At the bus terminal in Armenia, Colombia looking for tickets to Cali, we were delighted to find not only that we could once again book a ride through Expreso Palmira, but also that we could travel there in their S26 Maxxi Dupplo double decker bus with front row seats on the top floor. The tickets cost us 28.000 COP, just over $9 US dollars, for the ride of approximately three and a half hours. We got our tickets, picked up an extra bottle of water and headed out to where the attendants were loading bags onto the bus. When it was time to board we took our upper deck front row seats and settled in.
The front seats on the top level afforded us a beautiful panoramic view of the road up ahead, making us feel as if we were driving the bus, but without steering wheels to control the monstrous vehicle. We got ourselves quite comfortable in our second floor seats as the bus headed out of the terminal towards Cali. Our view gave us the opportunity to get many photos of the Colombian landscape as we traveled. We highly recommend choosing the front row top level seats if they are available; they give you a great experience.
When we arrived in Cali we were immediately impressed by the enormous size of the city, it almost seemed like another Bogotá. It was jam-packed with bustling people, personal vehicles of all shapes and sizes, walls covered with street art, large truck-like public transportation vehicles and city buses zooming in every direction. There were many enormous and colorful buildings scattered throughout the city. We arrived at the bus terminal eager to finally settle into our new location, so we quickly headed out to where the taxis were lined up. Our destination was right in the very touristic and historic center of Cali, the San Antonio neighborhood.
While we were in our taxi heading towards the Airbnb we had booked, it began to rain. It kept raining harder and harder and by the time we had reached our destination it had become a complete downpour, making it almost impossible to find the apartment. The San Antonio neighborhood is very hilly; almost all of the streets have steep slopes, making the drivers of all of the manual transmission cars have to operate their vehicles skillfully. Our taxi went up and down the slanted roads until finally locating our lodging. Luckily we were already in contact with our Airbnb host, Damian, who was waiting at the door for us to arrive. We paid the taxi driver the fare of 10,000 Colombian pesos and he helped us to unload our luggage. Even though we had help with our bags and Damian had the front door open for us, we still got completely drenched traveling the 20 feet from the taxi to the apartment.
We stepped inside the apartment and, as we dried off and got out of our wet jackets and shoes, introduced ourselves to Damian, our host. Damian is from Poland and he was in Cali to look after his sister Dominika’s apartment, and Airbnb guests, while she was off traveling in Argentina. Damian speaks Polish, of course, as well as English. He also had recently begun to study Spanish. Therefore, the majority of our conversations with him were in English. Damian was soft-spoken and very friendly. He assured us that the downpour that we just experienced was very rare as he had already spent a couple months in Cali and it hardly had rained at all. He then showed us to our room, which was just on the other side of a small outdoor courtyard, and we began to settle in and unpack some of our bags.
Having only two nights to spend in Cali did not afford us much time to properly explore the sprawling metropolis. The city is enormous and we could have spent months there and have only scratched the surface. After the rain had stopped, which was not too long after our arrival, we set out to look for some food.
The neighborhood in which we were staying was quite beautiful and very hilly. The houses and restaurants were all very colorful with beautiful architecture and this particular area was rather clean. We walked up and down the streets admiring the splendor of different colored buildings with interesting designs and landscapes and taking several photos as we wandered. There was also a great variety of art and murals covering the walls in our particular neighborhood. Later on we learned that the graffiti and street art scene in Cali was massive and had achieved quite a positive reputation; unfortunately we could only see so much in a day and a half of trekking through the city.
Some small glimpses of our neighborhood:
We finally stumbled upon a trendy looking vegetarian restaurant, El Buen Alimiento, featuring Middle Eastern and Indian themes. When we found out that they served falafel we were immediately sold on dining there and we did not regret doing so. The food along with the selection of sauces that they brought to the table was most delicious. To top it all off, after our meal we bought some maracuyá caramels made with stevia. Exhausted from our travels and from the Cali heat, we meandered back to our apartment to settle in for the night. We wanted to make the most of the following day, as it would be our only full day in Cali.
The next day we started our adventure by heading towards the nearby Parque San Antonio where there sits a small 18th century church. The park itself is pretty large and in the evenings it fills up with vendors of food and handcrafted jewelry, and many people visit the park to hang out and relax. In the morning however the park was quite empty. Few people roamed around but you could see a lot of evidence of the previous night’s festivities.
After visiting the park and taking some photos, we headed by foot towards the center of town. We spent some time in a very large park called Parque de la Retreta that sits on both sides of the Cali River in the heart of the city. Many monuments, sculptures, benches, walkways, bridges and a few buildings dot the park. It is an excellent place to relax, enjoy the river, and take in some of the beautiful views of Cali. There is a lot of street art covering the walls of some of the nearby buildings and the sides of roadways. From the park we enjoyed nice views of the Iglesia de la Ermita Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, a very extravagant gothic church that is hard to miss, as well as other buildings with striking architectural features.
After spending a while walking around the park taking photos of the various sculptures, monuments and street art, we took one of the bridges across to the Iglesia de la Ermita Nuestra Señora de los Dolores for a more close-up look. Its gothic style architecture was absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, the church was closed while we were there and we did not have the time to wait around for it to open.
There was however, next to the church, a really nice park dedicated to Colombian poets, with a recent name-change to emphasize the Colombian women poets; on November 25, 2017 it was renamed “Parque de la Poesía” (Poetry Park) instead of “Parque del Poeta” (Poet Park with ‘poet’ in its masculine form). The park features many sculptures of famous poets, sample verses of poems, dedications to various Colombian poets and wide array of beautiful trees and flowers. It is a very relaxing place to sit and read poetry, or even to write some poetry of your own.
Also located on the same block as the Iglesia de la Ermita Nuestra Señora de los Dolores is the Coltobaco building, a massive and ornate structure that was built by La Compañía Colombiano de Tabaco S.A. (Coltabaco). They used it as a headquarters for their tobacco industry until the early 1990’s. Coltabaco is a subsidiary of Phillip Morris. Next to the Coltabaco building is the Jorge Isaacs Theatre, an enormous bright orange colored building that was constructed in 1931. This beautiful building was declared a national monument in 1984. These buildings, along with the ornate gothic church and Poetry Park, make this area of Cali a truly beautiful feast for the eyes.
We continued to wander around the center of town for a short while, taking photos of various buildings and other interesting sights. We ended up in Plaza Cayzedo, one of Cali’s central plazas. It is a very green area with lots of grass and dozens of palm trees lining the walking paths. The plaza seemed to be a favorite of many since there were people everywhere; napping on park benches, picnicking with family, spending time with friends and some just lazing around people watching. Facing the south side of the plaza was the Catedral Metropolitano de San Pedro Apostól, a large white church that was much more plain on the exterior than many of the churches we had seen so far in Colombia.
The doors of the church were open so we decided to explore inside and take some photos. Unfortunately for us, we had stumbled into the congregation’s Mass and we were unable to take many pictures. We did note that the interior was just as white and unremarkable as the exterior, making for a very humble place of worship. Upon leaving the church there was a decrepit old woman with her hand out, begging for money. Joe reached into his pocket and gave the old woman a 200 COP coin. The old lady looked at the coin, scoffed at us, and held out her hand as if to demand more money from us. Apparently she wasn’t satisfied with our small donation and began to curse at us as we walked away, casting a sharp piercing stare into the throat of the gift horse.
Some murals and street art, many of which have political themes, in the center of Cali:
We soon became quite hungry and decided to head back to the apartment to see if Damian wanted to join us for dinner somewhere. He eagerly accepted the invitation and recommended to us a Venezuelan arepa joint nearby, a place in which he claimed that you would need to know Spanish to be able to order as they spoke almost no English. Having become big fans of Venezuelan arepas from the delicious ones we had consumed in Bogotá, we quickly accepted the offer, began drooling and hurried to get ourselves ready for dinner.
The arepa place that Damian brought us to was called Zea Maíz and was just around the corner from the apartment. Once we entered the front door, we headed down a long flight of stairs to the restaurant, which had very colorful murals adorning its walls. The staff was very friendly and, contrary to what Damian had told us, it was quite easy to order even for those with limited Spanish. They had a rather large selection of arepas, making our decisions a bit difficult. So, we both ended up choosing some of their many vegetarian selections while Damian chose one with some type of steak. Our drinks and arepas showed up along with a few different sauces for us to decorate our food. Everything was incredibly delicious and we were very satisfied with our choice of Zea Maíz among the multitude of restaurants in our neighborhood. It was also very nice to be able to share a dining experience with our wonderful host Damian. We finished up our meals, went up to the “caja” to pay and headed back towards the apartment.
We had to be up early the next day to find a bus to the next stop on our trip, so when we got back to the apartment we immediately began packing. The next morning we finished loading up our bags, took a few last minute photos of the beautifully decorated apartment and said our farewells to Damian. We then ordered up an Uber to bring us to the enormous Cali bus terminal where we would search for tickets to our next destination, Popayán, Colombia.