Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cali Pachanguera: So you want to live in Cali...

As promised, to the person who makes me breakfast in the morning (and with his invaluable help), here is my guide to moving to Cali. Though Colombia is still fighting with its reputation as being dangerous, more and more foreigners have been making the trip...in general absolutely adore it, meaning that many do, in fact, end up deciding to stay, at least for awhile.


Housing in Cali is generally quite inexpensive. It's very common to rent directly from the owner-- many places will have a sign outside saying SE ARRIENDA with the number of the owner. Newspapers (El País, El Diario Occidente) have listings as well. One thing to keep in mind is that most houses do not have hot water (supposedly it's "not necessary" because of the year-round warm climate. I disagree.) If you're planning on renting a place that isn't furnished, keep in mind that apartments/houses don't come with refrigerators; most don't come with stoves either, and even if they do have stoves, they may not have ovens. Normally contracts are for 1 year, but people are often open to other arrangements as well.

Good neighborhoods to live in as far as I'm concerned are San Antonio, San Fernando, San Cayetano, Miraflores, Libertadores, El Peñon, and Centenario, as they are all centrally located, fairly inexpensive and low key. San Antonio has recently become very popular with tourists and many Europeans have bought property, so it's gone up in price, but many artists live around there and there are always lots of music and art goings-on. San Fernando, Miraflores and Libertadores are close and similar but still pretty much tourist-free and very family oriented. People hang out on their steps drinking beer, there is almost always salsa on in the background, and you only need to walk a couple of steps to find street vendors selling empanadas, grilled sausage, arepas, and anything else greasy and delicious you might be craving as the sun goes down.

I'm not a big fan of Ciudad Jardin, it's expensive and has very much of a "new money"/Miami feel due to the large number of people involved in the drug trade that live there. El Cany is similar, as are some parts of El Ingenio. Capri, El Limonar, Quintas de Don Simon y La Hacienda are nice, familiar neighborhoods, but they're quite far to the south and a bit suburb-ish. Same with La Merced, La Flora Vipasa, and Prados del Norte, which are similar but in the north. Granada has recently become a restaurant hotspot, which makes it loud and hard to find parking.

Other areas that I would not recommend include Aguablanca and El Centro because they are generally quite dangerous.


The mass transit system in Cali is called the Mio; it's a system of above-ground buses that have their own traffic lanes; instead of getting them from the sidewalk, you enter a station in the middle of the street and take them from a platform. One ride costs 1,500 pesos (~.75 cents). You can buy a Miocard for 1,500 pesos to put money on; this is beneficial both because it saves you the ticket line but also because there are auxiliary Mio buses that you can take on the street and that go into some neighborhoods that the normal Mio line doesn't, and it allows you to transfer from one to the other without paying extra. The Mio is open until 11 pm.  Buses, which are private, run until 10:30 or 11pm, and they generally cost the same as the Mio. There aren't formal bus stops, so you have to flag them down. The buses are small and the drivers both drive and give you change at the same time, which can be scary. Some bus lines like the RioCali are so low maintenance that you worry the bus might fall apart during the trajectory of your trip, but most are okay, just watch out when you get off because sometimes they will let you off in the middle of the street (as I said, no formal bus stops). At night people use cars or taxis. Many people will tell you that it's better to order taxis from a company than to get one in the street, although we've never had any problems. Taxis are not very expensive and you can sometimes talk the driver into letting 5 or 6 people ride even though supposedly only 4 can be taken. After 8 pm, there´s an additional 1,000 peso (~.50) surcharge in taxis.


The best place to buy groceries is La Galeria, a large covered market where vendors sell produce, panela, coconuts (they will grate them for you), and herbs, amongst other things. In general the produce is very fresh and you can bargain with the vendors; it's best to go earlier in the day, before lunch. Around the Galeria are tons of shops selling baking supplies, milk products, butchers, bulk grains, and some imported Asian and American products.
Mercamio is probably the cheapest supermarket chain in Cali, it has a pretty typical selection and can get really crowded in the late afternoon. Carulla is the very fancy, expensive supermarket in Colombia, which we never, ever shopped at, but if you're looking for imported groceries and produce, that's where to find it. La 14 is the most ubiquitous supermarket, the prices are pretty standard and they have a good produce section. It's kind of like Target in that they also have lots of decent home stuff and clothes. There tend to be a lot of women with very obvious plastic surgery shopping here.

As far as eating out, los corrientazos, which are cheap lunch spots, are everywhere, and are a great deal. For 4,000-5,000 pesos ($2-2.50), you are given soup to start, followed by rice, plantains, salad, beans and your choice of meat, juice (with a refill if you ask), and often dessert.

La Alameda, which is next to La Galeria, is full of great restaurants that serve traditional food from the Colombian Pacific-- lots of seafood and coconut-based dishes. Lunch time is consistently packed with office workers during the week, and with families during the weekend.

If you absolutely have to have your sushi fix, it can be found in the trendy and expensive restaurants in Granada.

Additional tips

If you need to get your cellphone unlocked, an electronic fixed, or some random part, almost anything can be found cheap in El Centro-- as well as tons of cheap fake merchandise, inexpensive shoes, and household items.

For anybody interested in salsa, Cali is more or less the ultimate destination. There are a bazillion places to go, but two places that are inexpensive and always fun are Tin Tin Deo (one of the most traditional salsa clubs in Cali) and Donde Don Ever (which is really just a tiny bar that blasts lots of good salsa into the street). Culturally speaking, it's a small city, and other than salsa there isn't all that much other variety. There is quite a lot of vallenato, and a fair amount of reggaeton, a couple of rock bars, and one or two jazz bars.  

Strangely enough (to me), shopping malls are a very common place for people to eat and to meet up with their friends. Because of security (this has changed a lot, but the custom persists), there aren't a lot of free-standing cafes is certain parts of the city; shopping malls occupy the position of a safe, worry-free place where you can meet up with your friends.

And although Cali has gotten way safer lately, it's still not a good idea to walk around with an iPod or anything else that draws attention.

Thinking about what I've written above, I realize that Cali sounds like some very foreign, very third world, tropical town...but to me it's just a really nice, generally low key place to live. People are very friendly, they love to go out, and there is good, inexpensive food everywhere. Colombia does have a very strong culture of bargaining, and a lot of laws and regulations are taken as, well, optional, something that I think is difficult for Americans to make peace with. In terms of quality of living, though, as long as you don't mind the heat, Cali's a great place to be.


  1. Ah, I *loved* Colombia! I missed out on Cali, spending most of my time up on the Caribbean coast. But either way, I found that the 'dangerous' reputation acted as a great 'idiot-filter'. After 4 wonderful months, I left Colombia and made the short trip to 'safe' Panama and found it to be crammed full of kids only interested in drinking beer and exclaiming "Dude! I'm so drunk! Let's get more beer!" ;)

  2. Man, that´s a good point (albeit kind of a depressing one)...I never met any obnoxious tourists in Colombia either, just people genuinely interested in being there. If you ever do go back, I hope you make it to Cali, it´s definitely worth a visit!