Feel the Beat in Cali, Colombia

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

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

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

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
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

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
. 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

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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