Why Cali, Colombia Is the Salsa Dancing Capital of the World
Salsa was born in New York from Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms mixed with Harlem jazz.
But if you want to go to the World Capital of Salsa, you'll have to go to Cali, Colombia. The country's third-largest city lives and breathes the genre. As the locals say, Cali is salsa.
Here's how Cali earned its undisputed crown as the queen of salsa dancing.
A Salsa Style Like No Other
There are several ways to dance salsa, but none are as distinctive as Cali-style salsa, or salsa caleña.
Colombian salsa in general differentiates from Puerto Rican salsa by having movements that go side to side rather than front and back. Cali, however, went a step further to make movements that are unique and extremely difficult to execute.
Instead of the usual 33 revolutions per minute that salsa dancers do, salsa caleña calls for 45 revolutions. Besides its speed, this style has distinctive small jumps, complex footwork and embellishments that make it a true pleasure to watch.
Internationally, salsa caleña is known as Colombian-style salsa. This denomination is not accurate, since other places in the country don't (or can't) dance this style. Still, it is an important part of Colombian cultural identity, having been officially designated as Intangible Cultural Patrimony. It's even referenced in the hit Disney film "Encanto."
How Cali Earned the Throne of Salsa Music
But how did Cali overthrow New York as the most important salsa city?
Albums from the genre started arriving via ship in the late 1960s. By the '70s, salsa had overtaken the youth, as it had in the rest of Latin America. Giants like Afro-Cuban superstar Celia Cruz started attending festivals in the city.
In the 1980s, the city started promoting local bands, like Grupo Niche, which went on to write some of the genre's most iconic songs. Not coincidentally, one of the group's biggest hits is "Cali Pachanguero," an ode to the city.
What set Cali apart from every other city, however, is that it didn't move on from salsa as time went on. While still popular throughout the Americas (and elsewhere), other music genres like merengue and reggaeton started overtaking it in popularity. Not in Cali. Here, salsa continues to be the main genre.
The city now has the largest number of salsa schools in the world and holds many competitions as well as the World Salsa Festival.
Any aspiring salsa artist must also make it here. As the saying goes, if it's not a hit in Cali, it won't be a hit anywhere.
Learning How to Dance Salsa Caleña
Going to Cali, Colombia, and not going out to dance salsa is equivalent to going to Italy and not eating pasta.
But if you don't know how to dance salsa, don't be intimidated! Even other Colombians have a hard time with this particularly challenging (yet amazing) style, so no one will judge you for not being an expert.
Still, we highly encourage you to take some classes, which will make the whole experience more fun. Swing Latino has been operating for decades and is a preferred school with locals. El Manicero offers group classes that are absurdly affordable and has English-speaking teachers that are used to working with foreigners.
You can also enjoy free lessons often provided by hostels, which sometimes let you join even if you're not a guest.
Where to Dance Salsa in Cali, Colombia
Once you've mastered the basics, you can head out on the town and show off your new skills. And don't even think about staying on the sidelines watching. People will definitely come and ask you for a dance. Our advice? Say yes!
For an iconic salsa party, go to La Topa Tolondra. A Cali institution, this is the city's largest salsa club. It's open every single day of the week and is conveniently located in San Antonio, a popular neighborhood for tourists.
For a more chill and local ambiance, choose Punto Baré. Hosting salsa dancers from Wednesday to Saturday, it has some of the best live music shows in the city. Zapecoro calls itself the "Temple of Salsa" and hosts live music on Thursdays. It specializes in classic salsa and boasts famous guests like John Leguizamo.
Other Things to Do in Cali
If you can, go salsa dancing every single night you're in Cali. But when you're not on the dance floor, you can explore other parts of the city.
For a new appreciation of the genre, head to the Salsa Museum. Don't skip San Pedro Cathedral and the Hermita Cathedral, the two most important churches in Cali. You can also get sweeping city views at lookout points like Las 3 Cruces and Cristo Rey.
In between, eat as much as you can. You'll find typical Colombian food dishes as well as regional specialties like aborragados vallunos and champus.