Salsa in Cali, Colombia

Salsa in Cali, Colombia

The city of Cali, Colombia, is experiencing a renaissance, thanks to its title as the country’s capital of salsa dancing. Cali, home to just over 2 million people, brims with salsatecas, or salsa clubs, to suit any style or age, as well as salsa-savvy residents who graciously share the fun.

The genre first arrived in Colombia around 1930, when sailors brought salsa from the Caribbean back to Cali, and Caleños made it their own. “Cali salsa has a unique flavor. The dancers make it work by really moving, picking up their feet, and putting their mark on the music,” says Luz Aydé Moncayo, an award-winning salsa dancer who runs the studio Son de Luz, in the working-class Alameda neighborhood. Dance lessons with Moncayo start at about $10 an hour.

Once you’ve mastered the basic 1-2-3 step, take a taxi across the Cauca River to the gritty Juanchito neighborhood, known for its cavernous clubs reminiscent of those in 1940s mobster films. Bow-tied bouncers guard the doors at Changó, where red leather banquettes surround a dimly lit dance floor. Share a bottle of aguardiente (anise-flavored cane spirits) as you watch couples spin, and then get on your feet.

Or head over to Tin Tin Deo, a more bohemian salsateca closer to the city center. Here, all sorts of dancers, from pairs in sequins and silk to students swaying with their own style, take to the floor.

On Sunday afternoons, don’t miss the viejotecas or “old folks’ dance clubs,” a Cali institution. The liveliest is Poliactivo, located behind the bus station. It’s open to all ages and features salsa classics from the 1960s and 1970s. Ask someone here to dance, and you might also get a lesson in the city’s salsa history.

Photo by Cristian Delvalle. This appeared in the May/June 2010 issue.