Colombia’s third-largest city, with a population of 2.3 million, CALI was founded in 1536 but only shed its provincial backwater status in the early 1900s, when the profits brought in by its sugar plantations prompted industrialization. Today it’s one of Colombia’s most prosperous cities, in part because of its central role in the drug trade since the dismantling of the rival Medellín cartel in the early 1990s; however, Cali is now more famous for its salsa dancers than white powder.
The low-lying and extremely hot city (with temperatures routinely surpassing 40°C) straddles the Río Cali, a tributary of the Río Cauca, surrounded by the sugar plantations of the marshy Cauca Valley. The large numbers of African slaves brought to work the sugar mills left a notable impact on Cali’s culture, nowhere more so than in its music.
Parts of central Cali are unsafe to walk around; be sure to get up-to-date advice on where not to go.
The city stakes a powerful claim to being Colombia’s party capital, and you’ll hear Cuban-style salsa music blaring from the numerous salsatecas throughout the day and night. If you’re here in September, don’t miss the Festival Mundial de Salsa.