Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Cali es Cali…

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‘Cali es Cali y lo demás es loma!’, meaning ‘Cali is Cali and the rest is [just] mountains’, is a famous catchphrase for the people of Cali. Living on the (sugar cane) plains, it’s basically their way of saying why Cali is better than the rest of Colombia, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way. Cali is the third largest of Colombia’s main cities (Bogotá, Medellín and Cali) and the other two are indeed right up in the mountains.

This catch phrase comes from a song called Cali Pachanguero, by a famous salsa band from Cali called Grupo Niche that started up in the late 1970s (and if I understand it right, are still here).

Up-tempo salsa (which originally came about when a radio DJ accidentally played a classic salsa track at double speed – the people of Cali loved it, and it stuck) is the defining sound of Cali. This fast paced salsa, with rapid double-time footwork, and quick kicks and flicks, can be heard on street corners and in clubs throughout the city. Watching local professional salsa dancers – and here you can find some of the best in the world – is mesmerising.

So, you can’t keep reading this blog post without a bit of a listen to this, to catch the Cali party mood (hopefully I’m not breaking any copyright rules here!):

Jairo Varela – one of the founders of Grupo Niche, which has its own museum in Cali

The heat and Cauca valley plains are the other defining characteristics, which create a perfect environment for growing sugar cane. Throughout the streets of Cali, you’ll see vendors squeezing sugar cane to sell fresh agua de panela to passersby.

Sugar cane juice a-plenty

One of the main central churches even houses an 18th century painting to El Señor de la Caña (The Lord of the Sugar Cane) to which many miracles are apparently attributed.

The pretty windows of the church

Much of historic Cali was destroyed in past earthquakes, so it isn’t the prettiest city in Colombia to look at. There’s something very 1970s about it now, with its concrete tower blocks and dated municipal buildings, but there’s still plenty of life in the streets, and happily none of it with much interest in passing tourists.

I enjoyed watching these notaries in the square just behind the church. They help locals fill in forms and documents. Despite this digital age, demand for their services seems to continue here in Cali.

Many, many people in Cali were eating this ‘fruit’ (definitely not my favourite, see back to my posts from the fruit market Medellin). For some reason it’s extremely popular here in Cali and you regularly see people walking by with one of these in a plastic bag, doused in salt and honey. To me it tastes like chewy over-cooked potato that sticks to the roof of your mouth – I really don’t get the appeal!

More to my liking was the local juices – a bit like slush puppies, served on refreshing shaved ice.

One of the more quirky experiences I’ve had on this trip was going for dinner at the restaurant/theatre ‘Teatro Magico del Sabor’ run my Mike. It’s his own personal project, part gastro/supper club event, and part music & stand up comedy. You sit in a theatre-like layout and all guests have to be prepared to have the mickey taken a good few times during the evening. It could be a bit cheesy, but that risk is adeptly avoided as Mike is also so extremely passionate about food (and grows a lot of his own ingredients) that the dishes just in themselves are superbly tasty.

He ended the night improvising a bunch of traditional Colombian call-and-repeat songs (some ‘cleaner’ than others, and of course insisting that we all had a go too), which made the whole evening more than just a little bit memorable.

Mike is quite a character. All the cooking is done right in front of you. Not a fabulous photo, but here he is working his magic.

Many pots on the go simultaneously to serve everyone at pretty much the same time.

A simple salmon crostini, but with some great quality ingredients, and after all that Colombian rice, plantain and meat day-in day-out, I was in heaven to be having such tasty food again.

And another tasty salted caramel creme brûlée, mmmm mmmm, mmmmmmm.

Cali remains in my memory of being this curious mix of old and new.

Here you can see Iglesia La Merced – one of the first churches in Cali from the 1540s. A beautiful and simple church, where nuns go to worship. Just behind it are the looming tower blocks of central Cali.

And then there is this bizarre section of sculptures of cats running along next to the river.

From a sculpture of a bandaged cat, I learnt that Spanish-speaking cats curiously only have 7 lives, versus the 9 we give them in the UK. Perhaps that’s why dogs rule the roost down here!

After this rest day in hot and humid Cali, it was time to get back on the road (through some very chaotic traffic heading out of town), to press on through the opposite side of the sugar cane plantations to the white city of Popayan. For now I could look forward to a couple more days’ respite from the Colombian mountains, as I made my way to the other end of the Cauca valley.

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