My workout over, I wipe my brow and walk over to chat with Sergio.
Sergio comes to Parque El Ingenio almost every day to sell agua de panela—water flavored with brown cane sugar and lime—to the folks who exercise at what I have come to call “The Flintstones Gym.” The equipment here is homemade. Barbells and dumbbells sport blocks of concrete rather than steel plates, but the equipment is well maintained and this is a popular spot in the mornings. The men who come here are serious about working out, but also friendly, and they welcome me with smiles and nods.
Sergio pours me a generous cup of agua de panela, and I fish a sweaty 1,000-peso bill—about 35 cents—from my pocket. I hand it over and we begin another of our curious conversations, me speaking in basic Spanish, Sergio in fractured English. I’m not sure if we do this to be polite to one other or simply to practice the other’s language, but it’s become our established manner of chatting each morning.
Sergio, like most Colombians, is friendly, open, and curious about the United States. I’ve found the Caleños, as Cali residents refer to themselves, to be particularly so. The weather here in Cali is warmer than in Medellín, and, in my opinion, so are the people.
I survey the activity all around us as we chat. The park is bustling, and it’s only just after 8 a.m.
About 30 guys or so are grunting away at the Flintstones Gym. Twenty yards over, most of the interval-training machines are in use. Past the machines, the morning dance-aerobics class is in full swing with 60 or 70 enthusiasts clapping and sweating to the strains of salsa and cumbia. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger is flipping a tractor tire over and over again while, nearby, two teens practice judo throws. A jogging path encircles this handsomely manicured park where open, grassy areas intermingle with shade trees. All the activities here are provided free of charge by the city and volunteers.
The free outdoor gym in Cali’s El Ingenio Park
I smile. It’s hard not to. This city has turned out to be my favorite stop in my tour of Colombia.
Cali, in the Valle del Cauca, south of Medellín, is Colombia’s third largest city, with around 2.5 million inhabitants. It sprawls across a plain east of the Farallones de Cali cordillera, which runs roughly north to south an hour inland from the Pacific coastline.
Cali is located near the equator, but at an altitude of almost 3,300 feet, so its climate is agreeable and changes little throughout the year. Afternoons can be hot, but with the approach of sunset a refreshing breeze sweeps through the city. Early mornings are deliciously crisp and perfect for a brisk walk.
In Cali, urban development and nature effortlessly intertwine. I stayed on the affluent south side, just a couple of blocks from Calle 13, a major north-south thoroughfare, yet each night I fell asleep to the gentle chirping of tiny frogs, and awoke each morning to birdsong. Hummingbirds visited to snatch bits of banana from the tray outside the picture window before darting away again. Enormous shade trees, thoughtfully left by the developer, provide relief during the heat of the day.
Perhaps inevitably, Cali is constantly compared to Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city. Medellín has a lot going for it. It is clean, safe, and modern, and offers many cultural activities. The locals tout its climate as “perpetual spring.”
Though I enjoy Medellín, it falls short in one important aspect: green spaces. Sure, there are gorgeous areas nearby, but, within the city proper, growth has eaten up most of the free space until only a few small parks remain. I love greenery, and at times Medellín felt a bit sterile to me.
Cali, by contrast, has done a wonderful job of preserving its trees. Towering palms run down the middle of wide boulevards. Shade trees drape themselves over the narrower streets. Everywhere, you encounter parks, paths, and green spaces—especially on the south side.
Jogging trails continue from Parque El Ingenio across Calle 13. Abutting the park to the south is the sprawling campus of the Universidad del Valle. A few minutes farther south lies the Humedal del Río Pance, a captivating park that’s home to a variety of fowl and small mammals. Assorted paths and smaller greenways crisscross the area.
I’ve lived in Atlanta, Georgia, and in Charlotte, North Carolina. People often remark how green those cities are. They are—but they can’t hold a candle to Cali. My time there, with the greenery and the health-conscious culture, was restorative.
Cali’s charms extend to its people. Most Caleños are polite and friendly. Several times a day, people I had never met before bid me good morning or good afternoon. I found it easy to strike up a conversation. I grew up in the American South, where the little pleasantries of everyday life formed an important part of the culture. It’s nice to know those values haven’t completely disappeared in the rest of the world.
You won’t find a large expat community in Cali, but many people speak some English, and those who do make an effort to use it. I was also surprised at the number of locals I met with ties to the United States. Many have family there, and many more have spent extended stays. I never once felt that, as a gringo, I was unwelcome. Quite the contrary.
While Cali can’t rival Bogotá or Medellín for cultural activities, it boasts a quality zoo, a small gold museum, a butterfly center, an anthropology museum at the University del Valle, and a replica of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer overlooking the city, among other sights. There are many pleasant places to visit nearby, as well, such as the colonial town of Popayán. Cali is also acknowledged as the world capital of salsa. If you can swing dance, salsa is easy enough to pick up, should you feel the urge. Just loosen up your hips and lace up your boogie shoes.
But for me, Cali’s real draws are its understated beauty, health-conscious lifestyle, and the Caleños themselves.
Oh, and its low cost of living!
Across the board, Cali is cheaper than Medellín, even in the more affluent south side. Housing costs are reasonable here. Rental rates in Cali are 25% to 30% less than in Medellín.
Why should Cali be so inexpensive? For one thing, it hasn’t experienced the influx of foreigners that has contributed to price increases in cities such as Medellín and Santa Marta. Also, unlike Medellín, Cali still has room to spread out. And, to be frank, Cali’s reputation for crime has hindered development to some degree.
Cali’s tainted reputation left me a bit confused. I spent almost a month there, visited different parts of town, walked a great deal, and always felt safe. How should I reconcile what I’ve read and what I experienced?
Large cities anywhere have good areas and bad areas. What I’ve seen throughout Latin America, where disparities in wealth continue to be pronounced, is that the rough areas can be quite rough—but the nicer areas quite nice. As a gringo with dollars, you’ll live in one of the better areas. Simply avoid the rough areas. Any local can tell you what parts of town are sketchy.
The barrios around Parque Ingenio and Universidad del Valle are uniformly lovely and safe. These include El Ingenio, Mayapi, Sector Multicentro, Meléndez, Campestre, Pance, and Golf Club.
Properties Start At Less Than US$50K, With Many Available For US$70K
Construction quality in Cali is generally high-quality, and apartments are more spacious than I’ve seen in other cities in Colombia. When renting or buying, be sure to inquire about condo fees, which can be significant.
Here are a couple examples of properties currently available in the south zone:
The Multicentro Complex located across the street from Parque El Ingenio and the Universidad del Valle is a good place to begin your explorations. It is well-landscaped and has 24-hour security and numerous swimming pools. Shopping and restaurants are within easy walking distance. A three-bedroom, two-bath unit of 97 square meters (1,044 square feet) is currently being offered for only 138,000,000 pesos (US$45,100).
View inside the Multicentro Complex on Cali’s south side
A four-bedroom, three-bath unit is available in the El Ingenio neighborhood for only 180,000,000 pesos (US$58,825). Remodeled, with large balcony, it includes a maid’s quarters. The building has a swimming pool and events room, plus a parking garage.
While there are many rental units available ( a good site to visit is ), furnished units are less common—and could represent a largely unexploited investment opportunity. If you are looking for lodging during an exploratory visit, try Airbnb.com, which lists both rooms and entire apartments.
If you’re considering a move to Colombia, Cali’s south zone merits a look. It provides all of the services and amenities you might want and a high quality of life, all with a reasonable price tag.
Admittedly, the south zone is a bit quiet. Most of the bars and nightlife are located in the northern and western sectors. But, these days, I generally prefer a leisurely dinner and a drink with friends, as well as morning exercise.
If your tastes run the same, pay a visit. You’ll like what you find.
For Overseas Property Alert
My wife and I are considering retirement in Colombia. We’ve read a lot about Medellín, which looks very attractive. We definitely want to visit there. We’ve found less information about Cali. Is it also a good retirement destination? Which would make a better retirement option?
Both cities could be good options, depending on what’s important to you. Both have fine weather, first-rate services, are served by international airports, and are inexpensive by North American standards. Medellín’s climate is consistently cooler than Cali’s by several degrees, which many might prefer. Medellín also has an established and growing expat community.
Cali is greener, and more attractive in my view. Cali is also cheaper than Medellín, especially its real estate. There is no clear-cut answer; it’s more a matter of personal preference. As the two cities are reasonably close to one another, I’d suggest visiting both and comparing for yourselves.
I have enjoyed your newsletters for years and even was inspired by your writing to visit Medellín three years ago, which I loved! Speaking of Medellín, I remember in one of your newsletters you mentioning “the next Medellín,” Colombia. I am returning to Colombia in four days, so if you remember, please tell me where you might anticipate the next Medellín(s) being.
Thanks so much!
Kathleen was referring to Cali when she wrote about “the next Medellín.” While Cali hasn’t received the attention that Medellín has, it could be poised to step forward. One of the principle reasons is simply space. Medellín has grown to fill the bowl in which it sits, and future expansion must necessarily be limited, while Cali can continue to grow to the north, east, and south.
Real estate prices in Cali are also attractive right now—even more so than they were just a couple of years ago, with a strong dollar relative to the peso. You’d be hard pressed to find another city of comparable size anywhere with prices so low. And, as noted in this week’s article, Cali offers an attractive quality of life, especially if your tastes lean toward the simpler pleasures. If Cali can follow Medellín’s lead and improve how it’s perceived, a strong influx of expats may follow to cement the toehold which already exists today.
Have a question? You can write to Lee (or John).