Rhythmic beats droned on, along with various instruments that blended harmoniously… I could feel the wind in my hair, as we zoomed past the tallest building in the city, and my feet started tapping to the music.
This city is not as developed as Bogota, neither is it as refined as Medellin. However, Cali - Colombia’s third largest city by population - has more to offer than what meets the eye. Located in southwest Colombia, this capital of the Valle de Cauca department has been through ups and downs since it was founded in 1536 by Sebastián de Belalcázar.
Beyond its slave history during the colonial period and drug-related violence from the 1980s to early 21st century, Cali has transformed into a diverse and modern city with lingering traces of her past. The somewhat rugged facet of Cali is one of her appeals. To be honest, the city is not packed with attractions or must-see sights but there’s an infectious spirit in the air and her charm lies in her people. A weekend in Cali got me intrigued and here’s what I’ve discovered about the world’s capital of salsa:
Cats by the river gives food for thought
Cats with distinct personality lined the left bank of the Cali river (also known as Rio Cali) in a tranquil space called the Cat Park of Cali (Parque El Gato Del Rio). Led by the red, 3.5m tall River Cat sculpted by the late Colombian artist, Hernando Tejada, this riverside park features a series of cat sculptures by local artists and gives food for thought with their witty Spanish descriptions.
At times reminding me of the philosophical Cheshire cat of Alice in the Wonderland, some sculptures call to attention on environmental threats and sustainability issues while others such as the cartoon-pattern cat evokes childhood memories. Originally part of the rescue plans for Cali River and the beautification of its banks, the Cat Park of Cali is now a great recreational space for locals and tourists.
Cat Park, Cali (El Gato Del Rio)
Address: 2-100 Calle 23, Cali, Colombia
Website: River Cat Park, Cali
Controversial sides of Cali (and awesome shops) abound in San Antonio
They called ‘San Antonio’ the old town of Cali. This characteristic neighbourhood, a short distance from the city center, houses colonial buildings as well as hipster shops and restaurants. Colours abound and the streets are filled with beautiful architecture and artwork.
Some people said San Antonio is the best place to go to but locals who live in this neighbourhood will caution you not to carry your camera or use your phone while walking along the supposedly dangerous streets. Do you see the controversy?
Besides allocating at least two hours for shopping (there are great antique and handicraft shops), one must not miss visiting La Bascula - the only spice shop in Cali - opened by the beautiful entrepreneur, Marisol. The dried fruit snacks (especially the sugared ginger) are to die for!
For dining, El Zaguan de San Antonio with its rooftop terrace and interesting decor serves typical Cali fare. The fact that Anthony Bourdain has dined here might also give you good reason to visit. At night, San Antonio comes to life with its classy bars and it is pretty easy to spot celebrities here!
La Bascula (Spice Shop)
Address: Cra. 5 # 3-26, (San Antonio) Cali, Valle del Cauca
Website: La Bascula
El Zaguan de San Antonio
Address: Cra. 12 #1-29, Cali, Valle del Cauca
Website: El Zaguan de San Antonio
There are more than one popular lookout point in Cali
Cali es Cali y lo demas es loma (Cali is Cali but those other cities are just hills) locals in Cali
Cristo Rey Hill
The hill of Cristo Rey with the statue of 26m (85 feet) Christ is one of the top attractions in the city and it is easy to understand why. Created in tribute to peace 50 years after the Thousand Days’ War, Cristo Rey boasts a magnificent view of Cali city beyond its equally majestic Christ statue. However, the journey to the top can be costly and while there is a path to walk, it might not be a good idea to do so in the hot and humid climate of Cali.
Cristo Rey, Cali
Opening Hours: 9am - 7pm.
Contact: +57 302 2557058
Cali Lookout with Belacázar Statue
The good news is, there are one than one popular lookout point in Cali for you to have that fantastic feeling of being on the top of the world! Alternative site includes the Cali lookout located in the neighbourhood of Arboledas. A statue of the founder of Cali, Belacázar, can be found overlooking the city with one arm pointing towards the Pacific Coast. From a distance, one can make out the Cali river and Cat Park. To visit, simply take an uber ride or walk from the nearby neighbourhood of El Penon or San Antonio.
San Antonio Church
The San Antonio Church (Iglesia de San Antonio) with its white facade and baroque altar was constructed in 1747, making it the oldest church in Cali. Surrounded by a beautiful park, this elevated space also provides great views of the city. There was a serene smile on the face of a local looking down at his city. I couldn’t help but to ask what he was thinking and he shared with me that the beautiful scenery gives him solace for the mundane problems of daily life.
If you enjoy looking at city sights from a high vantage point, the abovementioned are all worthy places for great sightseeing.
San Antonio Church (Iglesia de San Antonio)
Address: Carrera 10, Esquina Calle 1 oeste #SN, Cali, Valle del Cauca
Contact: +57 317 5236589
The city’s church resembles a castle!
Religion plays a big part in the lives of Colombians and in Cali, it is no difference. Hop on an uber taxi and you may spot emblems of Jesus Christ as well as several churches along your journey. Should you be visiting downtown, the Ermita Church (Iglesia de La Ermita) is located in the city center on the west bank of Cali river. This is one unique architecture that commands awe with its Neo-gothic design, even from a distance. It looks like a castle, albeit a small one!
Originally built in the 16th century, the Ermita Church encountered two devastating earthquakes but managed to preserve a piece of its past (sorry, no spoilers!), thereby earning a reputation of surviving miracles. The current building was completed in the 1940s and some said it was designed after Ulm Minster in Germany. Within, don’t miss the Italian marble altar and beautiful stained glass windows.
Ermita Church (Iglesia de La Ermita)
Address: Cra. 1 #13-0, Cali, Valle del Cauca
Website: Ermita Church
Sunday is a day for art in El Penon Park
El Penon, a stone’s throw away from the Cat Park of Cali, is an upscale neighbourhood with fancy hotels, shops and restaurants. On Sunday, the park of El Penon will come to life with skilled artists and craftsmen selling unique artworks. Take a stroll in this ‘open-air gallery’ with its center-piece fountain and converse with the on-site artists. One of the artists, Mr. Alberto Naranjo, has a splendid collection of paintings that I could not stop admiring. Check out the photos above. Or better yet, visit El Penon park on Sunday, anytime from 10am - 6pm.
Artwork of Mr. Alberto Naranjo
Address: Calle 2 #12 A 67, Cali - Colombia
Website: Alberto Naranjo’s Artwork
There is so much more to Cali...
“See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask for no guarantees, ask for no security.” Ray Bradbury
Admittedly, Cali is a city haunted by violence and unfortunately, some of her dark history lingers on in current days. However, this Colombian city has potential and there are so much more to Cali than the abovementioned. Did you know that Cali was the host for World Games in 2013?
Perhaps serendipity and my lucky encounters with the beautiful souls of Cali has given rise to optimism and interest, but as Mr. Bradbury said, seeing the world is more than any dream made or paid for and one will never know unless you take the first step to explore. Happy travels!
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