The ‘Salsa Capital of the World’, Colombia’s Cali is a fun, festive place with lots to see and do. Aside from hitting up its bars and dancing the night away, there are plenty of interesting historical sights to visit. Some absolutely stunning scenery and viewpoints also surround the vibrant city.
Despite its reputation for street parties and salsa, it is also one of the most important economic and industrial centers in the country. Located in Valle del Cauca, the now sizeable city was founded back in 1536 by the Spanish conquistador Sebastian de Belalcazar who was searching for El Dorado. Due to its centuries-long history, it has some attractive colonial tourist attractions and churches to check out.
The third most-populous city in Colombia, there are more things to do in Cali than just its infamous nightlife. With peaceful river walks and parks, excellent museums and iconic public art installations all to enjoy, it is certainly one of the best places to visit in the country.
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12. Plazoleta Jairo Varela
Quite a cool square to stop by, Plazoleta Jairo Varela can be just found north of the center, right next to the lush, leafy Boulevard del Rio. Bordered by chill cafes and restaurants, it has some eye-catching architecture and monuments for you to enjoy.
Named after the legendary salsa maestro, the centre of the plaza is dominated by a terrific statue of a trumpet. As well as spelling out Niche – the name of his local group – it also plays some of their hit songs. Their lyrics are also scrawled inside the mouths of the trumpets while an adjoining museum examines Varela’s life and legacy.
Besides listening to the music and snapping some pics of the funky-looking trumpet, you can always grab a bite to eat or drink. The large white canopy constructed to provide some shade also displays a striking design. To top it all off, concerts, art exhibits and salsa classes are regularly held here.
11. Caliwood Museo de la Cinematografia
Lying just to the northwest of the popular San Antonio neighborhood is the superb Caliwood Museo de la Cinematografía. An absolute must for cinephiles, it contains countless old cameras, projectors and movie posters. Well-done exhibits also cover the interesting history of the country’s film industry.
First opened to the public in 2008, its extensive collection occupies a small building, just up the road from the Sebastian de Belalcazar statue and viewpoint overlooking the city. Crammed inside are tons of rare equipment pieces, movie reels and vintage cameras from around the world.
Although the museum mainly focuses on the technical side of cinematography, some parts do look at ‘Caliwood’s’ origins and evolution. If the audio guide doesn’t provide an answer, its knowledgeable staff members are only too happy to explain anything else in depth.
10. Museo de la Cana de Azucar
A fascinating place to visit, the Museo de la Cana de Azucar is set in a spellbinding spot, just over an hour’s drive northeast of town. At the beautifully preserved plantation, guests can learn all about how sugar cane was produced in centuries gone by.
Surrounded by tropical plants, trees and blooming orchids, the Spanish colonial hacienda dates back to the 1700s. Now a museum, its rooms are full of period pieces, furniture and even some artworks. Dotted about its grounds and buildings are lots of antique equipment used to extract the sugar cane.
Informative and engaging tours highlight how the process changed over the years while also delving into societal norms in the Valle del Cauca. The perfect mix of history and nature, the museum and its gorgeous gardens make for a great day out.
9. Barrio San Antonio
By far the prettiest part of Cali to explore, Barrio San Antonio is spread across a hillside overlooking downtown. Lining its charming cobbled streets are not just incredible historic buildings and colourful murals but hip coffee shops, artists’ studios and salsa schools too.
Now the oldest neighborhood in the entire city, it boasts loads of attractive colonial-era architecture with the eighteenth-century San Antonio Church being one of its standout sights. From both here and its higher-up hilltop park, you can enjoy sweeping views over all of Cali before you.
Bordering its historic streets are countless cool cafes, restaurants and bars to try. With salsa classes and street performances also taking place, many head here at the weekend for its fun nightlife. As it is quite safe, quiet and quaint, most tourists and expats stay in San Antonio during their time in Cali. We really enjoyed the barrio’s ambience and architecture and can’t wait to go back in the future!
8. Trip to San Cipriano
Although it lies around two and a half hour’s drive northwest of Cali, the small village of San Cipriano is definitely worth visiting if you have the chance. Besides the breathtaking ride there, it has all kinds of exciting activities to try in its jungle, rivers and waterfalls.
Tucked away in a very remote spot along the Danubio River, it has numerous beaches for you to relax and recline on amidst the rainforest. You can also kayak or tube along its winding waterways or cool off under one of its sparkling waterfalls. On scenic hikes, you’ll sometimes spy snakes, monkeys and toucans in the dense foliage all around you.
Before setting off, make sure to take a unique ride on the ingenious ‘brujita’ system of motorbike or human-powered vehicles that ply its now abandoned railway tracks. The tiny town has a very tranquil feel with a handful of cafes also serving up some delicious local meals.
7. Iglesia La Ermita
Back in the center of Cali is one of its most important and impressive architectural gems: La Ermita. Showcasing some exquisite Neo-Gothic architecture, the pale white and blue church also has some fine paintings and artworks to admire.
Modeled after Ulm Minster in Germany, its soaring spire and stained-glass windows were completed in 1942. A church has stood in the same spot since 1678, the original having been built out of straw along the banks of the Cali River.
After snapping some pics of its ornate exterior, head inside its bright white interior. Here you can see its elegant altarpiece and a revered painting of Senor De La Cana. One of our favorite buildings, the unmissable landmark makes for some fantastic photos and is majestically lit up at night.
Even more magical though is Mariposario Andoke on the city’s southwestern outskirts. At their idyllic gardens and immaculate indoor areas, you can immerse yourself in nature while beautiful butterflies gently flutter all around you. One of the best ones we’ve been to, we really couldn’t recommend it enough!
Once a deforested hillside, the founding of the reserve completely transformed the area into a haven for local plant life. Nowadays, more than fifteen species of butterflies can be spotted flitting about the orchards, orchids and covered indoor areas. There is also an amazing map of Colombia to see, made out of stones, plants and flowers that depict its mountains, rivers and main sights.
As you explore its ecological trails, your guide teaches you about the butterflies and the ecosystems they inhabit. Aside from marveling at their beauty, you can enjoy the resplendent nature and scenery on show all around you. After stopping by its gift store, continue on to the nearby Cristo Rey statue and viewpoint; one of the city’s must-see sights.
5. Gato de Tejada
Lying along Avenida del Rio is another of Cali’s main symbols: the gigantic Gato de Tejada. Towering over a couple of meters in height, the three-ton bronze sculpture of a cat is now one of its best-loved and most-photographed monuments.
Donated by sculptor Hernando Tejada, it was inaugurated back in 1996 as part of a larger project to rejuvenate the city’s river banks. Rather whimsical, the smiling figure of the cat is now sold in almost every souvenir shop around town.
Thanks to its popularity, roughly fifteen smaller sculptures of cute cats have been erected along the riverside nearby. Known as ‘the cat’s girlfriends’, each has their own unique artistic style and identity. If you speak Spanish, you can read the often funny descriptions of their different personalities on the boards alongside them. We really loved the idea and took some great photos of all the colourful cats.
4. Iglesia de San Antonio
One of the city’s finest colonial buildings, the Iglesia de San Antonio lies high up on the hillside in the trendy but traditional barrio of the same name. Its simple brick and whitewashed facade looks very charming with the views from outside being just as good.
Dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua, the small church was erected in 1747 when Cali had less than 5,000 inhabitants. Made out of brick, its tiny bell tower and entrance stand out delightfully against the whitewashed walls around them. With weathered old stone steps leading up to them and palm trees peeking out overhead, this all paints quite a pretty picture.
Inside is again quite simple but serene with only a couple of wooden posts and rafters propping up its roof. After quickly paying your respects and examining its few artworks and altar, head outside for commanding panoramas over the city.
3. Cristo Rey
If you’re after yet more phenomenal views, then the iconic Cristo Rey is the place to go. Very similar to the one in Rio, the imposing figure of Christ with his arms outstretched makes for fabulous photos and viewing.
Perched atop the 1,440 meter-high Cerro los Cristales, the spectacular statue gazes out over the city and Valle del Cauca from its lofty position. Designed by sculptor Alideo Tazzioli Fontanini, it stands 26 meters tall and is made entirely of iron and concrete. At its foot, you can snap selfies with Christ in the background and bask in the breathtaking vistas before you.
Since its unveiling in 1953, Cristo Rey has been one of Cali’s top tourist attractions. As such, souvenir stands and a cafe can now be found clustered around its pedestal. While we thought the statue and views were fantastic, we also really liked the creative sculptures by Carlos Andres Gomez on the way up the hill. Coupled with the butterfly park nearby, this all made for a fun, varied day out on the city’s western limits.
2. Salsa Dancing
As it is the ‘Salsa Capital of the World’, you really can’t visit Cali and not dance the night away at least once or twice. With fun street parties and performances, club nights and salsa school classes taking place all the time, you really have no excuse not to!
Scattered about town are plenty of venues to choose from with salsa music heard blaring out almost everywhere you go. While you can just turn up at a club and try to mimic the movements, many prefer to first take a class. Countless schools offer lessons with Salsa Pura, Rumba Y Salsa and Son de Luz counting among the most popular. Once you’ve got the basics, hit up famous bars like Zaperoco, Tin Tin Deo and La Topa Tolondra.
One of the best times to visit the city is December when the week-long La Feria de Cali is held. This sees salsa parades and music performances take over almost every street and square and everyone joyfully taking part. Aside from watching big-name acts and stars perform, you too can also put on your dancing shoes and get in on the action.
1. Zoológico de Cali
After exhausting yourself salsaing about, strolling peacefully around the Zoológico de Cali makes for a very pleasant change of pace. Its lush green enclosures and animal exhibits are again located just west of the center along the winding Cali River.
Since its opening in 1969, the zoo has amassed an impressive menagerie of animals with almost 250 species now represented. While most are native to Colombia or at least the South American continent, there are still beautiful Bengal tigers, lions and kangaroos to admire alongside many others.
Very well-maintained, the zoo’s adorable residents all inhabit spacious enclosures that replicate their natural habitat. As you wander about its rainforest paths, you sometimes come across free-roaming iguanas and peacocks. With brightly colored macaws and cheeky lemurs to see alongside Andean bears and otters, it is no wonder the park is the highlight of many visitors’ time in town – besides the dancing that is!
Where to Stay in Cali
Due to its historical architecture, numerous accommodation options and safe streets, many tourists and expats stay in Barrio San Antonio. From here, it is just a short walk, bus or taxi to many of Cali’s main sights. El Penon next to it is also popular and conveniently located while Versailles on the north side of town has plenty of hotels too.
A lovely option in San Antonio is the fittingly named Magic Garden House. Set high up on the hillside next to its historic church, the four-star, family-run hotel guarantees guests a special stay. In addition to a jungle-like garden and terrace with a view, the friendly owners and staff make you feel right at home. Comfy rooms and delicious breakfasts only add to the experience.
Just across the Cali River in Barrio Centenario is the budget friendly Hotel Boutique Casa Farallones. It has loads of amenities to enjoy like an outdoor pool, wellness center, bar and laidback restaurant. The hotel also has wonderful staff and complimentary breakfasts while all its rooms are spacious and modern.
How to get to Cali
Very well-connected to the rest of the country, Cali is served by the very busy Alfonso Barilla Aragon International Airport. Reachable by bus or taxi, it connects you to countless cities around Colombia and further afield.
Otherwise comfy (and not so comfy) long-distance buses are the main way people get to places like Bogota and Medellin. This respectively takes 12 and 9 hours though so factor in a whole day’s travel.
Once you arrive, you can either walk or take the bus to many main sights, depending on where you’re staying. Taxis are also a very affordable and fast way to get around town.
Best Time to Visit Cali
As it lies so close to the equator, there aren’t any major seasonal variations in Cali. Average temperatures remain at 25 to 27°C (77 to 80°F) year round though some periods are much rainier than others.
December is one of the most popular months to visit as Colombians have summer holidays and the five-day-long Cali Fair takes place. There is also of course Christmas and New Year’s Eve to celebrate. Prices are more expensive however and all its hotels, restaurants and bars are packed. While warm, it still rains a bit around fifteen days on average.
After this, January to May is very quiet with both April and May counting among the rainiest months of the year. October and November are also incredibly wet, seeing between 18 and 21 days of rain on average. People still visit then though for the famous World Salsa Festival.
Cali’s other peak season runs from June until September. Much drier than the months either side, they are great for sightseeing and strolling along its lush riverfront. While it is winter in Colombia, Europeans head here on their summer holidays with prices again rising.