What can I say? I loved the place. I ended up staying 10 days and could easily not have left. A massive factor for this was undoubtedly the hostel I stayed in; El Viajero, which for me was everything a hostel should be. It had a great atmosphere and I met so many cool people from all over Latin America, Europe and the States. It's in the beautiful San Antonio area, in a old colonial building set around a courtyard with lots of plants and hammocks to chill in. It had a pool and a bar and kitchen, free breakfast, walking tours, yoga lessons and most importantly salsa lessons.
Something I didn't know before this trip is that Cali is the salsa capital of the world, even beating Cuba (but this is really due to the fact that Cuba is not exactly open for business to promote its amazing salsa). Cali salsa is a little different, the main difference being a lot more emphasis on foot work and it is fast!
I got caught up in the salsa vibe and so decided to take some private lessons there, which were great. There are so many options; with a number of proper salsa schools and private teachers with studios in the San Antonio area. Or you can just arrange them through the hostel. By far the best in my opinion was Wilber who has a private studio close to the hostel. He speaks excellent English and is a real sweetheart. You choose what you want to focus on i.e technique, posture or just nailing the 28 official Cali salsa steps. I only made it as far as 10-12ish in my lessons but had so much fun in the process. My most memorable class was when Wilbur tried to teach me how to move my hips like a Colombian. This at one point involved me holding on to the bars on the gate of his studio (which looked out onto a main street) and shaking my booty. The only result was much amusement to Wibur and the realisation that I'm no Shakira!
There is no shortage of places to practice your new moves. Our best venues included a small but fun bar close to the hostel called La Topa Tolundra (Mon & Wed) a bar in the popular Parque el Perro for Loco Tuesdays, and then possibly my favourite as its a bit bigger; Tin Tin Deo and so has slightly more dance floor space- there are so many beginners around, space is very useful in the avoidance of stamped toes!
Any night of the week you can end up in the area called Menga and as during the week most other clubs close at around 1.30 am, you probably will. Menga is an area of bars a little out of the centre where at least one or two of these will stay open till about 6am. At the weekend there is a wealth of places to choose from. On Friday night we went to a real traditional place called Zaperoca; a small bar with quite a older crowd. Pretty much all local except for us and they were serious about salsa. There was one group of guys who were fantastic. They kept breaking out into routines with each other and at one point they got the whole dance floor doing an amazing routine- incredible!
Saturday night we got our dancing shoes on for another place that I'd heard was a bit of an institution called Chango which was in Juanchito a good 20 mins taxi ride away. The place did have the feel of former grandeur but it seems to have lost its shine, and a lot of its clientele to the new salsatec complex just down the road. We gave the place a good chance- the time to drink a bottle of rum but it didn't fill up so we head to check out the competition. You pay 5,000 COP which allows you entry to all of the clubs; Dubai, Cancun, Bronx and Citron. We tried Dubai first which was absolutely rammed, so after advice headed to Citron which wasn't as plush but nowhere near as packed and had a slightly older crowd so we stuck there till the end. We then checked out Cancun till they too threw us out about 6.30. I'd found a partner in crime in Tony who also didn't want to go home so we got chatting to different groups of locals scouring for any day clubs or after parties. There was talk of places by the bus terminal and invites to all sorts of house parties but in the end we decided to call it a night after a lot of fun!
I did manage a few day activities including a walking tour of the city; showing the usual churches and main plazas etc. A trek up to Cerro de las Tres Cruces which is something to do early morning due to the heat and the police that patrol the path usual finish by 1pm. And really more of a work out than getting to your usual tourist view point; it's a good hour and a half climb up and almost an hour back down. The crosses themselves are less than impressive and unfortunately so was the view the day I went as it was so hazy you could hardly see anything, but with good visibility it could be pretty cool.
On one of our nights out we met some lovely local guys who we ended up hanging out with quite a bit and they offered to take us to a cool river close by called Pance. Now we should really learn to ask more questions as we were badly prepared. We thought we were going in their cars to an easy to reach river- oh no! So in sarongs and flip flops armed with beers and a yukalele we ended up on a local bus, stopping to pick up supplies in a supermarket, their house to pick up cars and a dog and emergency sushi before getting to a section of the river on private property and essentially going on a hike! Now, granted it was beautiful and we went swimming in some cool waterfalls and had a cool picnic, but as Lynsey hopped over rocks across the river with her Ukalele we definitely thought 'this was not in the brochure' but a great day!
I did also venture out of the city on a day trip to San Cipriano, another place that's an adventure to get to. This little village is nestled in the jungle. We caught a bus to Buenaventura and hopped off at the rickety bridge you cross to get to the only form of transport that can take you into this village; a motorbike customised to run on the old railway tracks running through this part of the jungle. Its almost impossible to explain this 'vehicle' it sort of has to be seen to be believed and I'm even entirely sure how it works. The back wheel of the motor bike has been replaced with a train wheel that runs on the track and is attached with a bicycle chain and the motorbike has a 'sidecar' made of a large bit of wood that they have attached some benches so carry passengers on ! Forget a spaceship- this 'vehicle' will blow your mind!
Another 'interesting' element to this journey is that the railway is still in operation so when a train comes you have to (quickly) get off and lift the vehicle off the tracks. Luckily we didn't meet any oncoming trains on any of the blind corners, which they do slow right down for to stop and listen for trains (very high tech). We did however meet a few other moto- trains and after a short game of chicken one of which we lost so had to get off the tracks and let them past.
The village is essentially two streets with fairly basic houses some of which now accept tourist. Personally I was pretty glad not to be spending the night as I didn't really feel very welcome there and I definitely got called gringa much more than usual. I got the impression the locals somewhat resented tourists coming into their village that was otherwise pretty isolated from the rest of society. But that said the little trail and the waterfalls it leads to were pretty. We had arranged with our driver to come back for us at 3pm but by 3.45 there was still no sign. By this point a group of local kids had befriended me and two of the girls were braiding my hair. One of them was really sweet, she actually lived in a village a bit further away but was visiting some family with her mum. She was mesmerised that Lyndsey couldn't speak Spanish and kept trying to teach her new words. Or lift eventually hid show up and one of the motor train boys helped us flag down a bus back to Cali- definitely a very interesting day!
However most of my days I was very happy just mossying around the San Antonio area with beautiful old buildings housing some great little cafes, shops and restaurants. We even had Parque de Acueducto right on our doorstep which always had people chilling out enjoying the views of the city and getting ready for another Cali night.
El Viajero Hostel 25,000 COP (£6.50) 10 bed dorm inc. breakfast