Cali es Cali

Maybe it’s called Cali because the people are so warm, “cálida” in Spanish. Or maybe it’s because the weather is “cálida”. Whatever the reason, “Cali es Cali… y lo demás es loma”. Cali’s slogan, taken from a famous salsa song (Cali Pachanguero), highlights that Cali is special – a little different from the rest. (The slogan reminds me of “Keep Austin Weird”.)

Its literal translation doesn’t translate well, but it would be something like “Cali is Cali and the rest are hills,” alluding to its physical geography and culture alike. Cali is geographically flat and warm compared to the surrounding hills and mountains (and also compared the other major Colombian cities), and it also claims a more relaxed, easy-going atmosphere.

Cali is most famously known for being the salsa capital of Colombia, and there’s even a genre of salsa specifically from Cali: Salsa Caleña. I was lucky enough to get to experience salsa at its max in Cali because I was there during the “Feria de Cali” – a weeklong festival of salsa and more, celebrating the culture of Cali, that takes place every year, December 25-30.

The festival kicked off with “Salsódromo”, a carnival-type parade on Christmas day, with groups of dancers performing 5-10 minute routines (mostly salsa) every few minutes as they advanced along the parade route. The music was booming and the dancers were incredible. Two friends of friends that live in Cali had actually made it through the selection process and performed in the parade. (They reported that their feet were completely torn up after so many hours of dancing on the street!)

Since I didn’t have tickets*, I walked along the parade route looking for a place to view it. I waded my way through crowds of people – vendors selling drinks and food, music blasting from shops along the side of the street, people dancing, drinking, and spraying foam from cans into the air (sometimes at each other). Everyone was really partying it up in the street! But I was confused because, I was on the parade route, but this wasn’t the parade. (Even if it was a great party!)

As I continued wading through the crowds, I finally found a vehicle overpass that crossed over the parade route, offering a view from above. Despite the fact that vehicle traffic continued to use the overpass (creeping along at 5 mph), pedestrians were filling the overpass to catch a view of the parade passing below.

I found a space between people and got a pretty great view of the parade.* Around me was a young couple in their early twenties, a 30-something couple with a bored 13-year-old that had resorted to sitting in one of the islands in the middle of the road hoping his parents would decide to leave soon, and a guy who had traveled from Medellin to enjoy the festival.

After a few hours I got tired of standing in one spot, and watching so much dancing made me want to dance! Though it was 10pm, I didn’t have to walk far to find a street cart selling some good food, and in a few more blocks I wandered upon salsa music coming from a club.

The music was popping and I was so ready to dance! But when I got inside, nobody was dancing. There were two different groups of 5 friends drinking and chatting, and I had just walked in, solo. Everyone there was Afro-Colombian, and as white foreigner. I might have looked a little out of place. (Maybe it was a good taste of how a black person feels walking into a club full of white people?)

It was only about 10:30pm, so I knew that it was early in club time and that people would eventually dance. But I wasn’t going to drink, so I couldn’t buy time by ordering a drink. I wasn’t going to just walk out because I had just walked in and I really liked the music. But I also wasn’t about to start dancing salsa alone in the middle of the club. So I approached one of the groups and asked if they were going to dance. The woman saved me from my awkwardness and told her guy friend to dance with me.

Later they invited me to sit at the table with them and every few songs, the guys in the group took turns dancing with me (or rather, teaching me to dance since I was pretty terrible). It was really fun to watch them cut a rug (yes, I threw in that Texas expression). I could tell that they had grown up on salsa, and it just ran through their veins. They sang along, clapped out beats, and danced when a song inspired them (all in a very cool and composed manner – this was the cool crowd, not the goofy or nerdy crowd that I tend to run in.)

It turned out to be a really fun night and was pretty indicative of my experience in Cali – everyone generally minds their own business, working but also taking time to enjoy life in their own way. But every time that I reached out to someone – started a conversation, asked to dance with someone – they were open, warm, and friendly, letting me into their world to enjoy life with them for a minute.

During the “Art and Salsa” free walking tour, our local guide pointed out a statue of a local woman, Jovita. The legend is that this woman believed that she was a queen, and would walk the streets of Cali greeting people as such. The wealthy women of Cali gifted her nice clothing, and though poor, she walked the streets dressed like a queen and even receiving famous visitors to the city. After her death, the city constructed a statue, memorializing her (and making a statement about the city’s culture of acceptance and treatment of people that are different from the majority.)

I left Cali feeling full of good energy, warmth, and joy. Maybe it was all the music, maybe it was all the dancing, maybe the sunshine and warm weather, or maybe it was the warmth of the people that made me feel like I was in a city full of friends. I hadn’t planned on visiting Cali in the first place,** and  now I could only convince myself to leave by promising that I would be back one day soon.


Famous Footnotes:
*Two different taxi drivers commented to me that the parade used to go through the entire city and everyone in the city could come out into the street to watch – it was literally a city-wide event. Those were the “good ol’ days”. Now the parades takes place only on one street, across 18 blocks, where they sell seats in temporary stadium seating that is constructed along the street. (Access is blocked off behind the stadium seating, and this is where I had found myself walking through the huge street party.)

Since there are limited places where one can view the parade for free and a ton of people wanting to see the parade, it can be tricky to find a good spot. That’s why there were people climbing the vehicle overpass to get a view of the parade, and it explains the rogue street party formed on the other side of the parade.

**Cali is third largest city in Colombia, and, like Medellin (the 2nd largest city in Colombia), I had planned to skip it because I tend to prefer the smaller towns to cities. But also like Medellin, Cali proved to be a warm and inviting city, and I can’t believe I almost missed it! Thanks to Adam and Adrienne for getting me to those wonderful cities and exploring them with me!

**Salsa is the star of the Feria de Cali festival but it is not the only show. There is music from the pacific coast, (where there is a predominantly black population), which has strong percussion beats. And for those who aren’t into salsa much, like one Caleña that I met, there are bars that play other types of music predominantly, like reguetón, with just a little salsa or bachata sprinkled in every now and then. Then there’s the option to just sit outside the liquor store and chat and drink all night, like I saw groups of people doing throughout the city as well!