Cali Festival Colombia is one of the worlds’ great festivals and it’s not on the typical traveler’s radar. As a traveler, I was treated like a celebrity!
Cali would be my last stop in Colombia. I had planned it this way so I could spend 5 days in the city to attend the annual Salsa dancing festival that falls between Christmas and New Year’s each year. I checked into Iguana Hostel and was unsure how I would do in the board flat and hard bed with the bad back I got in Salento.
It was Christmas Eve Day and I walked around town for a little bit and had a fruit & cheese dish for lunch.
Christmas Eve in Cali
There were several guys staying in the hostel – one from Seattle and brothers from Finland. There were no big plans for Christmas Eve at our hostel, but we discovered another hostel down the street that was putting on a huge Christmas dinner. We paid a few dollars for this amazing meal of Chicken, Steak, and all the trimmings. Later, a big group went out to the dance clubs in the main nightlife strip in town. It was a great way to spend Christmas sans family – only the second time in my life I was away from family.
Christmas Day Parade
Part of this festival were daily parades. On Christmas day, I invited a guy from the hostel to join me and we went to the parade. As tourists, some organizers of the parade sought us out and we got preferential seating in bleachers. This parade was amazing… amazing costumes, dancers, and bands.
The parade lasted until well after dark. After the parade, we headed over to a local stadium for a free concert.
Dancing in the Park
On the day after Christmas, I didn’t have much planned so I decided to head to the mall. My flip flops had broken so I was looking for some new ones. As I was walking to the mall, I walked by a park where they were setting up a stage. At the mall, I had some good snack foods and bought a pair of Havianas – the Brazilian brand of flip flops – you must get these in the posh stores in the US, but in Colombia they are sold at the big box store. I headed back to the park and entered for free. There were several vendors who were selling CDs and vinyl records…all the famous salsa singers of the past. Near the stage, there was a dance floor. I grabbed a seat on the edge of the dance floor to watch some of the Cali old timer’s salsa dancing to the live bands. In talking to some locals, I found out there were certainly local celebrities amongst our midst. One of the dancers was a guy that was the Colombian national salsa champion in the 1970’s. One of the bands was a famous salsa singer from Miami. I danced a little and had a couple beers with the locals. I stayed until a little after dark but didn’t want to stay too late as I didn’t have money left for taxi fare and didn’t want to walk home too late.
On the next day, there was a salsa competition at the amphitheater at a local park. I spoke with some other tourists about what a great time I had had at the park on the previous day. Some people from the nearby hostel joined me and we watched the solo and group dancers that ranged from ages about 4 to 80.
Later that night, we drank some Colombian “fire water” a licorice flavored drink and headed out for some dancing.
On my last day in Cali, I decided to attend another parade. In today’s parade, there were much more politically themed floats – characters with big paper Mache heads.
After the parade, we headed back to the amphitheater in the park to walk a special expedition of African dancers.
Traveling in Colombia was one of my most challenging trips ever – not because it’s particularly difficult to travel through Colombia or safety concerns – actually, it was quite easy and safe to get around, considering I could speak a decent amount of Spanish. It was my injuries that didn’t help – heat sores, bad back, home sickness. I’m glad I stuck it out and continued to Park Nevados, Salento, and Cali despite my desire to go home. I can’t say enough great things about the festival in Cali – every event I attended was great and free! I also wish I would have spent more time in Tayrona national park…it would have been good to bring snorkeling gear and spend a day swimming in the Caribbean.
Traveled Dec, 2009