Cali’s a city with a bad reputation. It’s not entirely undeserved. A quick Google search will yield some alarming murder rates and a collection of travel forum comments advising not to come here.
While many of these points are completely valid, I really love living here.
San Antonio, the barrio I now call home, is a pretty little community of brightly coloured colonial houses, bakeries and restaurants. There’s creativity and music pouring out of every street. Graffiti creates a feature of the less attractive buildings and old men sit outside their houses painting canvases and complementing passing women.
Weekends in San Antonio are a big deal. By 6pm on Friday night the entire neighbourhood comes alive. Motorbikes line the road adjacent to the park, families eat picnics and play games, and locals mingle with bottles of beer, rum and aguardiente.
One of the draws of this place is the storytellers. Every weekend they inhabit the tiny stone amphitheatre by the church, making huddled crowds cheer and laugh into the night. It’s a relaxed and fun atmosphere.
A short walk down to La Quinta, the main road running through Cali, provides a different experience. As someone who catches a bus on La Quinta at 5:30am some mornings, it’s a daily reminder of the city’s poverty levels.
San Antonio’s just out of reach of the dirt and noise from Cali’s traffic. La Quinta is the road producing that dirt and noise, as it runs the length of most of the city. Many homeless people sleep on and around La Quinta, fashioning beds from cardboard and bin bags. When the sun rises, so do they, wandering the streets with their limited possessions.
Nowhere have I seen the poverty of this city more clearly than near Siloe A. Siloe A’s a hillside barrio notorious for its violence. It’s also the home of many peaceful families making their lives there. My bus route to work passes through the base of the neighbourhood while its uppermost houses are connected by cable car to the local bus terminal. Makeshift market stalls line the morning streets here. The roundabout, on which people often sleep the night, is regularly packed with cars and motorbikes as battered handcarts are dragged between them. Their cargo of broken and discarded items are unloaded onto roadside sheets in the hope of a quick sale.
Cali’s famous for salsa. It’s world-renowned. And dancing is interwoven into everything here. But there’s much more to Cali than just that. Although it lacks obvious tourist spots, two churches and a huge statue of Jesus are all I can think of, there are many other experiences to be had here.
People from Cali are incredibly friendly. Caleños as they’re known, are proud of their city and their country. There’s an outlook on life here that differs greatly from much of the UK. Many Colombians enjoy life in the moment, appreciating the now and dealing with the later when it comes. It seems far removed from the West’s preoccupation with future plans.
Cali has a diverse collection of bars and nightclubs. Although no matter what kind of night it is, most will squeeze in Salsa at some point. There’s a range of festivals here too. Petronio is an annual celebration of Pacifico culture: all things from the Pacific Coast. It’s a weeklong event of music, dancing and drinking with lots and lots of food.
Colombia’s Month of Kites happens in August when the winds arrive. Local shops suddenly fill with kites of all shapes and sizes, and stalls spring up at the side of busy roads with brightly coloured designs hanging from trees. The stone terrace at the top of San Antonio Park becomes a maze of kite strings and smiling faces.
The hustle of Cali can get tiring at times. Especially combined with the stifling heat here. It can be so busy and loud that I crave the countryside. The city’s position between the West Andes Mountains means it’s always possible to see nature but not always so easy to reach it.
A famous hill called Tres Cruces provides a quick break. As the name suggests there are three crosses at its summit. The hike boasts great views of the city with the reward of fresh juices and the best banana bread around, from the stalls at the top.
From San Antonio however, Rio Cali is a little easier to escape to. Flanked by El Peñon, one of the richest neighbourhoods around, it’s a popular location for runners, locals and visitors to the underwhelming El Gato del Rio statue.
As penthouse apartments overlook the river, members of the homeless community wash in its waters. Some live in shacks and tents built under its bridges.
The river’s also home to a variety of birds and reptiles. Storks fish among the rocks and lizards scurry between the bamboo stems. When the hot months reach unbearable temperatures the water can get worrying low. But Cali’s dramatic thunderstorms, creating flash floods in the streets, quickly rectify that.
Colombia’s food varies regionally. Chontaduro and sugar cane juice are popular here, in between the usual Colombian foods, but a favourite treat for Caleños is Cholado. It’s a combination of pretty much everything you could think to put in a plastic cup and call dessert. Somewhere between a Slush Puppie and a fruit salad, it has condensed milk, grated cheese, wafers and some pretty vivid food colouring. Definitely worth trying but I doubt I’ll ever eat another.
One night, shortly after moving to Cali, an enormous fire swept the horizon. It spread for what looked like a dangerously long distance, then perhaps an hour later, was completely gone. In newspapers and overheard conversations the next day, it never seemed to get a mention. Weeks later while watching a movie based and filmed in Cali, I learnt what it was. A mob leader gazed out of his expensive apartment window at a long fire on Cali’s horizon. ‘They’re burning the sugarcane again’ he said, and with that the mystery was solved. I’ve only seen the sugarcane burn one time since but it’s really quite mesmerising.
It’s important to be aware in Cali. Not flashing possessions or wearing expensive-looking jewellery are standard precautions here and they can take a little getting used to. But life in Cali is fun. It’s an exciting experience with new things happening all the time.
Even as I write this, a small parade has sprung up outside my house. A man runs by with an Olympic-style torch in his hand escorted by police cars and a volunteer fire truck, sirens blaring. Flag-draped cars follow and a Chiva bus of local volleyball team supporters cheer and sound their horns.
There are a couple of times I’ve felt unsafe in Cali, as online reports suggest will happen, but most of the time I’ve just felt really happy here.