Reasons to visit Cali, Colombia

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What brought us to a city with three million inhabitants? We weren’t sure ourselves but sometimes we look at the map and our eye is drawn to a place. That is what happened with Cali and so from Popayán we drove north. We faced some obstacles finding a safe place to park the camp without spending a fortune, but after we were welcome to stay at the Parque Agua de Caña, we were in for a fine day of sightseeing.

Cali is known for salsa and nightlife. We didn’t see any of this but enjoyed being here. It was one of these places that wasn’t spectacular for any particular reason, yet we liked it. The weather was nice, people were friendly, we were relaxed… I don’t know, it was just one of those uneventful places that we look back with a smile on our faces. Let’s try to give you an idea what we liked about it.

Cali is one of Colombia’s oldest cities, founded as Santiago de Cali in 1536 by Sebastián de Balalcázar, but as it is one of those cities in South America that developed its commerce and industry in the 20th century, the majority of colonial history got bulldozed. Today Cali a big, modern city plagued by traffic and characterized by high-rises filled with offices for thousands of pencil pushers. However, in between there are some remarkably beautiful old buildings, most noticeably religious complexes that make the city worth a visit.

Iglesia de la Merced – Production of 40,000 Hosts per Day

One of them is the whitewashed Iglesia de la Merced Complex, a national monument and the city’s oldest church (16th century). We left the archaeological museum featuring old ceramics for what it was but we did check out the museum next door, where for 4000 pesos we could admire a small but nice collection of religious art (one statue stood out: a woman on a half moon and a snake with an apple in its mouth; a first for us to see this combination). Most religious paintings are from the Quito School.

The ticket included the two chapels: The Chapel of Virgen de las Mercedes (patron saint of the city) and of Virgen de los Remedios. Both chapels are used for morning and late afternoon mass. Part of this complex is still inhabited by nuns as well as by monks. Another part of the complex functions as an elderly home for women.

What was most remarkable of this visit: The nuns running the regional production center for hosts. Four nuns and three employees daily produce 40,000 hosts that are sold to all parishes in and around Cali. With Christmas coming up the daily quota will rise to 50,000 – 60,000.

Street Life

The city has lots of small, yellow taxis. Many are new and still comfortable to sit in. They work with meters. Many locals use motorcycles. Their helmets carry the same number as the motorbike’s license plate, which is mandatory. Some wear sleeveless vests as well, with the license plate’s number on the back. We’ve never seen this on helmets, but remember that in Campo Grande (Brazil) motor taxi drivers had to wear sleeveless vests with numbers as well.

I guess it says something about the number of robberies by motorcyclists and carrying these additional numbers makes it easier to identify them. Well, at least that’s the explanation we got from local people for having this law. What we found compelling was one of our taxi drivers had a knife stuck under his steering wheel because of problems with thieves, drunk people or passengers not wanting to pay the fare.

Minutes and Lotteries

All through South America we’ve seen places where vendors sell lottery tickets on the street or vendors selling minutos: you can use their phone (cellular or landline) and pay per minute. But the number of both these services in Cali (or maybe Colombia, we don’t know yet) outdo any other South American country.

Everywhere along the side we found vendors selling minutos, here for 100 or 150 pesos. The explanation we got for the fact that there are so many more lottery vendors and offices is that Colombia doesn’t have a national lottery. Apparently it is all organized by the different departments.

The hardships of daily life are visible in, among other things, the long lines with people waiting in front of banks and government buildings. Taking care of some paperwork can be a day task. Yesterday, when we entered the building of the Gobernación (for tourist info) we were searched and my backpack was checked (another first on this continent).

Lots of people stood waiting for simple procedures such as paying their third party insurance. Today there was a long, long line outside on the pavement with elderly people. I find it so disrespectful to have elderly people standing in line for hours every six weeks so they can claim their pension.

Plaza Cayzedo, Tinto and a Hero

We enjoyed walking here, sitting in Plaza Cayzedo under tall palm trees (reminiscent of Cayenne, French Guiana) and even drinking one of those awful tintos (coffee that is so weak that it looks like tea and which is really only drinkable with sugar) just to join the crowds. Selling tinto appears to be a women’s business. They walk around with big thermoses, sometimes in carriages. They also enter buildings and shops to sell it to the people working there.

Of course the plaza features a hero – which plaza on this continent doesn’t? At least this one is not on a horse and it isn’t Bolívar or San Martín either. However, it was a fighter (Joaquíin de Cayzedo y Cuero, in case you want to know ) for Colombia’s independence who was executed for his effort.

Fortunately a city like Cali has some cafés with decent coffee from espresso machines as well. I seriously started to wonder if tinto was the only available coffee brew in this country. We found a coffeehouse on Calle 11, which had good coffee indeed, as well as brownies (and WiFi).

More Reasons to Visit Cali?

The small but nice Calima Gold Museum was worth a visit. It displays historic artifacts of three pre-Columbian groups of the region and Calima culture: the Ilama, Yotoso and Sonse.

As for churches, different from the usual, at least on the outside, are the Religious Complex of San Fancisco with the 23-meter-high Mudéjar Tower (1772), as well as the Saint Francis Church with an altar of marble and carved wood. Just so you know, the tower was built by a Moor who fled from Spanish authorities and who took refuge in the convent of San Agustín. In return for lodging he built this tower.

Cats

The city features a cat park, which Coen – being a lover of cats – had to see. The Parque El Gato del Río, alongside the Cali River, features a 3-ton-weighing, 3.5-meter-tall red cat by the painter and sculptor Hernando Tejada. Behind it are a number of other cats created by national artists with some very creative creations in between.

One of them informs me that all kinds of animals are mentioned in the bible but a cat isn’t (interesting, isn’t it?). One cat represents a Caleño: a warm, sensual woman, another cat is full of spikes, representing the environmental threats.

Another pleasant stroll, farther south, is Barrio San Antonio. Narrow streets lined with painted houses give an air of more a bohemian style. It’s home to classy restaurants, stylish cafés, arts and handicraft shops and galleries.

At the end of the afternoon we headed for Parque de los Poetas. Men behind typewriters sat under umbrellas. But no, this is not a place for romantics to ask somebody to type a poem for a loved one. While national poets are immortalized in sculptures in one corner, the modern typing done here is for tramites – paperwork, another chain in the series of bureaucracies that are so omnipresent in this city.

Amidst the modern buildings that surround this plaza is the neo-Gothic, blue and white Iglesia Ermita featuring a painting called El Señor de la Caña – Jesús projected as the Lord of the Sugarcane.

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