CALI, COLOMBIA — The streets of this colourful coastal city literally throb with rhythm. Strains of heavy percussion float from windows, doorways and cars on nearly every street. By sundown, locals are lining up to dance in the dozens of salsa clubs that fill this city. And by dance, I don’t mean toss a few steps and bob casually to the music. I mean, DANCE, as in flips, spins and enough carefully choreographed lifts and shimmies to make Michael Jackson proud.
Cali is the self-proclaimed “salsa capital of the world” and they take the title very seriously. Since I’m rhythmically challenged, I felt compelled to make my introduction to the Cali salsa scene at the Live Salsa & Tango Dance School.
Driving up to the non-descript strip mall, I felt a little more at ease. Surely, nobody was expecting dance superstars to be created in a few hours. But as I walked past the painting of tango dancers and be-spangled salsa girls and eyed the trophies lining the walls, I realized I might be in over my head here. The kind face of my instructor Carlos quickly put me at ease. He patiently counted out the steps and then demonstrated with each student. Even though I couldn’t keep up with his taffy-hipped moves, Carlos emboldened me to dive into Cali salsa clubs.
As Colombia's third largest city, Cali saves the flash that Medellin and Cartagena are known for and pours it onto the dance floor. Calenos prowl the clubs in slinky dresses, tight jeans and bright, unbuttoned shirts. At Habanero, a towering statue of Celia Cruz, the queen of salsa, greets me outside, while inside, a live band rocks the small, dimly lit room. About a dozen band members cram into a corner as dancers swirl around the floor. Cali salsa incorporates a beat about three times faster than typical salsa and dancers feet seem to move in a blur. After hiding in a corner booth with my group for an hour, I am unceremoniously pulled onto the dance floor by an older man intent on teaching me the steps. He has no idea what a lousy dance student I am so I smile as I twirl one way and he twirls the other.
At Tin Tin Deo, a legendary salsa club with a bright, upper level dance floor, the salseros are as smooth as the glasses of agardient that top most tables. Couples, groups and tourists fill the floor, spreading the contagious energy. By the time we stumble out at 2 a.m., a line wraps around the building outside. Street vendors selling pandebono, bread stuffed with cheese and slices of mango sprinkled with lime and salt, park on sidewalks for the night owls that make up most of the city’s population. Peeking into Zaperoco, a club noted for fabulous dancers in a city of fabulous dancers, I just stand with my mouth open as I watch the lifts and spins. Although most of the dancing is intimidating, Calenos are very friendly and I never feel silly or out of place.
Cali is the salsa capital of Colombia and visitors quickly get swept up in the dance.
For more in-depth music demonstrations, Cali hosts the Petronio Alvarez Festival — which is the ultimate showcase for the music, dance and food of the Afro-Colombian Pacific coast — in August. The five-day festival features around 60 local groups and performers who compete for awards. Traditional instruments, chants and dances attract over 50,000 attendees from around the world every year. Food, crafts and a warm, high energy vibe make this a wonderful place to learn about Cali culture and the Pacific Coast.
Another way to learn is by taking a cooking class and exploring Caleno cuisine. I join Tia Stephanie Tours for cultural immersion into the city’s cooking and agricultural traditions. The day kicks off at Galeria Alameda, an outsize market that serves up everything from chicharrones (fried pork rinds) to handwoven baskets and live birds. Guided by the chef , we select local lulo fruit, banana leaves and peppers for the local dishes. At Escuela Gastronomica de Occidente, we learn about the influence of African cooking techniques on Caleno dishes while sipping luladas, a refreshing drink made from the tart lulo fruit. We chop, mix and taste but mostly its the chef preparing a Pacific coast delicacy of fish spiced with achiote and cooked in coconut milk and banana leaves and accompanied with crisp green plantains, rice and salad. The flavours blend perfectly and as I shove the hardy food into my mouth, I realize why Calenos display so much energy for dancing.
Just outside of Cali, the Sugarcane Museum displays how Cali and the the Valle del Cauca developed in the 18th century. Sugarcane fields, lily ponds and flowering trees reflect the tropical beauty that previously dominated the area. It’s easy to just roam through the verdant landscape and forget the historical aspect but there’s too much history here to overlook it. With the sound of gurgling water in the background, a guide shows us machines and tools that were used for three centuries of sugarcane production.
The difficulty of operating the machines is duly demonstrated. I note that the enslaved Africans who were forced to use them were not permitted to operate the tools under the grass shaded huts that now shelter the machines. The 18th hacienda at the museum features rooms for the family’s 16 children and an edifice made from adobe and cows blood. I close the tour with a cold glass of gurapo, fresh sugar cane juice that is still a popular Cali. •