Experiencing the Warmth of Cali

La Ermita church
La Ermita church in downtown Cali
Bailar.co Cali
View of Cali from La Ermita church

The following is a guest post by Tommy. 

Do not go to Cali!

That’s what I hear from people and read online. But is it possible the benefits can outweigh the risk of traveling there?

You can see the statistics here, and it’s scary, but at least you know which areas to stay away from.

So why visit Cali?

I asked myself this several times while living in Medellín among other smaller cities for several months. It wasn’t until I began to learn salsa and experienced the warmth of Caleños (people from Cali) in other cities that I realized Cali is different!

When I asked other travelers about Cali, they couldn’t persuade me to go, and Colombians didn’t have much to say besides “go for the salsa.”

I had doubts, until my third day in Cali when I was invited to dinner at a family’s home. Note that I hadn’t been invited to dinner in my two months in Medellín, although I had been offered drinks at bars.

I did a few of the touristy things like a city tour, and checked out a few restaurants and salsa clubs. The first thing you notice is the large percentage of African descendants, who make up approximately half of the population, mixed people included.

Cali is also a place where I got called “mono” (slang for foreigner) enough, as much as I tried to blend in with my short pointy hair style, jeans, and stylish Polo t-shirt. I still don’t get the whole origin of “mono” and I’m not going to respond to it.

Now, back to the dinner invitation. I visited a basic restaurant next door to the hostel where I stayed. The Colombian lunch plate, which goes for $4,000 to 7,000 pesos ($2 to $3.50) in Cali, includes meat, rice, beans, plantains, and literally a tablespoon of salad.

For dinner, you won’t be able to find the same deal and you always have to pay more. When I asked them what time it closes, the response was 3 PM. I told the family-owned restaurant there food was so good, it was a shame I couldn’t get dinner too.

“But you can, just follow me and you can come to our house to eat, just ring this doorbell” was the lady’s response – in Spanish of course.

I always feel strange following someone I just met to their home, but their house and restaurant were in the adjacent building, which is typical for Colombian family restaurants.

Later that evening, I rang the doorbell and was allowed in by the teenage daughter dressed in her school girl outfit. This was the same girl who served me at the restaurant after school, so you could tell they were a hard-working family.

The next day I changed hostels to discover another area, Granada and St. Vincente, north of the center. That area has access to the hill of the three crosses, shopping centers, bars and nicer restaurants so it’s more diverse than San Antonio.

While I was in the hostel, I noticed a Colombian lady recording a video on her tablet of two girls describing their Spanish lessons. It was a testimonial.

The first thing I thought was that the video quality is going to turn out terrible, so I immediately suggested she use my microphone and lamp. She looked baffled at first, so I told her, “your English is good, and so too should the quality of your video testimonials so you can get more students.”

I dread poor quality videos as they lower the value of your service. This lady quickly became interested, and complimented my Spanish. I’d only been studying it for four months.

I described how I’m spending months at a time in different cities to learn the cultural differences, local economy, people and wanting to go beyond my gringo level of salsa. She was glad to hear that and offered to help.

To my surprise, she later provided me with a list of salsa schools. This was a unique opportunity to pay it forward and construct an online directory for salsa lessons. Hopefully, I can help other people and travelers find instructors more easily.

Why waste two to three days looking for the right teacher, when you can already be taking lessons?

Another Colombian in the hostel was very talkative, cooking something interesting and asking about me. I told the same story as to the Spanish teacher and asked him about the salsa scene. This guy was also helpful and offered to show me around the neighborhood.

I was fascinated because this Colombian introduced me to so many people, including restaurant owners, bar owners and a guy that runs a modeling school. That never happened in other cities I stayed in, although most Colombians are polite and a bit helpful.

You might say that oh… “perhaps you didn’t have that much to say or offer in other cities,” but I did.

In Manizales, I started a weekly language exchange meeting and only a handful of people showed up every time.

In Medellín, I translated a restaurant’s menu into English because they wanted to print a bilingual version.

To be honest, the guy I met cooking wasn’t somebody famous or rich. I’m almost sure he was a salesman and a good samaritan. Wherever he took me, I would receive a free drink or appetizer, without saying much besides “hello, it’s nice to meet you and be in Cali.”

I hadn’t felt the warmth of Colombians until I’d met people in Cali.

The most recent occurrence of a warm invitation was from a couple I met at a store where I printed cards for my salsa directory. Before I mention what happened, finding a good printer wasn’t easy and also took two to three days.

In fact, while I was looking for digital laser printing, the staff at one printer would direct me to next closest one, not knowing if they had laser printers. This went on until I visited every printer in the neighborhood.

When I finally found the good one, they printed them for me instantly, and even included cutting. A local couple was also in the print shop. I asked the employee how can I get to another neighborhood by walking and they weren’t sure, but the couple offered to take me since they said it was on the way.

I didn’t immediately jump on the offer, but with a bit of small talk the couple was genuinely excited to find out what brought me to Cali without trying to rob me. I repeated the my story during the car ride and we were equally delighted.

It is like the theory of the ying and the yang.  The presence of said evil propaganda is reciprocated by the good. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced any evil and Cali is the only city where I haven’t had a single girl ask me to pay for her food, drinks or taxi.

At a language exchange, I met one girl that was excited to practice her beginner’s level of English with me, so much that she invited me for lunch the next day.

She was so sweet that she actually hand-wrote me a paper note with drawings of the places I could visit.

The Caleñas also call and use their own minutes without that “I-ring-you-once-and-you-call-me-trick”.  The ladies here are definitely more down-to-earth, without the overblown egos.


About the Author: Tommy is a traveling web developer who likes to promote tourism.  He speaks four languages and has lived in US, Europe, and South America.  Take his word and learn some salsa by finding an instructor at http://Bailar.co. You can also check out his travel videos at RateTourGuides.com.

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  1. Cali is indeed not as bad as they say it is and as for myself, I have never had a bad time there either. I just wanted to clarify the meaning of “mono.” In no way, shape or form does it mean “foreigner” or is it a euphemism for Gringo. Basically, Mono means somebody with light eyes, light skin or light colored hair. Colombians get called monos as well.

    • Thanks for the clarification on “mono” as it’s news to me. The last time a Colombian referred to me as “mono” I felt insulted because I thought it was a put down for being a foreigner. The literal translation is “monkey” so if you’re unaware of the colloquial meaning, it can leave a bad impression.

      • I guess when you look at it in a literal sense, then yeah, it could be offensive. I never heard the term too much when I was in Medellin, but here in Bogota, they seem to use it quite frequently. I guess it’s all relative, especially considering the other names Colombians like to use as well. I mean after all, little kids are “chinos”, Afro-Colombians are “negros” and everybody in Bogota seems to be oh so fond of referring to one another as “marica.”

        • I’m still not comfortable with “negro” or “negra” as a term of endearment, but at least I understand it’s not meant to be derogatory (depends on the context of course).

          • Dave Negro is a term not used very much in the US anymore because black people found it offensive. I feel you on not being comfortable with the term, because of the disrespect that followers being call Negro,

          • Thankfully Colombia hasn’t gone overboard with political correctness as as happened in the US. The words the US deems offensive are not so here. You could argue quite the opposite. The words negro and nigga for blacks and mono for whites are used affectionately in Colombia. Hopefully Colombia sticks to its values and doesn’t go down the US path where just about anything you say is offensive to someone.

          • That is Very nice to know Dave. Another lesson learned about colombia. Maybe one day I truly get to visit.

          • Funnily enough one word that is not meant to be affectionate is gringo. I once heard some Colombians referring to me derogatorily as gringo. I said “No soy gringo, soy……” and they immediately smiled a little sheepishly.

            I also have a couple of English friends that were travelling to Melgar a few years ago and were pulled over by police and as they had forgot their papers were handcuffed and left to wait in the sun for 2 hours. They then informed the police they weren’t gringos but English. The police immediately unhandcuffed them apologising saying they thought they were gringos and only treated them badly because Americans treat Colombians so badly. True story.

          • Yes, I’m aware of gringo and its origins, but I believe the meaning depends on the context. In the same way Colombians use “negro” as a term of endearment without any racist implication (so they say), they use “gringo” too. Not in all cases, it depends on the person speaking, tone and context.

            I believe your friends’ story, but unless you have more details, we have no idea what those police meant by “Americans treat Colombians so badly.”

            Blaming Americans for all the problems in Colombia is like blaming the 2+ million Colombians in the USA for all my country’s problems. I don’t stereotype all Colombians as coke dealers, so it irks me when I hear some of them make generic statements as though all Americans are sex tourists or troublemakers.

            I’m sure many, if not most of those Colombians emigrating to the USA are sending a percentage of money earned back to family in Colombia, which is then injected into the local economy.

            Plus, the USA is the largest provider of foreign aid to Colombia, and in light of recent reports, there’s no doubt that money has helped equip the government to pound the FARC into submission (and the negotiating table).

            I know Americans have a bad reputation for a lot of reasons, but I think part of that is simply because our proximity and history with Colombia has required us to get more involved here than England, Germany, Australia, Canada (who never bothers anyone) or so many other Western countries.

          • Man its great getting some in sight on the culture of the colombian people. I am a very friendly type persons and believe I never met anyone I just could not get along with. I really dont know about the term gringo other then hearing it in some mexican movies. But as a black man little to venture in places I never been I will keep that thought in mind. What advise be to a frist time colombian visitor that would like to visit Cali. plus do not speak any spanish.

          • “Americans treating Colombians badly” is probably more a perception than a fact. The policemen involved have probably never been treated badly themselves by Americans. I’m speculating it is stories of Colombians being treated as criminals and second class citizens when in the US. And I’d suggest Colombia is lucky to have the US in its corner.

            Nevertheless, having been stopped and interrogated by the FARC in the south of the country back in 2001 I was thankful that my passport said I wasn’t American!

  2. Wow, all I can say that the article was very informative of the people in Cali. I never been to colombia but could tell the people their were on the darker side. I have had the chance to meet a few woman on line from Cali and they were very friendly and did not ask for money. I thought that if I was going to date or friend a wife in colombia it would be Cali. Thanks for your story of the people in Cali it was great.

  3. Sorry Des, but I am calling BS on the statement that “They then informed the police they weren’t gringos but English” and then were let go by the police who supposedly thought they were Americans. Bottom line is that Gringo is used in a very broad term here in Colombia. If you don’t come from a native Spanish speaking country, and you have lighter features, you’re a Gringo. Deal with it.

    Furthermore, I’ve been in Colombia for 2 years and have never been discriminated against or treated badly because I was from the US. Quite the opposite actually. Not sure how much time you have sent here in Colombia, but the country has pretty close ties to the US and many Colombians that have the means to do so, see the US as a vacation destination of choice. There are massive Colombian ex-pat populations in South Florida and New York. Hell, I’ve even ran into an indigente here in Bogota that speaks English with perfect New Jersey accent. Believe me when I say that you aren’t going to get a free pass or treated with reverence because you come from Canada or a European country vs the US. Colombians for the most part, don’t care.

    • Call it it what you want Dan. I’ve been here for over a decade and I find it amusing now with more foreigners coming everyone is an expert on the country having spent a few months here. Do you even know the basis for the word “gringo”? Sure its used for light skinned foreigners in general because every Colombian thinks that person is from the US. It comes from “green go” meaning the US soldiers that wears green and go which is obvious enough. Look in wikipedia where it says it is generally used disparagingly. Now how about you get a few more years experience here and then come again.

      • Well, I hate to break it to ya, but I have been here for more than a few months and am still here. This might be news to you, but you aren’t the only Gringo who maintains residency here in Colombia.

        I don’t care as to how you think the definition of Gringo should be applied, but obviously who and what you think should be called a Gringo, holds zero weight amongst Colombians, because they readily refer to foreigners as Gringos; American or not. If you have in fact been here for such a long time, then you would know that by now. Like I said, you are a Gringo. Lecturing Colombians on the finer points as to what a Gringo is, will not change that fact. Maybe you should be like the vast majority of the foreigners here and embrace that fact. Gringo.

        • Hey, I call myself a gringo. I can laugh at myself. It’s no big deal to me. But while gringo is used for all light skinned foreigners, its more direct meaning is American.. I have clarified this with Colombians (who know more than me!).

          As a personal experience, i was once pulled up by the police and didn’t have my documents. While they seemed unfriendly initially I used the line “Por favor, no soy gringo, soy…”and their demeanour immediately changed and they suddenly became friendly with me and then left with no more inquiries. Take that however which way you want.

          And I know a lot more about the place after over a decade here than I did after 2 years here. And I’m still learning….

        • I learned to embrace it, no big deal. I was in a taxi the other day in Laureles, and the driver stopped and yelled “mono” to a fair skinned Colombian for directions. It wasn’t an insult, it’s just the way they talk here. Same goes for negro and gringo.