Tropical Destination: Cali, Columbia

August 24, 2022

Visiting Colombia

Colombia on the whole has been deemed “megadiverse,” meaning its biodiversity is rich beyond belief. There are the Andes mountains, the Amazon rainforest, desert landscapes, Indigenous cultures, and coastlines on both the Caribbean and Pacific. While its climate is tropical, it’s also altitude dependent, so some areas are a balmy 86-degrees while others are a comfy 64-degrees year-round.

With all of this natural diversity comes diverse tourist destinations and activities, like surfing, whale watching, cliff jumping, hiking, and more. The extra-beautiful thing about Colombia? It’s affordable, in terms of both time and money. Distance wise, Colombia is just 2.5 hours from Miami, or 3.5 hours from Houston. It also lands in a U.S. time zone, so jet-lag is virtually nonexistent. Peak travel season spans from early June to late September.

A Bit About Cali

Santiago de Cali, Cali for short, is Colombia’s third-largest city by population and second-largest by area. It’s the capital of the Valle del Cauca department and the only major Colombian city with access to the Pacific Coast. Cali is known by the rest of Colombia as the Rhumba Capital, but the world calls it the Salsa Capital, thanks to its signature street parties and dance.

The Salsa Capital

Salsa is the perfect dance for honeymooners. With salsa, you get to cozy up, move together in rhythm, and have incredible amounts of fun in the process. When you’re dancing together in a foreign country, it’s as good as dancing like nobody’s watching. After all, you’ll never see these folks again, so why not give it a whirl?

Going out on the town at night to salsa clubs is the best way to experience this tradition. You can even book private salsa lessons during the day, then dance with the locals at night. The Juanchito area is a solid destination, with plenty of places to get your feet moving. Just remember, whenever going out at night, to exercise some caution and always be aware of your surroundings.

For the Animal Lovers

If you love nature and animals, a great place to start is the Zoológico de Cali, recognized by many as one of the best zoos in all of South America. As the zoo focuses on wildlife found in Colombia, here you can see a wide array of exotic animals that you’d otherwise only find in the Amazon. For a more intimate interaction with some of nature’s creatures, visit the Andoke Butterfly Farm. The farm is more of a garden, thoughtfully and beautifully curated to attract all manner of butterflies and tropical bird species.

Photo: A lemur at the Zoo. Photo by Diego A Lopez on Shutterstock

Art & Museums

If your passions intersect at “art” and “cats,” the Parque de Los Gatos is the spot for you. It’s a public space centered around a three-ton bronze cat sculpture created by artist Hernando Tejada. The park now boasts many cat sculptures by other artists. Walking through the lovely green space, taking in the scenery and many unique works of art, would be a nice way to spend an hour or so in Cali.

Cat sculptures not your thing? If you’re at all fascinated by historic planes, trains, and automobiles, the Museo Aereo Fenix, the aviation and transportation museum, is a fun destination. The Museo de Arte Colonial is attached to the Merced cathedral and highlights colonial religious art. The Museo Arqueológico displays pre-Colombian artifacts created by the Indigenous people. The Museo de Oro is all about gold, and the Museo de Arte Moderno La Tertulia features modern art, photography, and sculpture.

Many Haciendas, homes that belonged to former sugar barons, are now also open as museums. Here, you’ll learn the process of cultivating sugar while also enjoying the beauty of a historic home. Hacienda Cañas Gordas is located on Cali’s southern border and is considered by many to be the most beautiful of the colonial homes.

Photo: The River Cat Park sculpture by Hernando Tejada. Photo by Matthew Poveromo / Shutterstock

Exploring the Landscape

Hiking is another way to spend the day and get a lay of the land. In Cali, hike the Cerro de las Tres Cruces, three crosses that sit high in the mountains overlooking the city. Hiking up to the crosses is a popular outdoor activity, even for the locals, and the views are spectacular. The hike will be most crowded on weekends, so start early in the day. The steep ascent will take about an hour.

You can also spend the day splashing in the refreshing waters of the Pance River. Pance Eco Park, near the bottom of the river, features restaurants and amenities. Located about 25 minutes from Cali, the park can get crowded on the weekends, so better to go during the week to avoid the crowds.

If you’re willing to drive about two hours from the Cali city center, you can explore landscapes like the San Cipriano River Natural Reserve where you can tube down the river to a small village tucked in the jungle. Also about two hours away is Lake Calima, an artificial lake with many outdoor activities, such as nature walks, bird watching, horseback riding, kayaking, kite surfing, and more.

A Bit of History

A visit to the Cristo Rey statue, reminiscent of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer, is a must. The statue is smaller than the Redeemer, but the views of Cali from the statue are magnificent.

Spend some time in the Barrio San Antonio, Cali’s historic center. This is the oldest part of the city and home to quaint and trendy cafés, colonial architecture, quality restaurants and bars, and lots to explore. Here you’ll also find the Iglesia de San Antonio, located atop a hill with a striking view of the city and a nice surrounding park. Other churches worth visiting include Iglesia de la Ermita, also located in the historic district, and Iglesia de la Merced, a beautiful colonial cathedral and Cali’s oldest church.

Things to Eat

Part of the fun of traveling to a place like Colombia is experiencing the local cuisine. Here are some scrumptious eats you don’t want to miss: Sancocho de gallina is a famous staple of the region. It’s a rich soup made from chicken broth and meat, served with rice, corn, yucca, fried plantains, avocado, and spicy peppers. Similar to Spanish paella, arroz atollado is a dish that perfectly captures the flavors of Colombia. It’s made up of rice, potatoes, pork, chicken, and sometimes sausage, seasoned with spices like coriander, pepper, and cumin.

If you come across local tamales or empanadas, you can never go wrong. The tamales are made with corn dough and filled with a mix of meat and veggies, typically wrapped in a banana leaf and served with patacones. Empanadas caleñas are also made with corn dough and filled with meat, potatoes, onion, and garlic, then are deep-fried before they’re ready to devour.

Aborrajados are a tasty dessert, perfect for the cheese lovers. With a plantain crust, aborrajados are filled with a heaping portion of white cheese that melts to gooey deliciousness when deep-fried. Another favorite dessert of the region is manjar blanco, a sort-of pudding made from milk, brown sugar, rice, and cinnamon.

Colombia is also home to many fruits that we don’t see stateside. Chontaduro is one such fruit, hard to describe but worth a taste. Lulo is another fruit with a very specific flavor, typically enjoyed as a raw fruit or as a juice. Lulada is a refreshing drink that combines the local lulo fruit with ice, sugar, water, and sometimes booze.

Photo: Senior woman preparing a traditional dish from el Valle del Cauca in Colombia called aborrajado. Photo by Anamaria Mejia / Shutterstock

However you spend your time in Cali—salsa dancing, hiking, or sampling the cuisine—this city gives adventurous honeymooners the chance to live like a local and make memories to last a lifetime.

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