Cali is Colombia’s third largest city – just 100 thousand short of Medellin. It is also the self-proclaimed salsa capital of the world, but it has a lot to offer besides salsa! If you are considering visiting Cali and are wondering what there is to do in besides dance salsa, keep reading. We spent three weeks in Cali and thought that was not enough, but that’s not to say you will. I’ve certainly met people for whom Cali was not their cup of tea. Read on to help you decide if Cali should be on your Colombia itinerary, and for travel tips, including things to do, where to stay, and how to get there.
Cali in a Nutshell
People generally come to Cali to dance salsa – it is the salsa capital of the world after all – but it’s also Colombia’s third-largest city. There’s a lot more to offer than just salsa.
If you come to Cali, you absolutely must go out to dance salsa, and you should take a few salsa classes. Now, if that sounds absolutely horrible, don’t come. If you’re on the fence – like you could take a salsa class or 2, but dancing all day every day isn’t your cup of tea – keep reading to help you decide. There are plenty of people in Cali that aren’t there for the salsa.
We all know that the key to happiness is managing expectations. On that note, do come to Cali expecting to find:
- nightlife of all kinds (not just salsa)
- heat (though mornings and nights are cool)
- fried food
- cheap food
- good food
- some outdoor and adventure activities (rivers, hikes, lakes)
Do not come expecting to find:
- world-class museums
- tourist activities that you haven’t done elsewhere in Colombia or aren’t planning to do elsewhere in Colombia (like touring a coffee farm)
Things to Do
Even if you’re not that into salsa dancing, there are plenty of things to do in Cali to keep you busy and happy. One of my friends came to Cali for a 24-hour techno party. Another one for tattoos. The last person who recommended Cali to me (just before we arrived) didn’t even mention salsa dancing, but said we MUST go to the Museo La Tertulia.
To be honest, I did zero of the non-salsa things recommended to me because I love to dance and that was my priority, but I am still offering recommendations based on my three weeks in Cali (including what was recommended to me and what friends of mine experienced).
If you’re coming to Cali to dance salsa, here is what you need to know.
Take lessons. Salsa caleña is FAST. You will no doubt marvel at how dancers move their legs so quickly and wonder at how they can find the beat of the music amongst the jubilant sounds of trumpets and percussion.
Nick and I each took private salsa lessons at Rumba y Salsa, which is on the same block as La Topa Tolondra. Nick started at a more beginner level, while I was intermediate, and we both highly recommend Rumba y Salsa for anyone interested in any style dance (hello, bachata-lovers?) at any level. Aside from wonderful teachers, and even if you don’t take lessons, you should definitely go to their salsa social every Wednesday night. There’s an intermediate salsa workshop from 8-9pm, social dancing from 9-11pm with a show at 10pm, all FREE!
Consider the timing of your trip. Cali has two major salsa events every year that will be of interest if you enjoy dancing salsa: (1) the Festival Mundial de Salsa de Cali, a free festival jam-packed with events, workshops, shows, concerts, and the competition usually in September and ALL FREE! (2) the Feria de Cali between Christmas and New Years every year. If you trip to Cali doesn’t coincide with either of those, that’s totally fine. You’ll still have a wonderful time! We ended up extending our time in Cali to attend the Festival Mundial de Salsa.
If you’re legs are itching for a different type of movement, there are two hikes within Cali’s city limits that you can go on: (1) Tres Cruces and (2) Cristo Rey. You can walk to Tres Cruces from the San Antonio neighborhood (see the Where to Stay section), but you’ll have to take a taxi to the Cristo Rey trailhead.
For either hike, start early (like 8am at the latest) and preferably go in a group. If you are alone, go only on a weekend and take as little with you as possible (save a water bottle and 10-20 pesos). Either hike can be dangerous, which is why it is generally recommended to go on the weekends when there are other people and security along the trail.
Note the Tres Cruces hike has an outdoor gym at the top! See this article for detailed tips.
Did we mention that Cali is Colombia’s third largest city? There’s a lot to explore. Here are a few neighborhoods worth strolling through as well as landmarks to help orient yourself.
- San Antonio: Iglesia de San Antonio (skip the park behind the church)
- El Peñón: El Gato del Rio, Parque del Peñon, Museo La Tertulia
- Granada: Avenida 9, Parque Simon Bolivar
- Miraflores: Parque del Perro, Parque del Triangulo
- El Centro: Plaza de Cayzedo, shopping on Calle 12 through Calle 15.
- Alameda: Mercado Alameda (fruit & vegetable market with lots of dine-in options — go before 3pm, & NOT on a Monday).
Outside of Cali
Since dancing salsa was my top priority, I did not take any day trips from Cali, so it would be disingenuous of me to offer detailed recommendations on any of the excursions below. However, all of these were highly recommended to me by multiple people, and I am linking other blogs with more information.
Rio Pance is a refreshing escape from the hustle and heat of the city. Caleños usually go on Sunday to cool down with a dip in the cold river. For a quiet experience, go on a weekday. Saturdays seem to be a middle ground, though for the full caleño experience, go when the caleños go. It’s 30-45min by bus. Ask your hostel staff for detailed instructions on getting there.
San Cipriano is a tiny jungle village 2-3 hours from Cali. It is an adventure excursion as getting there involves riding a brujita or a motorcycle cart on a repurposed train track. Generally, the trip is accompanied by tubing down the river. You can go on an organized day-long tour to San Cipriano with Valley Adventours; otherwise, I would recommend going with someone who has been there before. See this article if you are interested in going on your own.
You can also use Cali as a homebase for multiday excursions to destinations that are farther away, such as the Pacific Coast (Buenaventura would be your starting off point), Popayan, or San Agustin.
How to Get There
Cali can be reached easily by bus from any surrounding city, or if you prefer flying, there are multiple daily, cheap flights from Medellin and Bogota.
If you are busing (my preference), you have a few options:
- If you’re coming from the South (from Ecuador), you will likely be stopping in San Agustin and Popayan (two Colombian towns with UNESCO-deemed attractions) along the way. The total trip from Quito to Cali by bus is usually completed in under a week.
- If you’re coming from the East (from the eje cafetero , aka where Salento is), you’ll take a direct bus from Armenia that takes ~3 hours.
- If you’re coming from the West (from the Pacific coast), you’ll take a direct bus from Buenaventura.
We bused to Cali from Armenia (from the eje cafetero) fully intending to continue south through Ecuador before being happily convinced to stay in Cali an extra 3 weeks.
When busing, always make sure to ask around for options. There are many times multiple operators that offer the same service, but one may offer a better time that suits your schedule. They just don’t have any reason to let you know that another bus is leaving sooner.
Where to Stay
If it’s your first time in Cali, stay in San Antonio. It’s where you want to be as a first-timer to the city. Period. Pro-tip: book a hostel with a pool. We stayed at Blue Fox Hostel and loved it. The pool is tiny, but it’s really all you need to dip in and cool down.
Once you’ve gotten your bearings, other recommended neighborhoods are Granada and El Peñón – both are more upscale neighborhoods that are still plenty close to the action. Miraflores is a more residential neighborhood that I would also recommend, it’s just slightly more out-the-way; so just know that you will likely have to call a cab any time you go out.
Where to Eat
Cali is located in Valle del Cauca, a region that boasts of it’s own cuisine. (If you’ve been in Colombia for a while, you may have noticed bandeja a la caucana on restaurant menus.) Cali has a LOT of interesting food and also a lot of good restaurants, so this may be hard to condense.
What to Try
Here are a few dishes and drinks that we only found in Cali (not to say that you won’t find them elsewhere, but we didn’t).
- chontaduro – heart of palm, usually served with honey & salt
- champús – a chunky drink made of lulo, pineapple, & corn
- lulada – a sweet & sour lulo drink
- manjar blanco – similar to dulce de leche or arequipe – I can’t tell the difference
- cholado / raspado / fruit salad – Cali is hot, and you’ll find several varieties of cold refreshments with shaved ice, fruit, and sugar in some variety (like condensed milk). Pick your poison.
Vegan / Vegetarian Options
You know we’re fans of menu del dia, which is simply called almuerzo in Cali. Just about every restaurant offers a set menu for almuerzo and these can range from 6-20 pesos. It would be disingenuous to rank restaurants based on menu del dia alone (there are so many!). Below are our favorite vegan restaurants in order of preference.
- Frutos del Sol
- Vegano Flor de Loto
- El Buen Alimento
We were surprised to find so many meat alternatives used in Cali. The restaurants above seemed to rely heavily on housemade meat alternatives made from tofu, tempeh or legumes.
Bakeries & Cafes
Like restaurants, there are so many options, and it’s impossible to try them all. The below are ones we liked and would recommend, ordered by the neighborhoods we’ve mentioned in this post.
- San Antonio: Tierra Adentro, Macondo (ask about jazz night), Nuestro Cocina & Bar, Ambos Mundos, Palacio del Pandebono (try their pandebono & almojabanas FRESH in the AM, and also their cheese arepas ~5pm)
- El Peñón: Krost, Le Sucre, Barakha
- Granada: Bendito
- Alameda: Trinitario
Where to Go Next
From Cali, the world is your oyster. If you’re on your way to Ecuador, go south stopping through Popayan and San Agustin. You can also go East to explore Colombia’s coffee region (see our Buenavista post for inspiration). For an off-the-beaten-path adventure, go West to explore Colombia’s wild Pacific coast beaches, or head North toward the Tatacoa desert!
- All prices and durations are as of September 2019.
- We do not claim to have know the in’s & out’s of this town nor of its every restaurant or hotel. There are so many things you could do that would work perfectly fine.