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“Cali is the salsa capital of the world. Cali is not short for California. Cali is the third biggest city in Colombia. I am here to dance.”
I had to explain this to two of my closest friends and because they are so smart, I decided to not assume that you, reader, know where Cali is.
But seriously. You think I would spend two weeks in California without making plans to see you? Yeah, so I’m crashing somewhere just five blocks down the road…
In the 70s, large salsa bands performed in Cali, they set shop there and people drank in the music ever since. This is according to my friend and bartender of the Manhattan Bar on Calle 5. Why else is it called the Salsa Capital of the World? Other factors include the variety of salsa schools available in Cali, the plethora of discotecas that bang music from night till sunrise and global salsa champs who have won dance contests.
There are several types of salsa, the most common are:
Salsa Caleña is a lot like Cuban style salsa. There’s a bit of a swing and dancing in circles but the beautiful and unique part of salsa Caleña is its use of the mambo (a back step to mark the beat) and crazy and insane footwork.
I saw a professional salsa dancer freestyle solo last night and his legs looked like they were spinning, almost cartoonish. When I first saw it, being a line dancer, I thought it looked a bit silly (but I was really intimidated by the challenge). A few weeks later, I started throwing in my own calenitas and now I love it!
I have a list of things that I need to do before I turn 30 and this has been one of them. I thank my boyfriend and partner in life, James for committing to six weeks of salsa dancing. When we first arrived to Cali, we were nervous because it felt like Barranquilla, there’s nothing to do there for tourists unless it’s carnival season. In Cali, there is no reason to go there unless you’re interested in salsa dancing. Cali is also hot! The nearest largest body of water is over two hours away, so it felt a bit enclosed. Wait, there is the Pance river but that’s different. Anyway, my nagging fear was that I would spend two hours a day dancing in already hot weather but oh well, lets do it!
I did my research on a few salsa schools and narrowed it down to three:
We decided to check out Manicero and got hooked on the price. If you do the math, that’s $1.50 for a two-hour class. That same class would cost $7-12 in the US. We bought the month pass and decided to supplement it with a weekly private lesson and dancing at salsa clubs at night.
This worked out well. We got the best teacher at Manicero to come to our apartment and give us a 2-hour private lesson. He charged 60,000 pesos or about $18. It was a great set-up and James learned a lot. One of the hardest part for a novice is getting the beat and he’s figured it out in less than a month.
As for me, I was quite happy having a routine:
We did this four times a week and the grueling 30-40 minute commute to the dance class on the MIO bus took a toll on my road to becoming a less impatient human being. As a result, after three weeks, we moved out of Ciudad Jardin (located in the south) and moved closer to where all the action is.
TIP: Everyone who goes to Cali does so for the salsa. We haven’t met anyone who isn’t here for any other reason. So when you arrive, find a hostel or lodging that’s within walking distance to your chosen salsa school. The traffic in Cali is the worst and something I had to put up with every day. I never saw anything like it anywhere else in Colombia or anywhere else in the world. Allow me to expand on this point.
YEAH EVERYONE SAYS THE TRAFFIC IS BAD JUANA, BUT YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE I LIVE
Oh, yeah? The motorcyclists are obnoxious and rude. They have no sense of space and often drive on pedestrian sidewalks to cut through traffic. I can’t tell you the times that I felt like I was being followed only to turn around and see that a motorcyclist was meandering behind me, waiting for me to get out of the way so that they can slip into a ramp and join traffic. A cab driver told me that three people die a day as a result of these morons. That sounds crazy but I don’t not believe it. My advice? It’s Colombia and you’re a guest. Everyone else is used to it so just keep your eyes peeled and give them the right of way. In Colombia, vehicles have the right away. Resist the urge to yell at them for being selfish, uncivilized pieces of scrap.
OTHER THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR IN COLOMBIA
More Traffic (in Cali)- As soon as you hop on a MIO transit bus, expect to wait five minutes before it takes off. The stop lights in Cali have the longest wait time that I’ve ever experienced.
The Exito Supermarket – It’s the biggest one around but avoid it if you can. People who decide to redeem their puntos (points) can hold up the line for up to 40 minutes, or longer! This happened to us in several times and one time, I thought I was going to make a quick milk and avocado run but then I had to abandon my groceries after waiting for 20 minutes. It felt like being stuck in traffic there.
Non-committing Colombians – If you get the fortunate opportunity to make friends or acquaintances, great! Here’s a tip: If you ever ask a Colombian for a favor, they will say, “Yes, of course, definitely!” … without any initiative to actually go through with it! So, give yourself a secret deadline. If it doesn’t get done by so and so, move on!
Fast Food Restaurants – When it comes to speed, chains are the slowest in developing countries in Latin America. If you’re in a hurry, grab an already prepared empanada or savory pastry at the panaderia.
WHAT I WILL MISS ABOUT COLOMBIA IN GENERAL
Street Pizza – It’s not bad. It’s perhaps due to the ovens which can at least guarantee a crust with good texture. They also don’t skimp on the ingredients.
Pan de Bono – cheesy bread rings brought by an Italian immigrant who settled in Cali. In Italian, Pan de Bono means “Good bread.”
Diversity – Perhaps the color of your skin is as significant as the color of your hair in Cali. There’s a little bit of everything in Cali.
The People – The people here have a great sense of humor. They’re friendly and honest.
Before James and I traveled to Colombia, we had heard from everyone who has NOT been there, that it would be dangerous. If you were that person, perhaps you were concerned about my safety but going forward, it is best to back up your claims by actual sources and not the outrageous media. My mother would text me about the nightmare she had of me in Colombia and to be careful because it was an omen! That only served to spook me momentarily. Colombia did indeed have a dark past but it has changed since and as a result of it still rebounding from it, the tourist industry is still developing. But people are discovering it and once backpackers flock to it for its natural beauty, its people and culture, Colombia will change forever.
Below are photos for the fam. In between dancing and working, we also did other stuff like watch the GOP debate, ate a restaurant called “The Magical Kitchen of…” and swam in the Pance river. In total, we spent five months traveling through Colombia. Next is Ecuador for who knows how long but we’re thinking a month.
March 6, 2016
The Trampoline of Death road from Mocoa to Pasto in Colombia has improved. The Trampoline of Death is a narrow road that spirals up and down around mountains. It’s off the beaten path for most backpackers, a 5 hour ride for those crossing the Ecuador/Colombia border. I was nervous at first but I heard that the views and experience was worth it. And it was!
NOTE: Buses run all day on Sundays in Mocoa, I checked!
I recommend doing it early in the morning on a non rainy day to avoid treacherous mudslides and the dark. We actually began the ride at 3pm, and got in at 8pm, in the dark. The reason why we went later was because we finished our activities in Mocoa earlier than planned and checkout at our hotel was at 2pm, so why not make the most of the day?
If you take the Trampoline of Death ride in the afternoon, it helps to have a good (or even native) grasp of Spanish—you don’t want to arrive to Pasto and appear vulnerable at night. Most people spend 1 night in Pasto and go on their way to either the border to Ecuador, or continue traveling in Colombia.
From the terminal in Pasto, a taxi to the center of town cost 4,000 pesos. My phone got good Movistar Internet reception as we got into the city and I was able to look up a decent hostel. We checked into the Koala Inn. A spacious private room with private bath with hot water for two cost 60,000.
The 5 hour minibus ride cost 35,000 pesos per person but we bargained down to 25,000. If you do this, be prepared to take the back seat. James got a backseat, I got a middle seat and I was fine. If you insist on getting the seat you want, simply pay more.
Before going on the Trampoline of Death, a girl who just did the ride told me that she threw up and regretted eating anything before getting on. So we skipped lunch and got a snack during the rest stop. She claimed to have a hard stomach but that the ride was too bumpy. It doesn’t hurt to take the advice and I don’t know if it made a difference. I’m susceptible to motion sickness but I didn’t get it on the Trampoline of Death.
The drivers take their jobs serious. They checked the tire pressure before the first huge incline and they re-inflated the tires again during the resting stop. When I asked one of the passengers how often he does the ride, he said, “About every week”.
According to him, the road used to be in really bad shape but that it was only recent that the infrastructure has improved. And just in time, too! The ride was scenic and beautiful! It made me see and appreciate how mountainous Colombia is. Sure there were times when the ramp would suddenly disappear and my mind would imagine the mini bus teeter tatter on the edge but I trusted the driver, he was responsible. I’ve had worse experiences many times with a Greyhound driver on better paved roads in California.
It was a great ride! If you do it, wear pants and take a sweater, it’s cold an foggy at the top of the mountains. If it rains the day of your planned trip or the night before, consider postponing the ride. Although it could also rain during the ride. Signs of mudslides were apparent everywhere and that seems to be the only danger. Finally, please get on the bus no later that 12pm. Safe travels!