If you’ve seen Narcos or read recent news reports, it’s easy to believe that Colombia is nothing but a dangerous country full of drugs. And while there are a number of areas in the country that travelers should avoid, there are plenty of beautiful places that you can safely visit.
We spent several days in Cali, the country’s second-largest city. You’ll find it in southwest Colombia on the Pacific Ocean side, which means a tropical savanna climate and plentiful access to fresh seafood.
Cali is a walkable city with a well-preserved historical center featuring beautiful old buildings and churches, including the iconic Iglesia de San Francisco and La Ermita.
Our first order of business was, as always, searching for local food. It’s easy to find bandeja paisa everywhere, but the traditional Colombian feast of beans, rice, carne asada, chorizo, fried egg, chicharrón, avocado, and plantain was too heavy for the day’s heat. Instead, we were seeking arepas.
These ground cornmeal buns are often buttered and served as a side dish, but they can also be split and filled with anything from chicken and steak to vegetables and cheese. And we made a beeline to Mr Arepa to try some of the best in the city.
Mike ordered a version with grilled chicken and roast pork known as lechon asado, while I had the sweet corn and marinated mushrooms with shredded cheese.
They were the perfect quick, light meal before our walk to Cali’s oldest barrio, San Antonio.
This traditional neighborhood has a bohemian vibe, panoramic views of the city, and plenty of vibrant street art. We found a charming cafe where we could enjoy a beer between visits to a cool screen printed poster workshop and the famous El Gato sculpture park just across the river.
Hernando Tejada’s famous bronze sculpture, El Gato del Río, or the River Cat, has been a fixture in downtown Cali since 1996. The 3.5 meter (11.5 feet) tall feline became such a popular destination for tourists and locals alike that ten years later, the city installed an entire sculpture park filled with colorful, fanciful cats decorated by other artists. It’s a fun place for a shaded walk alongside the Cali River.
Despite cooling off in the sculpture park, we had nearly two miles to walk back to our hotel, and we knew we’d be in need of refreshment after we crossed town. So we set our course for the Bogotá Beer Company, passing more mural art and several more landmarks along the way.
Founded in 2002, Bogotá Beer Company was launched in Colombia’s capital city by a guy who is originally from Cali. They’ve grown to become the second-largest brewer in the country, and their neighborhood pubs support locals like the food truck operators at their Cali location.
We loved the atmosphere of la bodega, the micro-community they’ve created in a courtyard covered by a retractable roof that opens after sunset to host occasional movie nights and live music.
While we enjoyed beer from the Bogotá Beer Company several times during our stay, the real highlight of our time in Cali was a local restaurant, Monchis by Coky.
After one of our all-day walks, we were wanting a bit of refinement for dinner, and Mike noticed a beautifully-lit patio on the corner of a charming old building. It was that time of day in the very late afternoon, very early evening when there weren’t any customers, but we poked our heads in the front door in the hopes that they’d be opening soon.
“¿Estas abierto?” I asked. Are you open?
The young man’s face lit up. “¡Sí, por favor entra!” Yes, please come in!
He introduced himself as Alejandro and asked what we’d like to drink. A gin and tonic for Mike, and the house sangria for me. He brought us a delightful crudite plate to munch on while we waited for our cocktails.
The sangria was some of the best I’ve ever had, not too sweet, and bursting with fresh fruit — strawberries, carambola, orange slices, blackberries, and more, served with a spoon so you didn’t miss one bit of the goodness.
We ordered beef carpaccio and sat back to enjoy our drinks while we chatted with Alejandro about the restaurant and the city.
As we savored the appetizer, a man with dark-rimmed glasses and a huge smile introduced himself as George, the owner. Alejandro, who turned out to be his brother-in-law, had told him we were Americans. “I love America,” George exclaimed.
He’d lived in Florida during his university days, and his father had served as a Colombian ambassador who traveled the world for business. In between trips back to the kitchen to stir his paella, George regaled us with stories of his life and his family, and we were thoroughly entertained and utterly charmed.
We had such a wonderful time that we returned for dinner two nights later to feast on Monchis’ famous New Orleans-style ribs and more of the scrumptious sangria.
After we ate every morsel of the incredibly tender, sweetly-sauced pork (and I just barely stopped Mike from licking the plate), George brought us a plate of fresh-from-the-oven pandebono, a traditional Colombian bread made with masarepa (corn flour), tapioca flour (made from ground yuca or cassava roots), cheese, and eggs. The soft, steamy, chewy buns were delicious, and Mike instantly added them to the list of foods for me to recreate once we’re home.
We spent the evening sharing stories of travel and life and making plans to return to Colombia so George could take us to his favorite island. And we did our favorite thing to do as we wander the world: we made a new friend.