The conversation always goes the same…
“So, Brittany, where are you living now?”
“I’m living in Cali, Colombia”
“Isn’t it a little dangerous…?”
Then I find myself trying to defend Cali. “You know, it’s really not that dangerous…” “As long as you’re careful you’ll be fine…”
But is Cali dangerous? In short, yes. Should you eliminate Cali from your travel plans? Absolutely not.
Why not? Because Cali is Cali.
I’d be lying to you if I told you that I love everything about Cali. It has its downfalls, like the traffic after it rains or the crime rate, but it offers a type of magic that’s difficult to find in other cities. Here I’ve compiled a list of things I hate and love about Cali, completely based off my own experience. My hope is that this list will help you decide if Cali is worth a visit or not.
Let’s start with the bad:
Things I hate #1: The safety.
Obvious, right? I must say that Cali ISN’T as dangerous as people make it out to be, at least not in my experience. But you need to be careful. Always make sure you’re aware of your surroundings. Picture this:
It’s 8 P.M. You’re walking home from salsa class at Salsa Pura, happy with yourself for going alone even though you were nervous. You forgot to put your headphones in but you keep walking home anyways. You’re opening the first door to your house and a man on a bike asks you for the water bottle you have. Sure, no problem.
He asks you to put more water in it, but corners you in between the two doors of your house at the same time. You don’t realize what’s happening so you respond with a lot of attitude. He starts telling you that he knows you’re not from here and to give him what you “can” (as if he’s accepting a donation and not robbing you). He tells you he has a knife in his hand and you look down; he does. You give him the 20,000 pesos you have and he asks for your cell phone. In a moment of bravery, you tell him you don’t have it. He believes you and leaves.
But that’s not the worst part. The worst part isn’t that he knows where you live. The worst part isn’t that you don’t know this man or what he’s capable of. The worst part is that you called the police and they never came.
While Cali’s police force does seem to be improving, it still has a long way to go.
Things I hate #2: The medical system.
You’ve lived here for months feeling fine and then it happens; you get sick and decide to call in sick to work.
You wake up at 1 AM with an abdominal pain so bad you decide to go to the emergency room for the first time in your life. You call the Uber as quickly as possible and leave your house with some cash, the clothes you have on, and your cell phone at 50% battery. They see you right away. Wow! You had expected to wait at least two hours.
They do some tests and you wait for the results. 5 A.M. passes, 6 A.M. passes, you start to get impatient. I’ll be out of here by 8 A.M. At 8 A.M. they give you the results from the first test and make you take another one. Six hours pass where you only see a nurse or two, nobody tells you what’s going on. Your cell phone, the only thing keeping you sane, is at 4%. At 4 P.M. the doctor tells you that the last exam came back normal, but they want to take two more exams to make sure. She leaves.
You wait 2 hours to take those two exams. Your cell phone died so you’re left to entertain yourself by watching Madagascar on the TV. At least until the other man in the room changes it to a documentary about lions. You start to cry. You start to cry because you’ve been here for 15 hours and you want to go home. You want to talk to your mom. You want someone to visit you. You’ve already slept more than you even thought possible and you feel desperate to leave.
At 9 P.M. they tell you you can go, after diagnosing you with a kidney infection. You promise yourself you’re going to avoid going back there at all costs.
Things I hate #3: The Machismo.
People can say whatever they want, Colombian men are machista. Obviously it’s a generalization, but there’s a reason the stereotype exists. Luckily it’s something that’s changing with the younger generations. However, the experience with the general population has been aggravating to say the least. Feminists beware. Mansplaining galore.
I have a million examples to prove my point, but I don’t want to spend too long dwelling on this. It’s engrained in so many parts of the culture. Like the way men use the word hembra (which refers to females in the sense of reproducing) to refer to women. Or the way men cheat on their girlfriends without a second thought and then openly say that women who cheat are garbage and not worthy of respect.
You get the point.
Okay, enough about the bad. Let’s focus on why I’ve stayed in Cali:
Things I love #1: The people.
You decided to sleep in so you’re forced to take an Uber instead of the bus to work. You prepare for a rush hour commute with some awkward small talk.
You enter the car and the driver begins to talk to you immediately. You look at it as a good opportunity to practice your Spanish. You find out he used to be a professional soccer player and has lived in all Colombia’s major cities. You find out the names of his three kids and where he went to school. He excitedly points to different places and tells you what they are.
By the time you leave the Uber this guy already knows about your plans for the future, your family, and three of your ex-boyfriends. And you feel like you know more about this man than some of your lifelong friends back home. You leave the car and never see him again. To a foreigner, this seems like a deep, bonding conversation, but to a Caleño it’s small talk.
In general, the people in Cali are happy, friendly, warm, and welcoming. The type of people who will take you by the hand and bring your destination when you ask for directions.
Things I love #2: The rumba.
It’s Saturday night and Sunday is your only day off. You have a list of things to do tomorrow but you’ll worry about that when it comes. For now the only thing on your mind is getting that first shot of aguardiente into your body. You meet your friends at La Tiendita. You drink a pecera and head to La Pérgola.
You’re feeling pretty drunk and your friends agree to buy a bottle of rum. Every time you need to use the bathroom you use all your concentration to avoid falling in the pool. You amaze yourself by dancing salsa, or at least you think that’s what it was, and reggaeton. Your friends suggest leaving. Or is the place closing?
You’re walking to go get food and you notice that it’s not so dark anymore. What time is it? You eat your sandwich, buy some more beers, and head back to your apartment. Sometime around 8 A.M. you and your friends fall asleep. You wake up at 5 P.M. wondering how quickly you can do the huge list of things that you need to get done.
Things I love #3: The surroundings.
You feel the intense urge to leave the city, but you don’t know where to go. Luckily, there are plenty of options around Cali. If you want to go to the ocean you can take the three-hour bus ride to the Pacific Coast. Or, get off before Buenaventura and check out San Cipriano!
If you want a break from the heat, head 20 minutes outside of the city to Dapa or Kilometro 18.
There are tons of small towns where people go to grab a bite to eat, drink some aguapanela, or even go camping on the weekends. It offers a refreshing break from the city and allows you to get to know the authentic Colombia even more.
Things I love #4: That Cali is Cali
You came to Cali not really sure if you would like it. People said it was so dangerous after all. It’s your first Saturday night here and you go to get some food at an outdoor restaurant with a friend you made in Bogotá and some of her friends. One of her friends offers to give you a ride home…on his motorcycle.
Before you know it you’re on the back of a cute guy’s bike in Cali, Colombia on a Saturday night. You look around the city and you think…This place is special. I love Cali.
You decide to go read in San Antonio park on Sunday afternoon. The breeze is cool and there are lovers and groups of friends everywhere. You find yourself spying on the couples more than reading. How can they be so in love? Dogs keep walking by and letting you pet them. Then you find yourself distracted by the sunset. Has Cali’s sunset always been that vibrant? You find yourself perfectly content in this beautiful setting with happy people. And you think it again…I love Cali.
You’re having a stressful day. You’re sitting in a Juan Valdez teaching an English class via Skype. You finish the class and start to plan your classes for the evening. A man starts to speak with you in English. You politely answer his initial questions but he doesn’t stop there. He begins to tell you that he lived in a rural town in Indiana for some time. So why did you choose Colombia? He asks. Ahhh, the question that always comes up but you never know how to answer.
You tell him, well, I used to live in Bogotá but I didn’t want to stay there. I decided to try Cali, and I’ve stayed because… and you start trying to list the reasons why. But you realize that you don’t know, that none of the things you list express how you really feel.
The only thing you can say is…because Cali is Cali.