By Alison Isaac
As the world’s travel radar expands to include Colombia, I keep seeing the same cities pop up on these “Where to Go” and “What to See” lists. Many tourists looking for a short trip opt for Cartagena and its beaches up along the Caribbean coast. Bogota is the capital, so it’s a default “must-see” (accurate or not), and digital nomads and expats planning on an extended stay tend to head to Medellin.
Santiago de Cali (“Cali” for short) is still often overlooked.
I get that Cartagena is an obvious choice for a beach vacation, especially because you can easily hit up Barranquilla, Santa Marta and everything in between during the same trip. Bogota is the big city with the big museums, so people who haven’t heard about its perpetual rain and traffic jams feel like it’s a good bet. I get it. But what’s the deal with Medellin? How did Medellin become the beloved?
They call Medellin the most innovative city in Colombia. They’ll tell you to stay in Laureles, go drinking in El Poblado, see Botero’s voluminous figures and travel on el metro and the metrocable. There’s also the history of the infamous he-who-shan’t-be-named, and the formerly violent Comuna 13 turned tourist trap where you can go on a tour of Instagrammable graffiti and ride outdoor escalators. It’s complicated and, admittedly, fascinating.
So, what about Cali?
The problem with Cali is its reputation. Medellin and Cali have a similar, interconnected history, but Medellin’s clean-up started early on, while we can say that Cali has remained Cinderella before the ball.
But things are changing.
What I always tell people is: Cali has its charm. Even as someone who has grown to love Cali, I know not everyone will see its beauty immediately. It’s a city “with a great personality,” some might say. During the ride from the airport to my new home 5 years ago, I remember thinking Cali wasn’t a conventionally beautiful city, and it did take me some time to settle in completely. I was unfamiliar with the accent (they have a way of making that first S sound like an H) and there were lots of new CH words I had never heard before, like cholado and chontaduro.
It’s cliché but Cali really does have a strong, distinct flavour to it.
Here, tropical fruits are street food. You can get guinep, and green mango with lime and salt, while waiting at a red light. It’s common to see street vendors churning out fresh sugar cane juice via a wooden cart that fills your cup in seconds.
There’s also Pacífico culture, something I didn’t know was “a thing” before moving to Colombia. I don’t mean Oceania, Pacific, I mean the Pacific-coast-of-Colombia, Pacific. Have no idea what that is? Neither did I. It’s Black culture that’s not Caribbean, nor African-American, but rather, Colombian. It’s arrullos, currulao and chirimía, viche and mariscos with coconut rice. It’s perseverance and resistance. I’d argue that Pacific culture is The Thing that makes Cali so special.
And if we’re talking about things to see during a short vacation, Cali has Cristo Rey (think of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer, but a little smaller), Cerro de las 3 Cruces (hikable), Museo la Tertulia and El Metrocable (like Medellin). There are the walkable neighbourhoods of San Antonio, San Fernando and Granada. Alameda has its market and seafood restaurants, and pueblito Pance has its river. There’s a vibrant nightlife scene for every taste, from the mega clubs in Menga to the parche on the Bulevar del Rio if you’re broke (or cheap). And as an extra treat, the ocean is a $10USD bus ride away.
Are you a digital nomad who needs to work? No problem — a number of coworking spaces have opened up in Cali, in addition to cute connected cafes where you can enjoy fancy coffee and get some work done.
Even though there isn’t really a rivalry between Medellin and Cali anymore, I feel a way when acquaintances make the mistake of asking me for Colombia travel tips but then tell me they don’t have time to visit to Cali because they’ve chosen to spend time in Medellin instead. What I know about Cali is this: people come, leave, and then miss it.
So, to the folks thinking they don’t have room for Cali on their To Do In Colombia list, especially because they’re questioning whether Cali is safe enough to risk a visit, here’s another corny cliché for you: the only risk is wanting to stay.
Alison Isaac is a writer and teacher from Toronto, Canada, with roots abroad and interests everywhere. She currently lives, writes, and teaches in Santiago de Cali, Colombia.