In 2016, the Colombian government and the Farc rebels signed a historic peace deal, ending half a century of civil war and opening the floodgates for tourism.
Last year, more than four million foreigners visited the country, up from only 1.3 million a decade ago. And while the cities of Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin top most travellers’ lists, only one in 20 visits Santiago de Cali, or Cali for short, a hot, vibrant, buzzing city of 2.7 million in the valley of the Cauca River in the country’s south.
Cali, you see, suffers a bad image perpetuated by over-the-top Hollywood productions like Netflix’s smash-hit series Narcos. In the 1980s and 1990s, Cali was one of the most dangerous cities in the world – a hotbed of drugs, guns, bombs and violence, where power lay not with corrupt government officials but in the hands of the Rodriguez brothers, founders of the Cali Cartel, one of the most powerful crime syndicates in history.
But the Rodríguez brothers are locked away in American prisons and Cali is gentrifying. Crime is still a problem, but has fallen steadily due to data-driven solutions – like banning the carrying of firearms on paydays and tightening late-night liquor laws – that treat violence as a public health problem. Between 1993 and 2018, the city’s homicide rate tumbled 82%, according to Apolitical, an online resource for public servants.
As the only city in Colombia with access to the Pacific Coast (via Buenaventura, a port town 115km to the north-west), Cali has a unique history and flavour. Starting in the 16th Century, Spanish slavers shipped tens of thousands of Africans through Buenaventura to work in the vast sugarcane plantations surrounding Cali – transforming it into the Afro-Latin capital of Colombia and changing the culture of the city.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, sailors landing in Buenaventura brought vinyl records featuring an infectious new style of music from New York City that blended Cuban Mambo and Puerto Rican rhythm and style: la salsa. Today, Cali is the self-declared salsa capital of the world, with a distinctive sped-up style called salsa caleña that rings out from bars, corner stores and dance schools across the city.