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.
Here are some other great eats in Cali:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
On the other end of the spectrum is the La Pinta Boogaloo hostel, 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.
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 review of the NOW Hotel for A Hotel Life.
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.
Here’s more about travel in Colombia