Guide to CALI

(Re-edited and updated December 2018)

Cali, probably the hottest Salsa hotspots outside of Cuba, has tourism-wise not much more to offer than its nightlife.

Hernando Tejada's El Gato del Rio.
The cat park is on of Cali's must-see places.

But before you leave again, don't miss out on a visit to the truly enchanting haciendas El Paraíso and Piedechinche. These two farms were transformed into beautiful museums showing how life used to be for the privileged Latin American land barons. Living la vida telenovela.

Cali, next to Medellín another Colombian city's name that in the late 20th century made your blood freeze: The so-called Cali-cartel had a firm grip on the city and its surroundings, the lovely Valle del Cauca. After the last Gentlemen of Cali were arrested in 1995, the city came to peace; without the world noticing: To this date, Cali carries the stigma of a dangerous cradle of a dangerous drug syndicate.

Murales in Cali are often less artistic than those in Bogotá, but they are often carrying an important message.

It's really sad how long it takes the wonderful country of Colombia to get rid of these ugly blotches and stains that all the injustice and violence left on the nation. They deserve better, they really do.

So anyway, although Cali, with 2.5 million inhabitants Colombia's third largest city, is totally fine now, I spent only two days there and for me, it was enough.

Cali City Center

Besides its airport, the most important hub in Cali is the Bus Terminal northeast of Rio Cali.
From there, you reach the old city center around the Plaza de Cayzedo by public bus - or cab - in about ten minutes. It's one of these typical South American squares with some of the most important buildings like the neoclassical San Pedro Cathedral, the courthouse and the headquarters of some of the major banks.

Plaza de Cayzedo. Between the important buildings is enough space for palm trees and benches.

Walking Carrera #4 westwards, you'll get to the small chapel of La Merced - here, the first mass was held after the city's foundation in 1536. Today, this complex houses two museums.

The truly colonial Iglesia La Merced.

There are a couple of interesting museums in this area like the Casa Museo De La Ciudad Hernán Martínez Satizabal, the city museum, and the Calima Gold Museum of the Banco de la República - in case you've missed the gold museum in Bogotá or just can get enough of all that glitters.

Beautifully painted Calle 6

I rather enjoyed the Calle 6 around the right corner - aka Calle Escopeta - with all the cute shops and cafés and fun street art.

Before crossing the bridge to the northern bank of Rio Cali, it's worth strolling a bit up and down the south bank where already some of the iconic cats can be admired.

One of the cats on the south bank of Rio Cali: Juan José Garcia Cano's Fragile Cat

The one in the front is made by Mother Nature - the one in the back by Lorena Espitia, called Gata Decorativa

Parque de los Gatos - The Cat Park

Once you cross the bridge at Calle #3 Oeste, you'll spot the most iconic of the clowder: El Gato del Rio aka El Gato del Tejado named after the artist who created it. The sculpture was inaugurated in 1996.

Vellocino de Oro - Golden Fleece - by José Horacio Martínez

Siete Vidas - Seven Lifes - by Melqui David Barrero Mejía

Gata Presa - Inmate Cat - by Omar Rayo

Sucia - Dirty - by Rosemberg Sandoval

For ten years, the poor Gato del Rio was prettifying the city all by himself - until in 2006, the chamber of commerce decided to find him some lady friends: The idea was to create 15 exhibits, shaped identically, but painted and decorated to the artists' liking. This art project is called Las Novias de Gato, the cat's girlfriends, and they were created by known Colombian artists.

After a visit to the park, in case you need a break, just walk back to the south bank and continue one block up to the square Parque del Peñon. This is a very cute square with some really cozy coffee bars - perfect to relax for a moment in the shade.

Because the next spot to visit is way up high: Walking up to the Sebastián de Belalcázar monument is sudatory, but it grants a great view of Cali and its surroundings.

This is Sebastián de Belalcázar pointing, one of the pleasant guys who conquered South America.

Climbing down Belalcázar's hill, the next ascent is awaiting you: The city park. Even if you skip this greenery - which I could totally understand - you cannot avoid major ups and downs in Cali - it's really very hilly - be prepared.

Why I totally understand that you skip the city park? Because it's not very pleasant. There are many homeless people there - which is totally fine, but it's a bit awkward strolling around while they are camping there and taking sponge baths and doing their laundry under the trees. But that's just how I feel, otherwise, it's no problem visiting the park.

Much nicer, though, is a smaller park three blocks east, the Loma de la Cruz. Here you'll find many shops and stalls selling all sort of handicraft. There are carts where you can buy some Colombian street snacks; and the street art here is amazing - hence very sad referring to oppression and injustice the people of Cali had to suffer.

Free Walking Tour Cali

If you don't want to explore the city by yourself, you can join a free tour - based on tips, of course. Free Waling Tour Cali offers different tours like one to the historic sites, a salsa tour - based on the topic, it's not a club crawl, and also a tour to Cristo Rey.

This statue of Christ is overlooking Cali and prides himself being only 12 meters shorter than the one in Rio.

Cristo Rey was even wearing a halo.

It's a nice trip for a) the sight of Cristo Rey himself and b) the view of the city at his feet.

View from above - literally.

You can also go there by public transport - actually, that's what I did - but that's really a bit complicated; albeit great fun since you get to ride in one of these open chicken buses I thought only existed in miniature size made of clay.

The colorful, open chicken bus - they really do exist!

The ride is a truly Colombian experience and really nice, but it doesn't bring you all the way up to Christ. The last 1.5 miles you're on your own hiking uphill - in our case, it was 1 p. m., so we were climbing uphill in the blistering sun, sweating and swearing.

Day Trip to the Valle del Cauca

Hacienda El Paraíso and Hacienda Piedechinche

The Valle del Cauca is Colombia's sugar region. This area is really the South American rural cliché and absolutely worth the trip.
I think that some agencies offer totally overpriced day trips - but you should be a sport and do it on your own; it's really easy.

Just take the public bus to Amaime - at the main bus station (see above). Tell the driver to let you get off at the cruze. Here, cab drivers are waiting and you need to negotiate a reasonable fare to either one or both haciendas: We paid for two people about 8 $ for the trip Amaime to El Paraíso to Piedechinche and back to Amaime. But in the first part, there were two or three more people in the cab, so it might be a bit more expensive if the car isn't full.

Green is definitely the Valley's signature color.

The cab drives you through a tree-lined avenue along sugar cane and lush pastures. In front of the backdrop of the picturesque mountains, tropical birds are overflying the sumptuous landscape - no wonder the first Hacienda's name is El Paraíso. However, locals call it rather Hacienda María, and María is actually the main reason Colombians are visiting this place.

View of María's mansion.

Romantic scenery for Jorge Isaacs' novel María at hacienda El Paraíso".

The owner's son Jorge Isaacs wrote the semi-biographic, hyper-romantic novel María in 1867 and since then every Colombian student had to cry over her death at the tender age of 18 from a broken heart. So every detail of the former Hacienda and all explanations during the tour are wrapped around sappy María.

Patio of Hacienda El Paraíso - including María's Roses.

Nevertheless, the Hacienda is worth the visit because the 200 years old building is beautiful, and the views are breathtaking.

Colonial furniture at the hacienda.

By the way, there is a statue of Efrain and María at the Parque Simon Bolívar in Cali - in case you want to picture their unhappy romance (and if you wonder: Efrain was Jorge Isaacs' alter ego in the novel).

Casa Museo Hacienda El Paraíso 
El Cerrito
Valle del Cauca

The museum is open every day from 9:30 a. m. to 4:30 p. m.

Even more complete is the visit to Hacienda Piedechinche, about five miles from El Paraíso.

Lush gardens.

The building is older and it has no romantic story to it. Just a couple that had 16 kids who were mainly raised in boarding schools in the city - the sons - and in cloisters - the daughters.
These good people, too, made their fortune from sugar cane and abusing slaves; during neither tour was this fun aspect emphasized, though.

Blooming scenery at hacienda "Piedechinche" where the series "Azúcar" was filmed.

However, they do explain all the different sugar mills they are keeping and make you try some of the products; surprise: they are all very sweet.

What makes Piedechinche even more special is the magnificent garden with numberless flowers and trees. It's like being Gulliver in the land of giants - overtowered by humongous cactuses, farns, fan tree name it.

Cactuses and other plants: Larger than life.

Since Piedechinche is still in such an excellent condition and you have the feeling that the owner will come riding around the corner any minute, it was even used as the film set for the Colombian TV series Azucar.

Museo de la Caña de Azúcar
Corregimiento Santa Elena
Valle del Cauca
Phone: + 57 - 2 - 554 08 09

Best place to sleep:

The Torre de Cali Plaza Hotel is not the most charming or cozy or originally designed place on earth, but from the upper floors, you have a fantastic view.
We stayed at a really huge room on the 19th floor with the entire city at our feet.

Room with a view by day...

...and by night.

Check their availability and prices here.

Best place to eat:

My daughter is mostly a vegetarian which makes visiting South America a bit tricky. However, in the big cities, it was not that difficult to find places where vegetarian didn't just mean removing the meat and serving plain rice and beans.

Drinks based on fresh frutis and teas make the meal complete.

A truly pleasant place serving light, healthy cuisine with an Asian tendency and fresh natural fruit juices and good herbal teas is

Mascabado Cocina Artesanal y Casa de Te
Calle 17N # 8N-30 
Cali 760031
Phone: + 57 - 2 - 667 79 86

Do you want to read about all the other beautiful places I've visited in Colombia? 
Then go to the main post and take your pick!

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