Charming. Gritty. Romantic.
Welcome to Cali, Colombia.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been to a place so inspiring. As far as large cities go, Cali is the undiscovered jewel of South America.
Most people have probably never even heard of Cali, and fewer still would consider planning their next vacation here. It doesn’t help when WikiTravel scares people by emphasizing all of the kidnappings, robberies, and other risks of traveling to Cali.
Cali has no beach. Cali has no significant ruins or monuments.
What Cali does have, is SOUL.
If you don’t know what soul is when applied to a city, you need to come here.
Cali is rough around the edges. There is dog shit on the sidewalk. There are homeless people pissing in the city parks. Half the city is off limits to tourists unless you want the experience of being mugged.
But the other half of Cali is cool. Edgy. Artsy. Authentic.
I am staying at an Airbnb in a neighborhood called San Antonio, which dates back to the 19th century. My place is owned by an artist, and the decor is colorful and elegant. 12 foot ceilings are framed by large wooden beams. Paintings and photography dot the walls. Large windows with beautiful wooden shutters open to the street and the courtyard, so you can hear the neighbors laugh, and the rain fall.
San Antonio is one of the coolest neighborhood’s I’ve walked in a long time. And I’ve walked a lot of neighborhoods.
Withered faces peer out from decorated window frames. Vendors roam the streets carrying fruit on their heads. Cafes serve artisan Colombian coffee by day, and play obscure Spanish language films by night.
Music floats through the air like leaves on a fall afternoon. Salsatechs spin and throb with sultry sophistication all night long. Music and dance are not the spice of life here, they are the central theme.
The neighborhood of San Antonio has no major through roads, so it’s eerily quiet. Galleries, theaters, and restaurants decorate their facades with brightly colored paint. The whole neighborhood feels like a movie set waiting for something to happen. Yet apart from the occasional backpacker, I am the only gringo in sight.
The restaurants are outstanding and there are several. I’ve only tried two, and they were both delightful. Many are “fusion”, like Cali itself, mixing varieties of flavors to create something unique.
And while the travel guides mention San Antonio, instead of it being THE reason to come to Cali, it often ranks way down the list, after the zoo and the football stadium.
San Antonio is also one of the safest and most walkable neighborhoods in all of Cali. In my opinion, San Antonio is one of the most desirable places to visit or even to live, if you are looking for soul and authenticity at an affordable price.
How “undiscovered” is San Antonio by global standards? A spacious two bedroom apartment can be rented here for $150 per month. A bunch of bananas are 50 cents. A freshly squeezed orange juice is 65 cents.
The other neighborhood I walked in Cali is called Granada. If San Antonio feels trapped in the 1850s, Granada feels trapped in the 1970s. Diner-style cafes, newspaper vendors, shoe shiners… they’re all still here. Old guys who probably took part in the burgeoning drug trade decades ago are also still here, drinking coffee, and wearing the same style clothes.
What I’ve discovered is that Cali doesn’t even know Cali. The “reason to visit Cali” is hard to pin down. Cali bills itself as the “Salsa Capital of the World” which is deserving, and a clever way to distinguish it from other cities. But there is something indescribable that lurks here. As the danger of everyday life in Cali starts to recede, Caleños are still finding their identity. Come here before the rest of the world finds it for them.