Colombia’s third largest city has its share of historical, cultural and recreational sights to keep the visitor busy. Fortunately for the traveler, many of these are located in three walkable neighborhoods: the Centro, San Antonio, and Granada. While Cali's galleries and museums could occupy your time for a day or two, the most memorable experiences will be watching quotidian life pass you by in charming neighborhoods and shady parks — especially after sunset when it cools down and Cali springs to life.
Enjoy salsa dancing in the salsa capital of world
Cali prides itself as being the salsa capital of the world. Prepare to hear salsa music all the time – in shops, bars, restaurants, cafes, and cabs. To experience Cali's salsa scene at its best, make some time for a night on the town, preferably over the weekend. If you have a sequined dance outfit, and the moves come naturally to you, you’ll be ready to go.
The hole-in-the-wall bar La Topa Tolondra and friendly yet full-on Club TinTinDeo are always safe bets, and quite popular. If you need some Salsa 101 or a little refresher before setting out, consider taking a salsa dance class: many hostels and tour operators offer these or can at least point you in the right direction.
If salsa dancing is not in the cards for you, check out one of the fabulous (if pricey) ongoing salsa dance shows such as Ensálsate or Delirio. Be prepared to be blown away by the fancy footwork of dancers, some as young as four years old! Lastly, every month there is an open-air free dance party called Salsa al Parque. The event is held on the third Saturday of the month at the Antiguo Club San Fernando.
Hike to the top of Las Tres Cruces Hill
Start out your day as the locals do, by tackling this hill that rises just beyond the Granada neighborhood. Every morning from dawn to around 10 am, groups of locals make the ascent, which is tough going in some spots. The hike to the top takes about an hour. Start out by 7 am the latest – by 8 am it's already too hot. Be sure to bring some small bills to buy a freshly squeezed orange juice from vendors on the hilltop.
Walking Tour of El Centro
Gritty and chaotic El Centro (Downtown Cali) contains a number of historic buildings dating back to the earliest days of Spanish rule. Here you'll also find cultural centers, and grandiose 19th-century architecture – it’s worth walking this neighborhood during at least one day of your visit.
The 16th century La Merced church complex is a natural starting place for a self-guided walking tour of downtown. The Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar founded Cali on this spot in 1537. In addition to the church, be sure to visit the adjacent MUSA archaeological museum.
Walk across the street from the church for the free Museo del Oro Calima – this excellent museum highlights gold and ceramic artifacts of the original settlers, the Calima indigenous peoples. The nearby Centro Cultural de Cali often puts on exhibitions by local artists.
A five-minute stroll away, the lovely Plaza Caycedo is a green oasis amidst the concrete jungle, with no less than 127 enormous palm trees, many around 80 feet tall! From there, meander one of the lively pedestrian corridors to the Bulevar del Río urban renewal project which leads to the iconic neo-Gothic La Ermita church.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Explore Cali's modern art scene
For an appreciation of works on canvas by Colombia's modern artists, visit the Museo La Tertulia, one of the finest modern and contemporary art museums in the country. Highlights of the museum include works by Colombians Beatriz González, Hugo Zapata, and Omar Rayo. The latter hails from the nearby town of Roldanillo.
In addition to gallery space, the museum has an active calendar of events including film evenings, concerts, yoga in the park and lectures. The museum is located on the banks of the trickling Cali River near the beloved landmark, El Gato del Río, a whimsical 3-ton bronze sculpture of a cat.
As you walk the streets of Cali, look out for colorful murals and street art, especially in the bohemian neighborhood of San Antonio.
People watching in the Parque San Antonio
No Cali tour is complete without a visit to San Antonio, known for its steep streets lined by refurbished and brightly-painted houses. The center of activity can be found atop the hill in the Parque San Antonio. Here you'll find residents on their evening walk: young couples, dog walkers, hipsters and more.
The 18th century Capilla de San Antonio, a sublime, white-washed church, and convent, is located at the far end of the park. For a beer in one of Cali's most beloved watering holes, head to the oozing-with-personality La Colina located behind the church.
Street performances and shopping at La Loma de la Cruz
Within walking distance from San Antonio is the artisan market and park of La Loma de la Cruz. In the evenings, artisans set up their handicraft stalls along the sidewalks of this pleasant hillside park. Look for mochilas (traditional woven shoulder bags) and leather sandals, both handmade by indigenous artisans.
The Loma de la Cruz is a pleasant place for a stroll and is popular with locals and tourists alike. Concerts or other performances in the park’s small amphitheater are often performed here. Public indigenous dance classes are held here on Thursdays.
Day trip to Cali's southern parks
For a cool break from the steamy city, relief is only half an hour away south on the outskirts of town. On weekends, Caleños descend en masse to the Reserva Natural Anahuac to cool off in the Pance river. At this accessible park, there are open-air restaurants that specialize in grilled trout and chicken, and nature paths that wind around guadua (a type of bamboo) forests.
For a rewarding physical challenge, hike to the summit of Pico de Loro (elevation 9,712 ft.) in the jagged Los Farallones mountains, part of the Western Andes mountain range. The hike takes about 8 hours round trip and it's recommended to hire a local guide to show you the way. To get a headstart, stay in the small holiday town of Pance the night before your hike.
Sampling Cali’s street food
It’s easy and inexpensive to sample Cali cuisine – just head to the streets. There’s little better than a hot and slightly gooey pan de bono (a pastry made from yucca flour and cheese) for a mid-morning snack. Try one accompanied by a small tinto: the ubiquitous Americano coffees found throughout the country.
To cool off, order a lulada, a refreshing fruit drink made from the tangy lulo fruit. Finally, the adventurous will want to try chontaduro, a type of colorful fruit from palm trees. Some eat chontaduro with salt and lemon, others with honey. They are sold by vendors in the Centro, especially.
Attend a festival
If Cali's usual party scene is not enough, visit the city during one of its two main festivals. The Festival Petronio Álvarez (August) is a weeklong series of outdoor (and mostly free) concerts and competitions of musical groups hailing from the nearby Pacific Coast region of Colombia. This celebration of Afro-Colombian culture is pure euphoria.
During the last week of the year, the entire city goes into full party mode during the Feria de Cali. With parties, salsa concerts, parades and beauty pageants it is a homecoming party of sorts, during which Caleños the world over return home to be with family, reconnect with friends and make new ones.