As my bus meanders through the Valle de Cauca, I can tell that I have entered a different Colombia. Throughout my trip, the landscape and atmosphere have varied wildly from place to place, but something about this region feels entirely different. The tenacious hands of tourism haven’t yet reached this corner of Colombia.
We drive into Cali in the midst of the Friday afternoon rush hour and the whole city is out on the streets and sidewalks trying to get somewhere after work. The roads are packed, the sidewalks are packed, the parks are packed. It’s chaotic, unpolished, diverse. After traveling in Colombia for a month, I’m excited to take off my tourist shoes and be just another person in a city. There’s nothing I want to see in Cali, I only want to experience it.
As soon as I step out of my minibus, Cali inundates me and takes me by surprise after my mellow days in Salento. I’m in a daze as I collect my backpack and walk through the crowded station to find a taxi. As the cab driver weaves us through the city, I like it, but it’s also one of the few places I’ve visited in Colombia where I sense that I need to be on guard.
I am glad when the driver veers off the main road and takes me into the quiet San Fernando neighborhood where my hostel is located. As I walk through the hostel’s front door, I am greeted by the enthusiastic owner who wants to practice his newly acquired English phrases with and gives me an extremely thorough overview of Cali.
Later that night, the hostel owner and his friends take a group of us clumsy hostelers to one of Cali’s most well known salsa clubs, Tin Tin Deo. The music is wonderful and heavy on the Afro-Cuban beats. While the sounds remind me of Cuba, the dancing is very different. People keep their hips straight and add kicks to the typical salsa steps, which is something I’ve never seen before. I much prefer the soulfulness and fluid movements of Cuban salsa dancing, but I am fascinated by the quick moves of Cali’s salsa dancers. I mostly watch, but every so often when there’s a catchy song and courage strikes, I try out the basic salsa steps I acquired in Cuba.
The following day, I go for a walk around Cali. About a block away from my hostel, I am approached by an older woman who asks to walk with me. She feels that the area is not safe and she wants company. Her attire and demeanor denote wealth, and I’m surprised that she is walking rather than driving. She is a kind woman and we talk about Cali and California while we walk. She gives me a few safety pointers before we part ways. The neighborhood still doesn’t seem unsafe to me, but a local must know better. I do what I typically do in potentially dangerous places where I can blend in: I keep my mouth shut and pretend like I always know where I’m going.
I stop at a casual little restaurant for an empanada and lulo juice before turning onto the ugly, busy main road. I find the city’s main artisan market atop a hill. There are not many handicrafts on display, but there are colorful murals and great views of the city sprawl and the mountains around it.
Further down the main road, I walk across a pedestrian bridge to Cali’s historical center. It’s practically deserted and it feels completely shady. I snap a few pictures and get out of there as quickly as possible. I wander back over the bridge to the San Antonio neighborhood where the vibe is completely different. There are flowers in the windowsills and cute cafes. There is Parque San Antonio, a hillside park where young people are enjoying the pleasant weather, the view, and each other’s company. It reminds me of Dolores Park in San Francisco. The whole city of Cali reminds me of the yesteryears of San Francisco’s Mission District.
I keep walking whichever way Cali leads me. I see a man take his young daughter to a tire shop so the workers can pump up her deflated basketball. I see a huge man wearing punk rock attire complete with spiky combat boots warmly greet two little old ladies he knows. He also stops to chat with the hipster guy who is walking in front of me.
Back on the main street, I follow the sound of salsa music to a graffiti-covered concrete park. It’s a salsa in the park event. No one is dancing yet, but there are plenty of kids skating.
All around me are skateboards, tattoos, ear stretchers, wild hairdos, and one Motorhead t-shirt. The skaters are practicing their tricks all over the park. As it begins to fill up, one shakes his head in disappointment, knowing that skate time is almost over. Another one goes with the flow and dances to the salsa music while he rides his board. Eventually it gets too crowded and the skaters call it quits.
The first people to dance are two toddlers from different families. One copies the other’s moves and they follow each other around the park dancing and entertaining everyone. One of the punk rock skater kids lays on the ground and playfully battles a puppy. One man has brought his own instruments and he plays along with the DJ’s picks. By the time I leave, the park has filled up with an eclectic mix of people who have all found common ground in a genre of music.
At first glance, Cali looks like a hardened place, and in many ways it is. It’s the kind of city that doesn’t seem to mind that you’re visiting from elsewhere, but it’s not going to roll out the red carpet for you because you showed up. But it doesn’t take much time to find out how much warmth and spirit are just below its exterior. You sense that Cali’s has been through a lot, that this region of Colombia has been through a lot. So you see a lot of toughness, but you also see touching little moments of community and connection. And when night falls, you see the whole city dance.