Right from the start, Colombia’s been a party. After we got stamped out of Ecuador, we walked across the no-man’s-land bridge between Ecuador and Colombia. As we approached Colombian immigration, we heard booming salsa music and watched as the cab drivers on the Colombian side seemed to be having a party, dancing, talking and laughing. I don’t think we’ve gone a moment in Colombia without music — it seems to seep from the pores here.
Five Colombians in a room invariably turns into a party. — Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Music, in fact, was the whole point of our first stop in Colombia: Cali. The self-styled salsa capital of a dance-crazy country, we were here for the very height of the fever. We were in town for Feria, the week long fair between Christmas and New Years marked with parades, parties, concerts, and general mayhem.
A promising start
Our very first day in Cali is a strong contender for best-first-day-in-a-country superlative (yes, there will be superlatives in a later post!). After eating a huge breakfast at the brand new Cali Marriott (so new, in fact, we watched them building the terrace outside the dining room over our eggs and coffee), we headed out for a look around town.
After meandering through Cali’s handsome, tropical main square and buying some guarapo — freshly squeezed sugarcane juice with lime — to beat the heat, we stumbled upon another party in a church square. We had found the Feria’s El Dia del Pacifico, a celebration of Colombia’s Afro-Carribean population along its Pacific coast. Kids in traditional costumes danced to music with a beat that lived somewhere between Africa and Spain, and vendors were selling all manor of coastal goodies. Still full from breakfast, we sat down to share a bowl of sancocho, a soup with seafood broth, plaintains, and yucca. The Colombians sitting across from us clearly thought we looked thin and starving (why, thank you!) and kept feeding us bites of coconut rice, tostones (fried mashed plaintains) and fresh fish from their own plates. Like everyone else we have met in this friendly country, they seemed delighted that we were there, and wished us a hearty “Bienvenidos a Colombia!”
Stuffed from our unexpectedly huge lunch, we rested for a while before meeting up with our Swiss friends David and Claudia, a fun couple we’d met in Arequipa, Peru. We started the evening with some beers and dinner at las tascas, little food and drink vendors that take over a public park for Feria. Then, the highlight of the evening: the Superconcierto! Don Omar and Marc Anthony were playing to a packed stadium for the Feria’s headliner music event, and we had tickets. We showed up to find the party already in full swing, people standing on their seats, shaking their hips, and belting out the love ballads. Vendors don’t sell beer and hot dogs at the Superconcierto — only entire bottles of rum and lechona — stuffed roasted whole pig! What a great country!
Parades and La Ruuumba
We got a bit of a slow start the next morning, but we needed to be up in time for the Cali Viejo Carnaval-style parade. People in the parade deck themselves out in fantastic costumes and elaborate face paint and strut their stuff while the onlookers have a massive shaving cream war on the sidelines.
You can’t go to Cali and not try your hand, just a little, at la rumba (the dancing). Feeling quite swish, Jordan and I went to a nightclub one night at the top of the Torre de Cali, the city’s tallest building, once again bought a half bottle of rum (it’s all they had!), and watched the most impressive display of dancing I’ve ever seen. We watched professional dancers move their feet so fast they were a blur, float across the dance floor, and generally do things with their bodies that left these gringos with their jaw on the floor. In between the pros, the spectators took the floor, and these people were amazing, too! As one cab driver told us when we expressed our amazement at how EVERYONE in Cali is an incredible dancer, “It’s in our blood!” Well, whether it’s in our blood or not (it’s not), I dragged Jordan out for a dance or two before we retreated back to our table.
Meanwhile at the Plaza de Toros…
On Sunday afternoon I met up once again with David and Claudia and hopped into a cab down to the Plaza de Toros. The atmosphere of the bullfight was just like in the movies. Men wearing Panama hats and ponchos, guzzling water (or perhaps aguardiente) out of leather canteens. Elderly couples keeping score with pad and pencil while listening to the play-by-play on a small radio. It felt like going to my first baseball game, only we were the only gringos in the crowd. A brass band played Spanish marches as the action unfolded while a snare drum and bugle announced the beginning and end of each round. Three matadors faced two bulls each. Since my Mom is reading this, I’ll leave out the gory bits, but you can read about how a bullfight plays out here.
Matadors are the ultimate showmen. Playing up the crowd, staring down the bull in their elaborate gold-shouldered costumes. The matador who received top billing was Juan Jose Padilla, a Spaniard who wears an eye-patch and whose nickname is “The Pirate.” I thought it was part of his elaborate act, fighting the bull with just one eye and waving around his skull-and-crossbones flag during a sort of victory lap. Later, I found out he was involved in a brutal accident (don’t click on that link if you are the least bit squeamish) that cost him one eye and half his face. Remarkably, he returned to the ring just months afterwards. Bullfighting is brutal and bloody. Catalonia banned it in 2010 to much controversy locally, and Ecuador has banned the actual public killing of the bull at the end of a fight. I wouldn’t go again. But just like a baseball game, I enjoyed the atmosphere more than the game itself.
New Year’s Eve
After nearly a week straight of shaking hips, pressing crowds, shaving cream fights, and parties on every corner, we were ready for a rowdy New Year’s Eve. We got dressed in our best, made sure we had plenty of pesos, and headed out into a city that was deader than disco. We walked to the tasca-park — deserted. We headed over to the main nightlife drag — it was silent and so empty we walked right down the middle of the street. It was downright eerie. Where was everyone? Turns out that while Christmas Eve will find the city heaving with partiers out making merry at bars and restaurants, New Year’s Eve in Colombia is a strictly family holiday. People stay in, cook a big meal, and dance in their houses till early in the morning. All we knew is that we were hungry and every single door we passed was dark. “Wait,” Jordan said, “there’s a Domino’s around the corner from our place.” Desperate times, desperate measures, and we hustled to the Domino’s only to find the workers locking up as we arrived. In the end, we went back to the hotel, got into our PJs, and dined on room service hamburgers and a bottle of wine as we watched a very drunk Kathy Griffin harass Anderson Cooper on the CNN New Year’s Eve show. It was actually kind of intimate, cozy, and certainly a memorable way to say goodbye to our year of traveling and welcome whatever comes in 2014.