Cali, the capital of Valle del Cauca, is a Colombian city that’s seen a lot of change and turmoil throughout the years. From its slave history during the colonial period to its most recent drug-related violence, it hasn’t been the safest city on the planet for years.
For this reason, Cali is often underrated and avoided by tourists. However, in recent years, Cali has tried to transform itself. These days it’s an exciting and beautiful place to visit and not as unsafe as you might think.
The city that calls itself the Salsa capital of the world has been trying hard to reinvent itself and leave its infamous past behind. Cali is still rather rugged and edgy but that is part of its charm. It’s not as naturally beautiful as other cities that just blow you away (hello Cape Town!) and Cali is not packed with attractions or must-see sights. Instead, it’s all about the atmosphere and the infectious sounds of Salsa. It’s special in its unique way.
It’s time to give Cali a chance, so a few days in Cali is a must during your trip to Colombia.
Why pay Cali a visit?
As I said, Cali is the Salsa capital of the world, so if you love Salsa you’ll be in heaven. If you don’t, you might still enjoy Cali anyway. The sound of Salsa music is very addictive and even if you’re not a great dancer, you will still enjoy listening to it.
Once you’re in Cali, you will truly understand why it’s the Salsa capital of the world. Everyone knows how to dance, your tour guide will show you his moves, the kids in the streets will have a dance; everyone just seems to be a fabulous dancer. The locals say you can’t be a real Caleño if you can’t dance! Fair enough.
If you don’t know how to dance salsa, Cali is the place to learn. La Topa Talendra offers free lessons on a Monday night from 7 pm until 9 pm. It’s the biggest salsa club in Cali, so after your lesson, you can carry on dancing the night away amongst the locals, who put on a great show.
Don’t worry if you are not a great dancer, you’ll be able to improve while dancing in Cali and the locals don’t care how good you are. They like to have fun and they want you to have fun too. That’s why you go to Cali!
Barrio San Antonio
Our favourite place in Cali was the little Barrio San Antonio. Not only is San Antonio a safe place to walk around but it also has a great atmosphere.
This neighbourhood is packed with colourful houses and hidden gems. It’s the place to go to find great restaurants and cafes, and there are also many artisanal shops just made for souvenir shopping.
Make sure you walk up the small hill to the San Antonio church for a great view out over the city.
Cali has awesome street art
If like us, you love street art, you’ll have fun walking around Cali’s Centro district. It is packed with street art. You’ll come across entire walls of street art as you wander the streets. Some are extremely colourful, some send a message and some are just super weird!
You can stroll along the river and take selfies with cats!
A walk along the Cali River is a nice way to pass some time in Cali. Once thought of as the most dangerous part of town, the area along the riverfront has gone through a huge transformation in recent years, being converted into parkland.
With its ample shade, it’s great for escaping the midday heat, riding a bike or taking a walk. Be sure to stop and check out the iconic sculpture of “El Gato”, an 11 foot tall, 11 foot wide, and three-tonne sculpture of a cat by sculptor Hernando Tejada.
El Gat memorialises all the stray cats that had to be euthanised during the clean up of the area. It’s a sad story for us animal lovers, but it’s nice that they put up this statue to remember them by. El Gato became a little lonely, so ten years later, he was joined by several other cat figurines, “las gatas”. Those were created by different artists and each has its own story to tell.
Cali has some fantastic viewpoints
Although Cali itself is not the prettiest city in the world, the views of Cali from up high are still worth seeing. Nestled around green hills and sprawling for miles, Cali is certainly beautiful from up high. There are many viewpoints to enjoy those views.
The Cristo Rey is one such viewpoint that we would recommend visiting. The views from there are amazing and on a clear day, you can see quite far into the distance, all the way to the large sugar cane fields that surround the city.
The Cristo Rey itself is quite nice. This 26 metres tall statue of Jesus Christ looks similar to the famous Cristo Rey statue in Rio de Janeiro, although a little smaller.
If you’re feeling energetic, you can also hike up the Cerro de Las Tres Cruces, the Hill of Three Crosses for another amazing view of the city.
The weather is perfect
After having days of overcast weather while in Ecuador, a fair bit of rain and even some days where we had to put our winter coats back on, Cali was love at first sight when it came to the weather. It was hot!
The Caleños will tell you how good their weather is and it is. The average temperature in Cali is 25-30 °C all-year-round with June and July (when we were there) being the warmest months. If like me, you like the heat then you will love Cali.
Next, the question that everyone is wondering …
Is Cali safe?
Our time in Colombia did not start well because on our second day in the country, our camera was stolen in Pasto (look out for dodgy guys on motorbikes!). After that, we were naturally a bit worried about visiting Cali, especially given its reputation.
But once there, we quickly relaxed. The centre of town did not feel any more unsafe than Quito in Ecuador or any other big city we’d visited in South America.
Don’t get me wrong, in South America, you always have to be careful, especially with your belongings. However, don’t think that everyone in town is looking to rob you. Most people are just getting on with their day, just like you. Still, were always extra careful when using our phones in public, especially because by that stage they were the only cameras we had left!
When you head out sightseeing, always leave what you don’t need in your hotel room, locked up (passports, credit cards, extra cash etc.). We took taxis late at night and avoided the parts of town that we were told were unsafe (in particular the Eastern suburbs where there’s nothing to see anyway). After obeying those rules, we did not feel unsafe in Cali. You just need to be street smart, don’t do stupid things, and do take the locals’ advice. They know better than we do what is safe and what is not.
When should you visit?
As I said, Cali is warm all year round. So you can pretty much visit anytime. From May to October, it’s the wet season, so you might experience more rain during that time. It is, however, very refreshing in over 30 degrees heat!
Where should you stay in Cali?
Cali is a relatively cheap city in Colombia. You can find some very good accommodation at a low price.
The best areas to stay are San Antonio, El Peñón, San Cayetano, San Fernando and Miraflores.
Where we stayed
Casa Hotel Jardin Azul: Located in the quiet area of Miraflores, it’s a 10 minute walk to San Antonio and a 5 minutes walk to El Parque del Perro for good bars and restaurants. The owner is super friendly and helpful. She even gave us a big hug goodbye! It has a nice little swimming pool to cool off in after a day of sightseeing in the heat.
Popular on booking.com
Best reviewed: Casa San Joaquin
Good value: Hostal Ruta Sur
Best location: Moonshine Hostel
If none of those hotels take your fancy, try using HotelsCombined to search across all major accommodation sites. We use it all the time.