Santiago de Cali (‘Cali’ for short), is the largest city in southwest Colombia, nestled against forested mountains in an eternally warm valley between the Pacific coast and Colombia’s western Andean region.
Not exactly on the ‘Gringo Trail’, the foreign visitors who do make it to Cali are usually doing so for one of three reasons:
➤ They’re stopping over while travelling overland through South America via Ecuador
➤ They’re taking advantage of the city’s reputation as a medical tourism hub (a curious subject, but one best saved for another kind of blog), or most likely;
➤ They’ve come to Cali to DANCE
Cali is known throughout Colombia and by lovers of Latin dance the universe over as the world’s unofficial salsa capital. The passion for salsa is completely ingrained in the city’s identity, culminating in the Feria de Cali, a marathon six-day festival of dance held every December. But come to Cali at any time of year, and the sounds of salsa are inescapable. Its tropical rhythms run in every Caleño’s blood.
A Medellin native once told me, “in Medellin, they dance salsa to try and impress partners. In Cali, they dance salsa for the love of salsa.”
Lured by world-renowned dance schools, and an endless array of salsa dedicated nightclubs and bars, salsa fans flock to Cali to immerse themselves in the distinctively athletic Cali style.
But I suck at dancing! Why else should I visit Cali?
If you’re not so sure salsa’s your thing, a visit to Cali might just change your mind, given the infectious exuberance and overwhelmingly welcoming attitude of the Cali scene.
But, if you prefer your hips straddling the saddle of a motorcycle rather than grinding against a dance partner, Cali should definitely be on your travel radar.
Cali is the best city in Colombia for adventure motorcycle riding
It’s no coincidence that Colombia’s best-known motorcycle touring company have based themselves in Cali. Cali’s location is precisely what makes it the perfect springboard to adventure riding heaven.
Consider this. Cali is one of the few places in the world where you can hit the Pacific Coast within two hours and then, circling back a little, make your way through the Andes, touch the edge of the Amazon rainforest and ride right back to your starting point – all in a single week*.
This part of Colombia is literally one of the most diverse motorcycling destinations in Latin America.
But it’s not just the rough and tumble rural roads that make southwestern Colombia ideal for two-wheeled escapades. Cali is the closest major city to the Zona Cafetera, the country’s most famous coffee producing region. Three hours north of Cali, this evergreen dominion promises spectacular paved mountain roads, coffee plantation tours and the chance to stay in luxurious haciendas.
Head straight south from Cali and in two hours you’ll reach Popayan, considered one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Colombia. From Popayan, a 136km ride to the World Heritage listed San Agustin Archaeological Park takes you through a scenic stretch of winding gravel through the volcanic landscapes of Purace National Park.
If you’re drawn to remote, off-road adventure riding, departing from Cali, smooth, bitumen highways can quickly become a distant memory. In a few days you can cross the mighty Magdalena River and traverse the majestic Tatacoa Desert. You can even join Motolombia’s guided, all-terrain expedition to the legendary Caño Cristales (the ‘River of the Gods’), the only overland tour of its kind.
From volcanoes and canyons to jungles, deserts, coffee farms and colonial cities, the regions surrounding Cali have it all.
And, being a fairly compact city, it rarely takes long to get out of the traffic and straight to the good bits. Compare this to Bogota, where congestion regularly stretches for hours outside the city. Or Cartagena, whose numbingly straight highways are a far cry from those famously twisty Andean dream roads.
So, if you’re planning on motorcycle touring in Colombia and are keen to ride the best roads the country has to offer, consider beginning your adventure in Cali. Bring your dancing shoes along with your riding boots and you might even end up a hip swivelling salsa convert on the side!
Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)