Demystifying Cali Colombia...

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April 24th 2011
Published: June 6th 2013
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What did I know about Cali? Not much apart from its reputation for drug-related violence. So, when we were invited to Cali for Jeff's former coworker's wedding, we scratched our heads a little, and thought why not, and then booked a short weekend trip thinking: (a) there isn't much to see/do; and (b) it probably wasn't safe anyway. And so this is how I touched foot on my fifth continent.

In 2011, I was splitting my time between my homes in the Washington DC Metro Area and Honolulu, and so I booked a ticket for Honolulu-Washington-Cali-Honolulu. Interestingly, two sectors (Cali-Miami and Miami-LAX) were booked in Business and First Class respectively even though I paid an economy class fare.

Leaving my Washington home on a pleasant Good Friday morning, we first took a flight to Miami where we had a four hour layover. During our layover, we left the airport, took a bus to South Beach where we had a pleasant stroll along the promenade and the beach and ate an overpriced meal. While at South Beach, we tried to change dollars for Colombian pesos but no currency exchange seemed to have that currency. Heading back to the airport, we found that the currency exchange there did not have Colombian pesos either. Uh oh. Not looking good.

The 3.5 hour American Airlines flight to Cali was pleasant. Upon landing, I was surprised to see that Colombians stand up and retrieve their bags from the overhead compartment when the aircraft is still taxiing to the gate, and that the flight attendants did nothing, but I could also see that it was culturally ingrained and there was probably nothing they could do. At Cali airport, there were only two immigration counters open but they cleared the queue quickly. That is, until I got to the counter. The immigration officer was a surprised to see a Singapore passport and he tried to ask me a few questions in Spanish, but I could not answer him. He did not appear to speak English and neither did his supervisor. He finally stamped my passport and waved me through. Walking into the arrivals area, we were dismayed to see that the currency exchange there was closed. Ugh. So, we had arrived in a foreign country at night with no local currency and no Spanish language skills (unless you count the odd Mexican-accented phrase that typical
The Happy CoupleThe Happy CoupleThe Happy Couple

The wedding guest on the front left most likely has a butt implant!
ex-Angelenos like ourselves pick up). Sigh. I resigned myself to having to pay a premium to get to the hotel.

At the curb, a man who spoke some English approached us and secured a taxi with a driver who was willing to take US dollars for his fare. The Lonely Planet said that taxi fares from Cali Airport to town would be about the equivalent of $30, and that was precisely what he secured for us... surprise surprise, we weren't stiffed after all. He did ask for a tip, but he was not specific about how much. I gave him $5, which was the smallest bill I had on me.

The drive to the hotel took about 30 minutes. The driver did drive fast but traffic was nowhere as chaotic as I thought it would be. Along the way, I noticed several Chinese restaurants. Having seen Chinese restaurants all over the world, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised at this.

Arriving at the hotel, we found our friends (who had arrived a day earlier) waiting for us. Once we were checked in and deposited our bags in our room, we set off for dinner with them and a few of the groom's family members. We walked to a food court with a burger joint open. Although the groom and his friends spoke little English, we still had a pleasant evening. I rarely eat meat but the chicken burger I ordered was great. After dinner, we turned in.

The wedding was scheduled for the next evening at 8pm. Waking up that day, I tried to find where we were on the Lonely Planet map but soon realized that we weren't even on that map and hence we were not close to the historic city center, and so I put aside any thought of sightseeing that day. After eating the free breakfast at the hotel, we got together with the other American guests at the wedding (there were six of us; thankfully, one of our friends spoke Spanish) to go to the nearby mall where we ate, stared at all the fake boobs and other body parts (there were a lot!) and had a round on the go cart track. Jeff also got to play Dance Dance Revolution - this was DDR in foreign country #2 for him (Japan was first in 2010). In between, we hopped
Tres CrucesTres CrucesTres Cruces

Praying to the Gods of Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile
into taxis and went for an excellent lunch at Simon Parilla. I tried the grilled sausage appetizers and they were great. My seafood stew was amazing - everything tasted so fresh. Jeff, who is vegetarian, had only one choice - teriyaki vegetables - probably not a traditional Colombian dish!

The wedding was supposed to start at 8pm. Somehow, there was a communication breakdown. Apparently, the bride wasn't even dressed at 8pm, but we were already at the wedding venue by then. So, we hung out and listened to the random tracks that the deejay played - he must have picked a few English tracks for the visiting guests. The wedding finally got underway at around 10pm when the bride arrived. We didn't really understand what was going on during the ceremony, but we did notice that "Christo" (Spanish for "Christ") was mentioned a lot! We were famished by the time the marriage vows were exchanged and we gratefully devoured the food that was served. After that, there was dancing. I stared fascinated - Colombians are born with dancing shoes on. We were reluctant to join in because we would look clumsy next to these people! The wedding lasted until around 3am. Two of the visiting Americans were scheduled to take the 7am American Airlines flight back to the US and they wisely came to the wedding with their bags. Bidding them farewell, we hopped into taxis and headed back to the hotel.

Easter Sunday was a sightseeing day for us. The Spanish-speaking member of our party had procured a car and driver the day before, and we piled into his car at around 10.30am. He first took us to the hill where the Church of San Antonio with its city views. After that, we drove up a steep hill through ramshackle housing to Tres Cruces, which is a hill with three crosses overlooking the city. Unfortunately, directly behind the three crosses were cellphone signal towers. It felt like we were praying to the Gods of AT&T, Verizon and Sprint! There was also a makeshift gym and fitness park at the top. Next stop from Tres Cruces was the cat park, a park in town with cat sculptures. We had fun traipsing from sculpture to sculpture.

By then, it was around 2pm and we were getting hungry. Across the street from the park, we saw an Italian restaurant called Il Gatto Che Ride and we headed towards it. In front of the restaurant, a man told us that the restaurant should be closing by now but he'll go talk to the chef. A few seconds later, he come down the stairs and told us that the chef had agreed to keep his restaurant open. He then walked off without asking for a tip. That done, we trooped up the stairs and sat on the verandah. Our driver told us that this was one of the best restaurants in town (we bought him lunch of course) and he was not kidding... this was one of our best meals ever, and it only cost about $10 per person for good portions of very fresh food. This was when it dawned on me that the food here is most likely locally sourced and organic, unlike the mass produced food in the US. Maybe that was why everything tasted so different. I rarely eat meat because pork and chicken in the US smell and taste funny to me, but I would most likely be a carnivore if I lived here. The restaurant itself was a trip with lots of cat paraphernalia. We ate appreciatively and thanked the chef profusely for staying open. Driving back to the hotel after lunch, we drove through Cali's famous food street known for its cerviche. I really wanted cerviche but I was too stuffed from lunch!

In the evening, we went out to the mall again. This time, a precocious girl came to chat with us. This kid hangs out in the mall on weekends while her mother worked, and she told us about her life in Medellin where she comes from; she described how there used to be gunfire at night and how unsafe it used to be there. She said wanted to chat with us because we stuck out in the mall and she was curious about us. After this chat, we checked out the cinema to see if there were English films and there was one - Red Riding Hood. We learned that VIP seats were only $10. What we didn't know was that the VIP seats are large reclining seats and that you can order food and drinks (alcoholic ones even) from the attendants. How cool! This was a great experience and a perfect way to cap our weekend there.

The next morning, we woke up at 4am for our ride to the airport, thus ending our all too short sojourn in Colombia.

So, what is my verdict about Colombia? The people were welcoming and clearly happy to see visitors after their prolonged isolation. The places we visited did not feel unsafe, but we did drive through a few areas where travelers should exercise some caution, not that they weren't any different from what you see in other countries. I would definitely love to see more of this country, and now might be the time before the mass tourism dollars start piling in.

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