Feel the Beat in Cali, Colombia

For the Rhythm Issue of SUITCASE we visited Cali, Colombia's third-largest city which has become known as the world capital of salsa.

This article appears in SUITCASE Volume 18: The Rhythm Issue

There’s something untamed about Cali; it’s a place where you can lose yourself. And watch how the women move – they are the sexiest creatures

Ingrid Betancourt

That was my introduction to Santiago de Cali, but this adulation of the women of Colombia's third-largest city wasn't a throwaway macho comment; it came from the mouth of my friend, the former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was the hostage of the guerrilla movement Farc for six years.

Betancourt's words were enough to convince me to visit Cali. I first fell in love with Colombia in 1995, inspired by the books of the Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez. I have been coming back ever since to make documentaries, but somehow Cali has always eluded me. Until now my projects have been focused on Colombia's troubled past - kidnappings, guerrillas and narco-traffic - but as the government edges towards a lasting peace deal with the Farc rebels, it seemed like the moment to re-adjust my focus and turn the lens on the country's varied and vibrant culture.

With its epithet as the sultry salsa capital of the world and the recent redevelopment of its city centre, Cali is fast becoming one of Colombia's most desirable destinations. I land at Cali airport with my great collaborator and longtime friend, the photographer Andrés Gomez Salazar, who has arranged for us to be scooped up in a taxi by his friend, the artist Issa Cristina Silva.

The first thing to hit me is the heat; Cali is tropical and I immediately break into a sweat. The city doesn't charm from the moment you land - it lacks the pretty bougainvillea of its rival Medellín, and we find ourselves weaving in between lorries and yellow taxis through a gritty urban sprawl of low-rise factories and car showrooms framed by Andean mountains on either side.

Before dropping us at our hotel, Issa is keen to show us a social-inclusion project with which she is involved, working alongside residents of Terrón Colorado, a barrio that has long been blighted by gang violence. As we zigzag up the mountain, salsa blaring from the car stereo, I'm slightly disarmed by the emergence behind us of a police car. "Is it tailing us?" I ask. "Don't worry," Issa replies. She's arranged for a police escort. "It's just a precaution." (Let's be honest, this "precaution" is probably part of the appeal of Colombia - there is a whiff of menace in certain parts of Cali; it's at arms length, but it's enough to give it the city an edge that draws adventurous travellers.)

After 20 minutes we turn off the road hugging the mountainside and head down a potholed track. Kids playing football in the middle of the road swerve away from our taxi as we round a corner and colourful murals snap into view all around on walls and houses, a whole neighbourhood enlivened and emboldened by vibrant colours. "This area has always had a bad reputation with gangs and the community really want to shrug that reputation off," says Issa. "Painting the murals together as a community gives everyone here, especially the kids, a sense of pride and belonging."

The sun is beginning to set as we leave Terrón Colorado, and we make it to AcquaSanta Lofts Hotel just in time to enjoy a drink in the last light at the rooftop pool. Caressed by a cool mountain breeze that dissipates the heat, and with sleek, modern interiors and sustainable green architecture, the boutique is the perfect place to acclimatise after a long-distance flight. I love my designer, two-storey loft with its floor-to-ceiling windows, views over the city towards the Farallones mountains and a terrace set with an inviting jacuzzi.

I take a stroll around the local area, the verdant southern neighbourhood of Ciudad Jardín, which is peppered with buzzing terrace restaurants and chilled lounge bars to rival any in Miami. I pop into the boutique of the Colombian designer Johanna Ortiz to get my fix of her flouncing skirts and ruffled tops. Andrés and I savour the delicious local produce at Falso Olivo - succulent roast lamb from the Cauca Valley, aubergine puree and potatoes followed by ice cream made from badea, a floral-tasting passion fruit. Walking back to the hotel I'm accompanied by a chorus of cicadas in the trees and salsa tunes emanating from the bars around the hotel.

As dawn breaks on my second day it's time to turn my attentions to what I've really come here for - salsa. A social media-phobe, I finally succumbed to Instagram two months before my trip to Cali, and I have to admit that it has its benefits. Without my Colombia hashtags I might never have made direct contact with Cali's very own dancing queen, the world salsa champion, Viviana Vargas.

Viviana had invited me to meet her and so, 24 hours after touching down, I follow this enchanting, honey-skinned Eva Longoria lookalike out of my hotel. I note the gentle sway of her hips and am immediately drawn to her warmth; she has an enthusiasm that is infectious. It's 10PM on a Monday night, but she insists there is somewhere I should check out. I haven't a clue where she is taking me, but I'm happy to be with her for the ride.

We hop into Viviana's car and she immediately begins to talk passionately in her fast-paced, singsong Colombian Spanish about how salsa made it to Cali. When US sailors came to the Pacific port of Buenaventura at the end of the 1960s they came with salsa records from Puerto Rico, Cuba and New York. When they visited Cali, the salsa came with them. And here it was nurtured, in a city fed by the surrounding sugarcane plantations, in the verdant haciendas that were once farmed by slaves. Cali is a melting pot of indigenous, European and African cultures (nearly a quarter of Cali's population is Afro-Colombian) and this African influence has helped salsa here develop a sound and step all of its own.

Viviana explains that things really took off for Cali in the Eighties, when the city, along with Medellín, became the hedonistic playground of Colombia's drug barons. "The narcos wanted to have all-night private parties at their fincas and for the dancing to never stop." Their insatiable appetite for live music supported a new wave of flash salsatecas and homegrown orchestras.

As in the Puerto Rican communities of New York, the music really took hold in Cali's poorest neighbourhoods, and it was into one of these communities that Viviana was born. After quitting school at 15, and with no money to go on to university, she told her mother that she wanted to go to salsa school. Cali boasts just under 200 salsa schools and has more than 80 salsa orchestras, a number of which are found in the city's poorer areas. Viviana says: "Salsa is the way out if you are poor in Cali, it gets you away from the gangs." Viviana started at the prestigious Son de Luz school, which gave her first opportunity to travel abroad to Switzerland, where she met Ricardo Murillo, who went from being her teacher to her dance partner. In 2005 they won the Salsa World Championships in the US and the rest is history.

Viviana is now the main dancer in Delirio, a hit dance show in Cali that plays once a month to audiences around the world. Think Cirque de Soleil crossed with Strictly Come Dancing and you're somewhere close. Created in 2006, the idea was to bring the city's homegrown salsa talent and circus performers to the stage, and the result is a spectacle in which some 200 performers come together, with ages ranging from seven to 50. Held in a circus tent that fits 1,000 people, audience members sit at cabaret-style tables and dance between acts until the early hours of the morning to an intoxicating blend that incorporates salsa, cumbia, bomba and mambo. The finale sees the public invited to dance with the performers.

While I might be happy to lose myself in a sea of gyrating hips and a fugue of mojitos on the dance floor, I'm not ready yet for my close-up with a salsa goddess. Thankfully Viviana is kind enough to entrust me to the safe hands of 20-year-old salsa teacher Edwin, who is quick to ease my discomfort. "Loosen up your arms," he coaxes. I explain that I suffer from something akin to dyspraxia, combined with an allergic reaction to the idea of choreographed moves. He laughs and says: "I can help anyone. All the Germans, all the American ladies - they all come to me."

Erwin explains: "Here in Cali we move our legs fast, very fast. It is different from the Cubans - they move from the middle of their bodies to the top. That's why we are the best in the country, the best in the world!"

Two hours later we are back in Viviana's car, shooting through every red light in sight. I'm realising that it's not just dancing that the caleños do fast. We are heading out of the city into the dark. After a mile, lights glimmer in the distance to the right of the road. Viviana screeches to a halt in a carpark in front of what looks like an old hacienda. Once through the entrance we come into a large courtyard flanked by tables filled with animated, white-suited waiters moving slickly between the throng, all eyes darting towards the dance floor at the centre of the courtyard. This iconic nightclub, Las Brisas de Jamundí, is home to salsa-dancing diehards.

It is midnight on a Monday and two women and four men are the focus of the dance floor: an elderly man dressed in white from his cap to his quesos (dancing shoes); a voluptuous 30-year-old woman, a 40-something woman dressed in hotpants a few sizes too small and three men who take turns to spin her around the floor. It's competitive, something of a dance-off, but all done in good humour, with not a whiff of aggression. All are smiling as the woman, enthralled, moves her feet frenetically while arms circle, twist, unfurl around her and over her. It is refreshing to see these men honouring the woman - respecting and wooing her.

A moment later a member of the Grammy Award-winning group Herencia de Timbiquí makes his way over to embrace Viviana, his large frame enveloping the pint-sized dancer. Timbiquí are proof that it isn't just salsa that defines this city. The biggest exponents of music from Colombia's Pacific Coast, the band enrich African rhythms with elements of salsa and son, but also reggae and rock, jazz and funk, achieving a sound that transcends conventional boundaries. "Everyone is drawn to Cali," Viviana explains, "nowhere else in the country would you get us all coming together like this." A moment later she is swept away from me, thrust into the throng, and all I can see of my tiny dancer is her feet moving to the beat of the African drum at my side, as quick as cicadas strumming their tune above us.

There is something touching about the scene. A community coming together - ageless, classless and a melting pot of cultures. Many aren't even drinking, but all are tapping, drumming, humming along to the music, playing instruments that they have brought along. They are passed around to me: the güiro, a wooden instrument that you scrape to make a rasping sound; maracas; the campana, a huge metal cow bell; and two wooden sticks to beat out a rhythm. "Are you having a good time?" Roberto, the 80-year-old dancer clad in white whispers to me, taking the liberty of pulling up a chair at my table and ordering an aguardiente (anise-flavoured liqueur). "Isn't Cali lo máximo?" he says. Like all caleños, Roberto is proud of his city's vibrant culture and shares its rebellious attitude. "Cali es Cali y lo demás es loma, ¿oís?" he says, laughing. (Cali is Cali, and the rest of Colombia is just mountains, ya hear?)

Sitting with Roberto I realise that I can give Delirio a miss; I'm enjoying my very own private cabaret for free here. Anyone can come to Cali and appreciate the music without having to dance, but I challenge you not to be drawn into the throng. And as Roberto entices me to the dance floor I realise that nowhere else in the world have I partied and felt so alive, dancing alongside teenagers and an octogenarian at 2AM on a Monday night. Cali is Colombia at its most authentic, and salsa is the glue that binds the place together, unapologetically embodying the excitement, intensity and diversity of experience that the city has to offer. Oh, and Ingrid Betancourt was right about the women here; they are indeed a different breed.

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