Cali may be second to Bogotá in terms of size, but this vibrant, prosperous city is very much número uno when it comes to partying. Cali calls itself the salsa capital of the world, and few could dispute that claim. The sensuous, tropical rhythms are ubiquitous, seeming to seep from every pore of the city. Cali's other major claim, and rather more contentious, is that it boasts the most beautiful women in the country.

Ins and outs

Alfonso Bonilla Aragón airport
is 20 km to the northeast of Cali. The best way to the city is by minibus, which you will find at the far end of the pick-up road outside arrivals. From here taxis are relatively cheap to any destination in the city. Alternatively, take a taxi from the airport, US$25, 30 minutes. The minibuses to the airport, marked 'Aeropuerto', leave from the second floor of the bus terminal. There are direct flights to Cali from Mexico, Panama and several cities in the USA. The
bus terminal
, is a 25-minute walk from the centre following the river along Avenida 2N.

Getting around

The centre of the city is comparatively small - most places of interest to the visitor are within comfortable walking distance. Transport by bus or taxi is tedious because of the density of the traffic. Cali's taxis have meters and can be flagged in the street, or ordered by telephone.

Best time to visit

There is little climate variation during the year, average temperatures stay around 25°C. It is hot and humid at midday but a strong breeze that blows up in the afternoon makes the evenings cool and pleasant. Rain can come at more or less any time but Cali is shielded from the heavy rainfalls of the Pacific coast by the Cordillera Occidental.


Cali is bounded on the west by the Cordillera and to the east by the marshy plains of the Río Cauca. Through the centre of the city runs the Río Cali, a tributary of the Cauca, with grass and exotic trees on its banks. North of the river, all streets have the suffix 'N', and Carreras become Avenidas. The city extends southwards 15 km from the Río Cali. Near the southern end a new area is building up around Carrera 100 with the large Unicentro shopping mall and the residential community of Ciudad Jardín.


In the early 1990s Cali achieved international notoriety through the success of its drug cartel. Known as the 'Gentlemen of Cali', thanks to their high society background, the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers and their associate José Santacruz Londoño profited from Pablo Escobar's war with the government, rising to supersede his Medellín organization. But in 1995, six of the seven heads were arrested and in 2006 the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers were extradited to the United States, effectively bringing and end to the era of the narco-trafficking cartel in Colombia. Although still associated with drug and anti-drug operations, the atmosphere in Cali is quite relaxed. Violent crime is still a problem in the city's barrios but less of a threat in more affluent areas. However, carry your passport (or photocopy) at all times and be prepared for police checks. At night, do not walk east or south of Calle 15 and Carrera 10. Do not change money on the street in any circumstances and avoid all people who approach, offering to sell. Take advice on where and where not to go.

Tourist offices

(news, chat, entertainment, music and tourist information on
La Guía
). For information on the many privately owned nature reserves in this part of Colombia, enquire at
Asociación Red Colombiana de Reservas Naturales de la Sociedad Civil


After the collapse of the Incas in 1533, Sebastián Belalcázar left Pizarro's army in Peru and came north. He founded Quito in 1534 and established Popayán and Cali in 1536. He intended to continue northwards and establish other new settlements, but around Cali he encountered stiff resistance from the indigenous locals, which delayed him for several years so that others founded Antioquia and Bogotá. The first site of the city was beside the Río Lili near the present Ciudad Universitaria and Ciudad Jardín but it was moved north to the present location in 1539. Cali remained a dependency of Popayán and was dominated by Quito for 250 years, as north-south communications along the line of the cordillera are so much easier than across the mountain ranges. Indeed, until 1900, Cali was a leisurely colonial town. Then the railway came, and Cali became a rapidly expanding industrial complex serving the whole of southern Colombia. The railway has since been eclipsed by road and air links but today Cali is economically closely tied with the rest of Colombia.

The capital of Valle del Cauca Department is set in an exceptionally rich agricultural area producing sugar, cotton, rice, coffee and cattle, and acts as the southern
capital of Colombia
It sits on the main route north from Ecuador along the Río Cauca and controls the passage to the only important port of Colombia's Pacific coast. Thanks to the port and the sugar industry, many Caribbeans and other groups of people came to the valley and now contribute to the city's wealth and entertainment. It was originally named Santiago de Cali, which name often officially used today. It has tropical climate, but with a freshness that makes for economic as well as cultural activity, producing 20% of the country's GNP.

Sights in the centre

Among the most interesting buildings in Cali are the church and monastery of
San Francisco
. The brick church originates from 1757 and was structurally renovated inside in the 19th century and most recently in 1926. It has a fine ceiling and many 17th- and 18th-century images, carvings, and paintings. The altar came from Spain. A second church in the complex is the
Capilla de la Inmaculada
, with a long nave, well lit
and gold-headed columns. The adjoining 18th-century monastery has a splendidly proportioned domed bell tower in the mudejar style known as the
Torre Mudéjar
. On the opposite side of the square is the imposing 20-floor

Cali's oldest church,
La Merced
, dates from 1545 and was constructed on the symbolic site of the founding of the city nine years earlier. It is in the classical style with a fine altar. It has been well restored by the Banco Popular. The adjoining convent houses two museums:
Museo de Arte Colonial
(which includes the church), a collection of 16th- and 17th-century paintings, and the
Museo Arqueológico
. This houses a good pre-Columbian pottery collection highlighting Calima and other Southwest Colombia cultures. By the well in the courtyard is a replica of a Tierradentro tomb.

Opposite La Merced is the
Casa Arzobispal
. This is one of the earliest buildings of Cali and the only surviving two-storied house of the period. Bolívar stayed here in 1822.

Nearby, in Banco de la República building, is the
Museo Calima (Museo de Oro)
. This is another of the national gold museums, of the usual high standard and well worth a visit. In addition to pre-Columbian gold work, well presented, with some exquisite tiny items magnified, it has an excellent pottery collection. There is a music room and library in the basement and exhibition halls.

Another church the visitor cannot fail to notice is
La Ermita
. The original church was built here in 1602, but was totally destroyed by the 1925 earthquake. It was rebuilt between 1926 and 1942 with funds from public subscription, with Cologne cathedral in mind. There is a fine marble altar and the painting
El Señor de la Caña
reflecting the local importance of sugar cane, one of the few items that survived the earthquake. The neo-gothic blue and white exterior is striking. In the pleasant plaza in front of the church you can sit next to lifesize figures of notable
of the past, including Joaquin de Caycedo and Jorge Isaacs. Across the street is an example of the older architecture of the city, the ornate Colombia de Tabaco building.

The city's centre is the
Plaza de Caicedo
, with a statue of one of the independence leaders, Joaquín de Caycedo y Cuero. Facing the square is the
Catedral Metropolitana
, a large three-aisle church, with a clerestory, elaborate aisle niches and stained glass windows. The original church on the site dated from around 1539, the present building is mid-19th century. The
Palacio Nacional
is on the eastern side of the plaza, a French neo-classical style building (1933), now the city archive.

Cross the river by the delightful, pedestrianized
Puente Ortiz
, built in the 1840s, two blocks from the Plaza de Caicedo, to the
Paseo Bolívar
, alongside the Centro Administrativo Municipal (CAM) and the main post office. On the Paseo, are a bronze statue of
El Libertador
and a sculpture honouring Jorge Isaacs, the romantic 19th-century novelist, depicting the characters of his novel

A special feature of the centre of Cali is the ribbon of green along the river, lined with exotic and ancient trees that always give a freshness to the heat of the day. Several sculptures were commissioned in the late 1990s, now in position along the river: look out for the
María Mulatta
a black bird seen everywhere along the coasts of Colombia and the splendid bronze
El Gato del Río
by Hernando Tejada, inaugurated in 1996. Also notable are the tall palms of Plaza Caicedo and the trees of the San Antonio park overlooking the west of the city. Cali prides itself on its trees. Several are marked out for conservation, for example, the huge
on Avenida 4N at Calle 10, by the viaduct.

Sights outside the centre

Along the river from the city centre is the
Museo de Arte Moderno La Tertulia
, has exhibitions of South American including local art.

To the west of the city, a popular morning 'run' is up the hill to the 18th-century church of
San Antonio
on the Colina de San Antonio, built around 1747. It is a favourite place for weddings. There are some attractive colonial-style houses on the way and pleasant parkland on the top with fine views of the city, though partly obstructed by high- rise buildings.

For a full view of the city, you can take a taxi to the
Monumento Las Tres Cruces
, at 1450 m, to the northwest of the city, a traditional pilgrimage site in Holy Week, or go to the huge statue of Christ
Monumento Cristo Rey
, at 1470 m above San Antonio to the west of the city. This statue can be seen for 50 km across the Río Cauca. It is also worthwhile going up the skyscraper Torre de Cali for a view of the city, but you may have to buy an expensive meal as well.

Zoológico De Cali
, interesting and well organised collection of all types of South American animals, birds and reptiles. It makes very good use of the river as it enters the city. There is a small aquarium and an 'ant' auditorium.

The orchid garden,
, is worth seeing. Major international show annually in mid-November.

A popular family park is
Acuaparque de la Caña
, with family entertainment including sports, swimming, riding and children's diversions.

From Cali it is 135 km south to Popayán. The road crosses the Río Cauca, then rejoins the main east bank route south at Villa Rica. About 17 km along the main road is
, an attractive town with a colonial chapel, Capilla de Dominguillo, worth a visit. Ceramics and
handicrafts are sold here.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
Products in this Region

  No related products

PDF Downloads

  No PDFs currently available

Digital Products

Available NOW!