A Tour of the Big Three: Bogota, Medellin, and Dancing in Cali

Big Latin American cities deservedly have a bad reputation.  In general, they’re unsafe, dirty, polluted, and usually serve as just a quick stopover for tourists.

Welcome to Colombia, land of large cosmopolitan cities nestled in stunning mountain landscapes, a land where cities defy the Latin stereotype.  In my travels through Colombia I have visited eight cities with a population greater than 500,000 and all of them would be considered scenic and safe cities in the States.
It was not my intention to visit so many cities, as I’m more of a country boy.  But as I traveled south, away from Bucaramanga and the Caribbean Coast, clouds settled in and were set to stay for the rest of the rainy season.  I thus decided to forgo my mountain plans and explore the country’s largest urban centers:  Bogota, Medellin, and Cali.
Bogota, a capital with six million people, was supposed to be a quick stopover to see a friend.  Because the city was surprisingly beautiful, I stayed for three nights, exploring the back alleys of the colonial district, and the adjacent hills.  Never before have I seen a city of this size so accessible to dramatic mountains.  Mountains, almost 11,000 feet high literally tumble down to skyscrapers.
Medellin, the former Cocaine Trafficking capital of the world (aka Pablo Escobar‘s home), has cleaned up its act is now practically every Colombian’s favorite big city.  Truly set in the mountains, any urban sprawl is drastically limited by the surrounding topography.  After spending a few days roaming the city, I deemed that Medellin is not a tourist attraction, just a truly livable city.  It even has a modern metro, the first I have seen in Latin America since Mexico City.
Cali, the largest city of southern Colombia, is set at a lower altitude than its neighbors (1000 m), and is consequently much hotter.  The city is best known for being an international salsa capital and a reputation for having the most beautiful women in the world (at least, that‘s what the guidebooks say).  I figured that Cali would make for a nice base camp for a little while.
In Cali I found the nicest hostel in my travels, a place that lives and breathes dancing.  The name is Jovita’s, and for just 15,000 pesos (or seven and a half bucks) you get all the perks of a hostel (free internet, kitchen, movies) plus free salsa lessons.  The place just started up a month ago, and I’m trying to help spread the word about how great it is.  One of the owners actually drove me 40 minutes to a teaching interview at the local colegio;  the other makes sure that everyone has a date for an evening out at the local salsateca.  Wilbur, another hostel worker and former professional dancer himself, is perhaps the biggest character of them all.  He teaches private salsa lessons all day at the hostel, takes guests out dancing in the evening, and then works the night shift until the next morning.  I asked Wilbur when he sleeps.  His reply: “Sundays.”
In Cali, everyone dances salsa calena, a bouncy style that looks a lot more white-boyish than Latin.  But no matter if you’re at a Cuban night club or a euro discoteque, if you’re in Cali, that’s what they’ll be dancing…so come prepared.  In my first night at the hostel, I jumped in on the group lesson with Wilbur, ignorant of the workout I was about to begin.  We started with aerobic bounces and kicks to the music.  I thought this was all a joke, but I was the only one laughing.  With arms flailing in the air, we danced fast tempo to salsa music that resembled the song “Hey Mickey!” Coincidentally I hadn’t moved in this way since my days of “Mickey Mousercise” a kids aerobic show on the Disney Channel.  Yes, it was goofy, but it’s salsa calena, it’s what the locals dance, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.
After a much needed shower, some guests and I continued the evening at a huge salsateca, where it happened to be singles night.  Nice, I could finally see what these infamous Cali women were all about! HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT!  What I thought would be a potential Miss Colombia Pagent turned out to be Cougar Central.  Apparently there’s a reason that all these people are single after all!  Unwilling to fall prey, I danced with no lady for more than one song (fortunate for them).  The setting was precious though.  With a dance floor larger than a basketball court, it had a formal feel, and it was quite normal to approach a stranger to ask her to dance.  And the women had no qualms about saying no…more than once was I rejected by women, twice my age and weight.  Confidence crushed, I returned to my bed to rest up for another much needed salsa lesson the next day.
Big Latin American cities deservedly have a bad reputation.  In general, they’re unsafe, dirty, polluted, and usually serve as just a quick stopover for tourists.
Welcome to Colombia, land of large cosmopolitan cities nestled in stunning mountain landscapes, a land where cities defy the Latin stereotype.  In my travels through Colombia I have visited eight cities with a population greater than 500,000 and all of them would be considered scenic and safe cities in the States.
It was not my intention to visit so many cities, as I’m more of a country boy.  But as I traveled south, away from Bucaramanga and the Caribbean Coast, clouds settled in and were set to stay for the rest of the rainy season.  I thus decided to forgo my mountain plans and explore the country’s largest urban centers:  Bogota, Medellin, and Cali.
Bogota, a capital with six million people, was supposed to be a quick stopover to see a friend.  Because the city was surprisingly beautiful, I stayed for three nights, exploring the back alleys of the colonial district, and the adjacent hills.  Never before have I seen a city of this size so accessible to dramatic mountains.  Mountains, almost 11,000 feet high literally tumble down to skyscrapers.
Medellin, the former Cocaine Trafficking capital of the world (aka Pablo Escobar‘s home), has cleaned up its act is now practically every Colombian’s favorite big city.  Truly set in the mountains, any urban sprawl is drastically limited by the surrounding topography.  After spending a few days roaming the city, I deemed that Medellin is not a tourist attraction, just a truly livable city.  It even has a modern metro, the first I have seen in Latin America since Mexico City.
Cali, the largest city of southern Colombia, is set at a lower altitude than its neighbors (1000 m), and is consequently much hotter.  The city is best known for being an international salsa capital and a reputation for having the most beautiful women in the world (at least, that‘s what the guidebooks say).  I figured that Cali would make for a nice base camp for a little while.
In Cali I found the nicest hostel in my travels, a place that lives and breathes dancing.  The name is Jovita’s, and for just 15,000 pesos (or seven and a half bucks) you get all the perks of a hostel (free internet, kitchen, movies) plus free salsa lessons.  The place just started up a month ago, and I’m trying to help spread the word about how great it is.  One of the owners actually drove me 40 minutes to a teaching interview at the local colegio;  the other makes sure that everyone has a date for an evening out at the local salsateca.  Wilbur, another hostel worker and former professional dancer himself, is perhaps the biggest character of them all.  He teaches private salsa lessons all day at the hostel, takes guests out dancing in the evening, and then works the night shift until the next morning.  I asked Wilbur when he sleeps.  His reply: “Sundays.”
In Cali, everyone dances salsa calena, a bouncy style that looks a lot more white-boyish than Latin.  But no matter if you’re at a Cuban night club or a euro discoteque, if you’re in Cali, that’s what they’ll be dancing…so come prepared.  In my first night at the hostel, I jumped in on the group lesson with Wilbur, ignorant of the workout I was about to begin.  We started with aerobic bounces and kicks to the music.  I thought this was all a joke, but I was the only one laughing.  With arms flailing in the air, we danced fast tempo to salsa music that resembled the song “Hey Mickey!” Coincidentally I hadn’t moved in this way since my days of “Mickey Mousercise” a kids aerobic show on the Disney Channel.  Yes, it was goofy, but it’s salsa calena, it’s what the locals dance, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.
After a much needed shower, some guests and I continued the evening at a huge salsateca, where it happened to be singles night.  Nice, I could finally see what these infamous Cali women were all about! HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT!  What I thought would be a potential Miss Colombia Pagent turned out to be Cougar Central.  Apparently there’s a reason that all these people are single after all!  Unwilling to fall prey, I danced with no lady for more than one song (fortunate for them).  The setting was precious though.  With a dance floor larger than a basketball court, it had a formal feel, and it was quite normal to approach a stranger to ask her to dance.  And the women had no qualms about saying no…more than once was I rejected by women, twice my age and weight.  Confidence crushed, I returned to my bed to rest up for another much needed salsa lesson the next day.
La Candelaria District of Bogota

La Candelaria District of Bogota

Big Latin American cities deservedly have a bad reputation.  In general, they’re unsafe, dirty, polluted, and usually serve as just a quick stopover for tourists.
Welcome to Colombia, land of large cosmopolitan cities nestled in stunning mountain landscapes, a land where cities defy the Latin stereotype.  In my travels through Colombia I have visited eight cities with a population greater than 500,000 and all of them would be considered scenic and safe cities in the States.
It was not my intention to visit so many cities, as I’m more of a country boy.  But as I traveled south, away from Bucaramanga and the Caribbean Coast, clouds settled in and were set to stay for the rest of the rainy season.  I thus decided to forgo my mountain plans and explore the country’s largest urban centers:  Bogota, Medellin, and Cali.
Bogota, a capital with six million people, was supposed to be a quick stopover to see a friend.  Because the city was surprisingly beautiful, I stayed for three nights, exploring the back alleys of the colonial district, and the adjacent hills.  Never before have I seen a city of this size so accessible to dramatic mountains.  Mountains, almost 11,000 feet high literally tumble down to skyscrapers.
Modern and Upbeat Medellin

Modern and Upbeat Medellin

Medellin, the former Cocaine Trafficking capital of the world (aka Pablo Escobar‘s home), has cleaned up its act is now practically every Colombian’s favorite big city.  Truly set in the mountains, any urban sprawl is drastically limited by the surrounding topography.  After spending a few days roaming the city, I deemed that Medellin is not a tourist attraction, just a truly livable city.  It even has a modern metro, the first I have seen in Latin America since Mexico City.
Historic Town above Medellin

Historic Town above Medellin

Cali, the largest city of southern Colombia, is set at a lower altitude than its neighbors (1000 m), and is consequently much hotter.  The city is best known for being an international salsa capital and a reputation for having the most beautiful women in the world (at least, that‘s what the guidebooks say).  I figured that Cali would make for a nice base camp for a little while.
In Cali I found the nicest hostel in my travels, a place that lives and breathes dancing.  The name is Jovita’s, and for just 15,000 pesos (or seven and a half bucks) you get all the perks of a hostel (free internet, kitchen, movies) plus free salsa lessons.  The place just started up a month ago, and I’m trying to help spread the word about how great it is.  One of the owners actually drove me 40 minutes to a teaching interview at the local colegio;  the other makes sure that everyone has a date for an evening out at the local salsateca.  Wilbur, another hostel worker and former professional dancer himself, is perhaps the biggest character of them all.  He teaches private salsa lessons all day at the hostel, takes guests out dancing in the evening, and then works the night shift until the next morning.  I asked Wilbur when he sleeps.  His reply: “Sundays.”
Wilbur, Cali salsero extraordinaire

Wilbur, Cali salsero extraordinaire

In Cali, everyone dances salsa calena, a bouncy style that looks a lot more white-boyish than Latin.  But no matter if you’re at a Cuban night club or a euro discoteque, if you’re in Cali, that’s what they’ll be dancing…so come prepared.  In my first night at the hostel, I jumped in on the group lesson with Wilbur, ignorant of the workout I was about to begin.  We started with aerobic bounces and kicks to the music.  I thought this was all a joke, but I was the only one laughing.  With arms flailing in the air, we danced fast tempo to salsa music that resembled the song “Hey Mickey!” Coincidentally I hadn’t moved in this way since my days of “Mickey Mousercise” a kids aerobic show on the Disney Channel.  Yes, it was goofy, but it’s salsa calena, it’s what the locals dance, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.
After a much needed shower, some guests and I continued the evening at a huge salsateca, where it happened to be singles night.  Nice, I could finally see what these infamous Cali women were all about! HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT!  What I thought would be a potential Miss Colombia Pagent turned out to be Cougar Central.  Apparently there’s a reason that all these people are single after all!  Unwilling to fall prey, I danced with no lady for more than one song (fortunate for them).  The setting was precious though.  With a dance floor larger than a basketball court, it had a formal feel, and it was quite normal to approach a stranger to ask her to dance.  And the women had no qualms about saying no…more than once was I rejected by women, twice my age and weight.  Confidence crushed, I returned to my bed to rest up for another much needed salsa lesson the next day.
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