The citizens of Cali like their salsa hot and spicy. Not the tortilla chip or nacho kind, but the music-blasting, hip-gyrating, sweat-inducing sort. After a mere 24 hours in the self-proclaimed “Capital of Salsa,” it’s easy to see that this southwest Colombian city lives up to its name.
Cali’s reputation (and Colombia’s in general), due to internal drug wars and struggles with armed insurgent groups, has long hampered its tourism efforts. Despite the fact that security issues have improved dramatically since the election of Alvaro Uribe in 2002 as President and his re-election in 2006, a lingering uncertainty continues to hinder foreigners from vacationing here. In a clever move to dissipate this daunting media cloud — without overlooking the obvious, Colombia’s advertising campaign contends, “The only risk is wanting to stay.”
Salsa dancing in Cali // © Mark Edward Harris
Indeed, salsa lovers want to stay — and dance. And this they do all night long. A visit to Cali should be coordinated to include Delirio, a Cirque du Soleil-esque spectacle that happens the last Friday of every month. The show’s brochure professes accurately, “In a city where the music is the language, salsa has become its expression.” A look around the dance floor at any club demonstrates this fact.
A visual inventory might also reveal another popular pastime — aesthetic enhancement. Colombia has become a major destination for cosmetic surgery. Medical tourism is alive and well in this South American country. Besides breasts, faces and tummies, Colombians may also have derrieres reshaped and even augmented. Of historical note, it was a Colombianpet-based Spanish ophthalmologist, Jose Barraquer, who, around 1950 in his clinic in Bogota, invented laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis, better known by its acronym, LASIK.
Theories on where salsa originated abound. While some people believe that salsa came via Cuban sugarcane workers, imported to Cali to develop this industry, others insist that salsa is Puerto Rican. Whatever the case, the hypnotic music caught on and is now a ubiquitous element that colors the pulse of Cali. In the evening salsa beats resound throughout the city, especially along the city’s Sixth Avenue.
Cali’s tourism infrastructure is in place with international hotels including the Intercontinental Hotel, Sofitel’s Hotel Casa del Alferez and Radisson’s Royal Cali Hotel and a surprisingly long list of haute cuisine establishments including Restaurante Petite France and across town Trilogia, in Cali’s trendy barrio Granada district.
There is an active campaign to attract the lucrative convention business to the city. Opened in 2007, the Centro de Eventos Valle del Pacifico located on the highway between Cali’s Aragon International Airport and the city center has already attracted a number of major trade shows including most recently the Nueva Moda Colombia 2008. Wired with state-of-the-art video and sound systems, Cali’s huge convention complex is capable of handling several major events at the same time with movable walls on tracks to expand or contract room sizes as needed.
While parts of the country may not be ready for prime time, seasoned travelers will find Colombia, with cities such as Cali, an exciting, dynamic and educational destination.
NOTE: Travel agents should pass along basic U.S. Department of State recommendations to their clients including the avoidance of some small towns and rural areas of Colombia that could still have safety issues.