Colombia's lively independence celebrations, held throughout the country and the Colombian diaspora abroad on the weekend of July 20, were especially enjoyable this year for the country and its people, not least because this fascinating and misunderstood country is freeing itself from decades-old stereotypes and realizing its potential as a world-class tourist destination. Encompassing both Caribbean and Pacific coasts, impressive mountain ranges, and a reputation even among neighboring countries for producing the most beautiful women on the continent, Colombia is stepping out of Brazil's domineering shadow as both a vacation destination and African cultural nexus below the equator. The AFRican celebrates Colombian independence this year with an insider view of Latin America's emerging colossus.
Regular readers of newspaper travel sections and business publications may have started noticing a trend a year ago. Infamously stereotyped as the backyard of Pablo Escobar and his cohorts in the world's most prolific cocaine cartels, Colombia has emerged both as South America's current investment superstar and a scorching-hot tourism destination rivaling celebrity Caribbean ports of call like St. Bart's and Turks and Caicos.
The New York Times has published two cheerleading travelogues on Cartagena, a port city on the country's Caribbean coast with breathtaking colonial architecture and an inviting Afro-Caribbean culture; while the fast-paced financial and political development of Bogota and Medellin, the country's ultra-modern urban centers, have been the subject of a BusinessWeek cover article. What more is there to say about this nation on the rise, you ask? Take a stroll off the proverbial beaten path of the big cities in northern Colombia and explore the underrated blossoming southwest Pacific coastal area, centered on Cali, Colombia's third-largest city.
Step out of Cali's Aragon International Airport on any day of the week and you will walk right into a city fueled by the sonorous cisterns of salsa. While Colombia's homegrown African-influenced musical genres like cumbia, vallenato and currulao are popular with the dancing public, the blaring horns and thunderous conga drums of Cuba form the city's true soundtrack.
As the capital of the Valle del Cauca region, Cali attracts residents from the Pacific coast and region, home to the majority of the nation's Afro-Colombian population. Colombia is second only to Brazil in the percentage of its population with African ancestry -- a little-known statistic that is immediately obvious to visitors in this southwestern corner of the country. A relatively new city, Cali does not have much in the way of the colonial-era attractions or skyscrapers that distinguish Cartagena and Bogota, but it more than makes up for this with views of the dramatic mountains that surround the city. The Andes break into three mountain ranges running through this part of the country -- the Cordillera Occidental, Cordillera Central, and Cordillera Occidental -- and they offer the option of a peaceful weekend retreat for those moments when Cali residents want a break from city life.
Before exploring the ranges though, visitors should get a taste of Cali's celebrated partying spirit on Avenida Sexta, the city's main artery and nightlife center. Salsa clubs known as salsatecas predominate, and be forewarned -- Cali is a city of waist-winding salsa experts. The great thing about taking a twirl on a salsateca dance floor in Cali is that none of your fellow club-goers are the least bit concerned about what you're doing. Couples are too engaged in their own virtuoso footwork or close-knit clinches to laugh at novices. Just walk up and down the strip until you find a place with the music and mood that suits you, and join in the fun. There is often no cover charge, though drinks can become quite pricey.
You can follow up your dance floor workout with a delicious dinner at Crepes & Waffles, a deceptively American-sounding restaurant that actually specializes in upscale wraps filled with a variety of Latin American flavors. Give their distinctly Colombian helados (ice cream) a try -- toppings include unique local fruits like lulo and delicious varieties of mangoes and strawberries.
While the city itself hosts some charming attractions -- including a spectacular zoo -- the real attraction are the lush hills of the outer Valle del Cauca. The region is dotted by palenques, independent communities founded by rebellious African groups during the era of slavery. Some, like Puerto Tejada, have grown into bustling modern towns, while still remaining living archives of the region's unique Afro-Colombian culture. Examples of Afro-Colombian practices include dances like currulao and paseo, and displays of esgrima, a traditional martial art involving fencing with sticks and machetes. Drop by any small restaurant in town and indulge yourself with some fried fish, usually garnished with a few lime wedges. If trying the dish, squeeze some juice onto the fish first -- the combination is delectable and seafood lovers won't regret it.
The trip from Cali to Popayan takes about three hours by bus, and is an excellent way to get spectaculars views of the Andes as you wind your way up the mountainside. Staring alternately into endless fields of sugarcane crops or deep-green slopes bearing wild fruit, it's easy to see why both citizens and visitors develop a passion for this beautiful country. Make no mistake -- Colombia itself is as addictive as its two best-known exports. But the temporary thrills of cocaine and strong coffee pale in comparison to the energizing rush of culture and camaraderie that visitors will find.
ROOM & BOARD IN CALI
For up-to-date information on hotels and other living options, visit www.world66.com/southamerica/colombia/cali/accommodation. There are also houses for rent in Cali, with rates that are competitive with upscale hotels. Local real estate agents will be your best bet if you are interested in arranging a sublet.
As a corollary to the Amazon River Basin, Colombia shares the region's jaw-dropping diversity of flora and fauna. The most unique ingredients in the country's Latin-style cuisine are its fruits -- most of which you will likely never have heard of -- like chontaduro, a peach palm fruit that is a regional specialty and generally served with a honey topping; borojo, another popular fruit that is delicious when juiced and mixed with chontaduro; manjar blanca, a tasty condiment similar to peanut butter in consistency but made from local brown cane sugar, milk, and boiled rice; and lulo, considered one of the country's most popular fruits and found as a common dessert topping. Many others abound, so ask locals to point out their favorites.
If you're looking for something familiar with a delicious Afro-Colombian twist, visit San Antonio Pizza in the San Antonio neighborhood of Cali and order the maduro, a pie topped with cubes of baked ripe plantain. You'll find the narrow parlour right across the street from one of the city's colonial-era churches, the Iglesia de San Antonio.