(A version of this will appear in the August issue of JAXFAX Travel Marketing Magazine- including my cover photo)
It’s disconcerting to be in a class with wrap-around, floor-to-ceiling mirrors reflecting your every misstep with the man billed as the world’s best salsa dancer, your teacher. Jhon Jamu Cabesas, of course, glides effortlessly, all the while telling you how to move your feet and snap your hip. Your guide, meanwhile, stands grinning off to the side. No pressure.
It’s my first day in Cali, Colombia and I’m at Tango Vivo & Salsa Viva trying to get a leg up on the city’s favorite pastime. Tango Vivo may be the best dance academy in Cali, competing with 200 salsa schools. Once you learn how to command this fun, energetic dance, 80 salsa orchestras are available to swing you into happiness. Caleans know that social dancing, like salsa, significantly reduces depression. (Seriously, research at the University of California has proved it).
My guide, Gabriel Borrero, is grinning, I discover, because he loves to salsa dance and plans to get me out on the floor and show me a good time before I leave Cali. Salsa dancing is reason enough to make the trip to this southern Colombia metropolis as the area’s unique, fast salsa style, “Colombian Boogaloo,” ranks Number One in major salsa dance contests. It has branded hip Cali as the world’s salsa capital, but it is not the only reason to visit.
The third largest city in Colombia sits in a lush valley framed by fields of sugar cane and coffee and surrounded by mountains. A former hotbed of drug cartels with a reputation for danger, this diverse South American country has cleaned up its act to the point where visitors can feel comfortable, especially with a guide. It boasts amazing topography: the Amazon jungle, the Andes Mountains, Caribbean islands, the Pacific coast and numerous national parks.
My guide, Gabriel Borrero, (email@example.com), is not only incredibly knowledgeable about Cali and Colombia, he exudes an infectious passion for his land and people. The first time you visit this country, it makes sense to hire a guide who is also your driver, like Gabe. An extremely friendly man with great personality, Gabe offers more than 30 different sightseeing tours—without overlap. He can create the experience you desire, no matter your interests. We become fast friends.
We first drive up 4,700-feet-high Los Cristales hill to the Cristo Rey Monument for a bird’s eye view of Cali and the Rio River. It’s a spot where we get our bearings. This statue of Christ with outstretched arms appears to be embracing all of Cali. Made of 464 tons of iron and concrete, it pierces the sky 26 meters. It is one of Cali’s most cherished symbols and has been declared a National Monument. Modeled after the more famous Christ-Corcovado, in Rio de Janeiro (which is only four feet higher), it was erected to celebrate 50 years of peace after the War of a Thousand Days ended in 1902.
After a brief history lesson, we head down to a turn in the snaking road to see unusual artwork called geoglyphs by the Cali artist Carlos Andreas Gomez. He first chisels these religious scenes out of the hillside and then glazes them with pigments. Gomez has been creating this labor of love for years and it has become a necessary stop near the Cristo Rey Monument.
Gabe then shows me the San Antonio neighborhood, a must for visitors because it is Cali’s finest example of traditional colonial homes. The artists and musicians who settled here brought a Bohemian flair to its hostels and boutique hotels, traditional and gourmet restaurants, art galleries, and craft shops, with small family-run corner grocery stores. Gabe takes me to two ceramic studios, located in the artists’ private, exquisitely gardened homes, to purchase unique gifts.
The white stucco homes with their clay-tiled roofs are crowded on the steep hillside and have far-reaching views of the city. On the hilltop perches the 1747 Chapel of San Antonio with its massive wooden doors and ornate brick bell tower. The bell was made by a world-famous bell maker who also created the bell in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. The lilting sound of sinning nuns rolls out the door and down the cobblestone steps, filling the ears of all those lounging on the grassy lawn. On weekends, performers, storytellers and artists selling handicrafts animate the park, a great place to encounter fellow travelers from all over the world.
Where coastal Cartagena is elegant and glamorous, Cali is vibrant in an edgy sort of way. Locals drive fast but well as they artistically speed along the city’s curvy thoroughfares. Bullfights are popular, drawing crowds of up to 12,000; Cali has the only bull fighting school in Columbia. The most important aristocratic families are in the bull business.
Before long, I notice that nearly all Calean women are beautiful. Many consider them the world’s most beautiful, with voluptuous, perfectly proportioned bodies, long, luxurious dark hair and skillfully applied make-up. They wear tight, revealing clothing with low necklines and sport spiked high heels.
It’s not surprising to learn that Cali is world-famous for plastic surgery, and many of its boutique hotels cater to recovering women who come seeking renewed beauty. Fifteen to thirty days is average time for the new you to emerge. Many of the surgeons who practice here are graduates of Universidad del Valle, one of the best universities in Latin America. Some tour operators even specialize in catering to this market.
The next day, we don windbreakers and walking shoes and head to Calima Lake and Ecoparque de la Salud. Calima Lake is the largest artificial lake in Columbia with an area of 70 km². It is located in the municipality of Darien, tucked into the Valle del Cauca, only two hours from Cali. Created between 1961 and 1966, it generates hydroelectric power for all the Cauca Valley. Since it boasts the third- strongest winds in the world—steady and up to 43 knots—it is an excellent place for extreme sports like windsurfing and kite surfing. It has become a major tourist attraction with its close proximity to Cali.
We opt for a boat ride instead and head down to the Puerto Plata pier where we find the remodeled fishing boat, M/N Bonba. This 20-passenger boat takes us on a 90-minute tour of the 13-kilometer lake. “Calima” means water/wet place in the local language and our boat, “Bon ba” is named after the last Indian chief.
Gabe points out huge mansions dotting the green hillsides. From the ‘60s through the ‘80s, Mafia drug lords owned these. But once these kingpins were put out of business and/or jailed, many of the properties began to be converted into hotels featuring marble floors and gold ceilings with crystal chandeliers.
Before we leave this gorgeous valley, we head to Hosteria Los Veleros for some delicious Colombian food and our last views of the lake.
On the way back to Cali, we stop at the lovely Ecoparque de la Salud. A five-kilometer trail leads through the lush forestlands along the Pance River. Caleans of all ages swim in the tumbling waters. On our way to the streamside café for some refreshments, we cross a suspension bridge under repair. The workers allow us to cross the rickety, unfastened planks. We hold onto the cables with both hands and place our feet gingerly.
Before heading back to town, we fit in a very relaxing horseback ride at El Rancho La Z, between Cali and Jamundi. We guide our horses straight down the Pance River, their hoofs kicking up the refreshing water. To further fend off the heat, we indulge in a traditional Cholados, a delicious mix of shaved ice and exotic fruit with raspberry sauce and sweetened condensed milk.
I’m looking forward to tonight, when Gabe will take me dancing at the famous salsa disco Tin Tin Deo. It’s difficult to be unhappy while on holiday in a place like Colombia, but I am anxious to try out the moves I acquired in salsa class. Gabe assures me that he can lead even the clumsiest around the dance floor.
Tin Tin Deo is the place dancers go to see who is the best in an unspoken competition. Young university students as well as old salsa dancers mix together on the very small dance floor.
Caleans unique dance style consists of not greatly shifting their body weight as seen in other styles. Instead, their upper bodies are held still- poised yet relaxed, while their feet fly around the dance floor performing intricate steps.
Gabe tells me that for a young male Calean, knowing how to salsa dance is a must. You will not be accepted by women if you cannot dance, for it is such a major part of their culture. It is the way to meet and get to know young girls. Fortunately for them, salsa dancing is in their genes. And the refreshing part is they do not feel the need to be intoxicated before venturing onto the dance floor. Salsa dancing is their first love.
While we are in Cali, we stay at two different hotels, Dann Carlton (www.hotelsdanncali.com) downtown and Hotel Spiwak (www.spiwak.com). Both are very nice but the latter is connected to the upscale and hip Chipichape Shopping Mall (pronounced “chippy chappy”), which is like a small city. The ultra-modern 226-unit property is designed as a great circle with a view of a central courtyard. The five-star hotel offers every convenience and luxury you would expect, including free minibar.
Because Gabe knows I enjoy bicycle riding, he introduces me to a friend from tourism, Mauricio Arellano, who invites me to ride up the long winding road to the statue of Christ and beyond to the Virgin Mary—a 10-mile climb. Local cyclists do it every night (and visitors are invited). Sometimes there are a handful of riders, sometimes a few hundred. I am full of questions: Where will I get a bike? A helmet? Are there lights on the road? How’s the traffic? Most importantly, if I can’t make it, will anyone turn around with me? Mauro says not to fret. I decide to take the chance.
I pace myself and stay in the rear. Mauro’s friends take turns babysitting me and practicing their English. I make the climb without a hitch, and once we arrive at the summit, the unearthly blue light illuminating the Virgin seems surreal. But it is the exhilarating ride down, as I negotiate the curves, rocket past the dogs lying in the street and locals cooking at roadside food stands, speeding in and out of the intermittent street lights…this is an absolute hoot and well worth the effort and apprehension.
I catch glimpses of Cali’s magnificent skyline right over the edge of the mountainous drop-off. I can feel the whole city. I race past the carved geoglifos and the statue of Christ I visited on my first day. I apply brakes when I have to, but above all I relax my grip and trust and fly, so very glad I could do this in Cali, Colombia.