Why You Should Be Considering Cali, Colombia

Friendly, Pleasant, Welcoming, Safe, And Cheap—This City Is Not What You Think It Is

We started the afternoon with a chef’s selection of three pâtés accompanied by a bottle of Chardonnay. Beyond the front courtyard of the small café where we sat, people strolled and chatted in the small oval park. Behind us, in the kitchen, the French owner-chef prepared the selection of homemade soups and crêpes that would be our lunch.

French music played in the background, as a gentle, warm breeze reminded us we were not in Europe or the frozen north.

That was our introduction to Cali, a city that is hardly the bastion of violence and drug lords I’d been prepared for.

The real Cali? This is a city with not unpleasant warm weather (as I’d been warned), great cafes, restaurants, and nightlife, and some of the friendliest people I’ve met in Colombia. It’s also a city whose real estate market is one of the best bargains in the world right now.

I’ve been spending time in Colombia for three years, and I’ve only just now made it to Cali… despite the fact that the city has been strongly recommended to me by everyone I’ve met who knows it. Part of the problem is that my base in Colombia is Medellín. I, like the other expats I know living in Medellín, believe we’ve already found the continent’s best city and have trouble prying ourselves away to explore the rest of Colombia.

But after just a day in Cali, I can see why people like it here. In fact, I can see why some prefer it to Medellín.

Cali offers diverse lifestyle options, from very high-end gated communities in a country setting to lively downtown city living options, from colonial houses to new high-rises.

Also, Cali can be very walkable, depending where you base yourself. I’ve found a half-dozen neighborhoods where you could reside conveniently without a car. I’ll have a closer look at the best of them over the next few days.

What’s more, as I mentioned, the weather turned out to be pretty nice, despite the stories I’d heard about Cali’s weather resembling a humid Death Valley. It is warmer than Medellín, but a pleasant afternoon/evening breeze cools things off nicely. Many people don’t use air conditioning. In other words, it’s not that hot and can be quite comfortable, depending on the orientation and location of your house or apartment.

Cali has done an excellent job of conserving its trees, and the streets are pleasantly shady in many sectors. This helps not only with the temperatures inside homes, but it also makes for a more comfortable city to walk and explore, especially in its western neighborhoods. Situated at the confluence of three rivers among gentle hills, Cali offers plenty of parks and riverfront walking areas.

The cost of living here is low. Not only are properties and rents cheaper than in Medellín, but so is a bottle of wine in the grocery store… and dinner out… and property taxes…

Most interesting to me is Cali’s real estate market, which is a bargain even by Colombian standards. I’ve got a full agenda of viewings schedule, and I’ll have more details to share with you over the next few days.

Cali is an old city in the Americas, founded in 1536 by Sebastián de Belalcázar…the same guy who founded Quito, Ecuador, a few years earlier. Today’s city, which retains an attractive historic center, is divided into 339 separate neighborhoods (barrios) within 22 comunas (administrative sectors). It’s the capital of the department (province) of Valle de Cauca.

The daily high temperatures here average 88°, with only ±1° of seasonal variation. Low temps average 65.5°, with only about a half-degree of seasonal variation (that’s 31°C and 18.5°C, respectively). April and October are the rainiest months, while December, January, and August are the driest. Cali’s elevation is around 1,000 meters, which is 3,250 feet above sea level.

Each day around 4 p.m. or so, a pleasant breeze blows through the city, and cools things off nicely. I’ve heard locals call it the chiflón, which means “draft” in Spanish.

Caleños are warm, friendly, and unpretentious. People are also friendly in Medellín, but in a more formally polite and reserved way. People in Cali are more down-to-earth and more willing to strike up a conversation and engage a stranger in more than a superficial way. In fact, I’ve found this to be true throughout southern Colombia, in places like Popayán, Pasto, and Ipiales.

Cali claims to have the world’s most beautiful women, and, indeed, the woman here are beautiful, probably thanks to their unique ethnic mix (which is European, African, and Native American). But I’ve heard this claim made by many other cities, too. In fact, Medellín claims to have the world’s most beautiful women because the Europeans in that part of the country supposedly did not mix with other peoples.

Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.

Cali offers good flight connections around Colombia and nonstop service to Miami. The public transit system—new in 2010—is efficient and well-organized, and taxis are plentiful and cheap. I have yet to spend more than US$2.25 for a cab ride with all of the inter-neighborhood hopping I’ve done. I rented a cab for a half-day for US$11.50 per hour; a fare that included a driver who was a certified guide, happy to share historic facts and anecdotes.

To get an idea of the cityscape, take a look at the video I shot from a couple of high points in Cali.

Over the next few days, I’ll be scouting some of Cali’s best areas for living and investing in real estate and will be touring upscale apartments on the market for less than US$100k. More details to follow soon.

Meantime, back at the French café La Tartine on the plaza in Cali’s El Peñón neighborhood, I’ve ordered dessert. I wish you could hear the mixers whirring as the owner makes the merengue that will soon top my lemon tart.

Cali is not what you think it is.

Lee Harrison

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