Whenever I told someone I was going to visit Cali, they would look at me funny and ask why. Cali, a large city near the Pacific coast but separated from it by a mountain range, is not an especially popular tourist destination. There aren’t loads of interesting things to see and do, but the city is famous for its obsession with salsa, and I went there hoping to get a flavor for the culture and do some dancing. Unfortunately, because my short trip was poorly timed, I didn’t get to go out dancing, but I did get to do a few fun things around the city.

I arrived mid-morning on a Saturday at Green House Hostel, a quiet and friendly place located in the Normandie neighborhood, right next to the river. It seemed to attract a nature-and-extreme-sports kind of crowd, and there were organized paragliding trips, but I opted to stick with exploring the city for my two days there. The first thing I did was take a walk to the other side of the river, where there are two hilltop churches, Iglesia San Antonio and Iglesia San Cayetano. The churches themselves are nice but not especially impressive, but they do have decent views of the city, which helped me get oriented. On the way, I passed through Parque de los Gatos (Park of the Cats), which is named for the collection of cat sculptures painted with a variety of clever and interesting designs, my favorite of which was the Nine Lives Cat (below left). Some of these cats are also located in other parts of the city, like Nature Cat (below right), who lives at the zoo.

I then walked along the river about two miles to the zoo, which is one of the things that everyone says you should see if you visit Cali. The walk was really quite nice — the river is small but cleaner than the one in Medellín, and the path is long and mostly unbroken by intersections, which makes it a popular trail for runners. As I should have expected on a Saturday afternoon, the zoo was packed with families. It was a nice place to spend a few hours walking around outdoors, and the exhibits were pretty well done, but it wasn’t the most impressive zoo I’ve ever seen, and I have my issues with animals in captivity. I mostly went for the purpose of reporting back to my sister, who is a zoologist, on the experience.

I wanted to go out dancing that night, but I did not realize that it was the night before major national elections, when it is customary for bars and clubs to remain closed, presumably so that everyone gets up early on Sunday to go vote instead of staying in bed nursing hangovers. So, like a good citizen, I went to bed early.

I meant to get up early too, in order to hike up Cerro de los Tres Cruces, a very tall hill on the western edge of the city where urbanites go to get as close to “hiking” as possible within city limits. However, my inability to set my alarm correctly meant that I missed my chance to avoid the midday heat, which meant that I also missed my chance to follow the crowds to the trailhead. I couldn’t find online any detailed explanation of where the trail began, but I knew it was in the neighborhood of my hostel, so I took to the streets and started walking uphill.

Unfortunately, I made a wrong turn and walked for about fifteen more minutes before I realized that it was definitely not the right way. On my way back down, I encountered a local girl about my age who was about the make the same mistake, and we joined forces to discover the true path. We found it pretty quickly and continued up the hill together. The trail isn’t very long, but it is not for the casual walker — it’s very steep, and there are sections that border on bouldering. It’s also not really a “nature” trail, since it is so heavily traveled and so close to the city, but it’s the closest thing the great outdoors you can find without actually going to the countryside. It took us about 45 minutes to reach the top, where there are three gigantic crosses alongside an outdoor gym and a hoard of local hikers and mountain bikers buying water, smoothies, and snacks from entrepreneurial vendors. It was a fun way to get some exercise, and there are great views of the city along the way.

As I was told before I went, Cali is more of a city for living than a city for visiting, unless it’s during the annual salsa festival or some other special event. I have met a few people on my travels who gushed about Cali and ended up spending months there instead of the few days they had planned on, but I think it takes some deeper exploration to discover that side of the city.