Salsa is definitely not only to be found in Cali - it is all over South America, and I could just as well have taken classes anywhere else earlier on my trip.
However, I had simply not felt ready. In Peru, I was busy trying to cope with cultural differences and not understanding what was said most of the time, as well as being entirely on my own on this foreign continent. Then there was Ecuador, where I had to pull myself out of a major emotional down...throughout these first 4 months, being here was enough of a challenge to make me stick to simply seing the countries instead of immersing myself in the culture.
But Colombia was different: a country I had heard nothing but praise about, so much that I was scared I could only be disappointed. My worries were unnecessary though, I fell in love at first sight. I felt comfortable here - my spanish was finally on a level where I could hold a decent conversation and traveling from one place to another had become second nature.
In fact, I had become a little too comfortable.
I quickly decided that I had to push the boundaries of my comfort zone again. Staying with locals via couchsurfing was a first dabble into unknown territory and taking salsa classes in Cali, the world capital of this style of dancing, was second on the list.
A little on my relationship with dancing: I have always felt like my arms and legs are ever so slightly too long for me to fully control them, they either move too much or too little but never quite in the right way. Even after years of dancing, this sensation remains - especially when I am supposed to move in new ways.
Therefore, while I had no problem shaking to Beyonce or Jay-Z, Salsa terrified me. Nevertheless, I was determined to face my fears - so I signed up for 10 hours of private classes at my hostel.
Michelle, my teacher, was basically the perfect salsa dancer. Undeniably beautiful, she moved her body so gracefully it made you stop in your step - all while making it look completely effortless. Furthermore, she had a positive energy about her that made me feel comfortable from the first second on.
We started with learning the 5 basic steps of Cali-style salsa. This style involves quick leg movements, with the stress being on the 1st and 5th beat. You end up mostly using two of the five steps and even with just these steps, I was twisting and spinning around within mere hours.
I was hooked- this was one of the funnest things I'd ever done and I craved to keep learning.
So I decided to stay longer in cali - two and a half weeks exactly, instead of the planned five days.
I signed up for 10 more hours with Michelle and 10 hours with Dani, a teacher from a different school. Every night, we would goout to a salsa bar, where sometimes I was dancing for hours on end - and other times was only asked to dance a handful of times. This side of salsa started to bother me pretty quickly - as in so many ways in South America, the men are in control: it is them who are supposed to ask the women to dance, they lead and it is considered rude to say no to a dance. Now, women can definitely ask for a dance as well, though it is less common, but I was too shy to do so - so i guess I am at fault here too. In the end, i had to accept that this is how it works.
I met some great people within my first few days in cali ; Kathrin from Austria who was just as crazy about salsa as me, Kristina from England, another permanent resident at the hostel, Colombians Carlos and Jon who we went out with every single night... thanks to them, I enjoyed every minute of my first week there.
Then, after about 15 hours of class, my progress seemed to reverse and on top of that, i caught a sinus infection. So far, i had been on an exponential curve when it came to dancing, so it was frustrating to feel like I had been better after a couple of days then now after over a week of committing to salsa. 'Relajate, Tranquila,...' is what I heard probably thousands of times from Michelle and Dani. But I couldn't relax - how was I supposed to when my feet hips and arms were already not moving how they were supposed to.
Eventually, I had to admit two things to myself: firstly, I was pushing way too hard while my body was begging fror a break and secondly, my high expectations for myself were prohibiting me from enjoying the experience... I looked at other women dancing and thought 'Why can't I do that?', failing to acknowledge that they had been dancing for years while I was barely getting started.
After taking a few days off to restore my health, things started looking up again.
I had some moments of triumph, where I was landing my turns, laughing and simply enjoying moving to the music. My arms where no longer hanging at my sides like two lifeless beings and the basic steps started to feel natural - i had so, so much fun. I wish this sort of partner dancing was more common in western Europe - it is an entirely different experience to respond to somebody else's moves than to just focus on your own.
My stay in Cali was so much more than I had expected - I fell in love with Salsa and intend to continue dancing back home.
Where to stay:
This hostel is perfect if you want to meet people and enjoy the salsa culture - I wouldn't necessarily recommend it if you're seeking calm and quiet. The beds are comfortable, you can cool off in the pool and there's hammocks if down-time is needed. My only complaint would be the low number of toilets and sinks, though this wouldn't keep me from staying there again.
Price: dorms from 30.000 COP, private rooms around 90.000 COP
If you want somnewhere more quiet, this hostel only minutes from El Viajero is cozy, clean and boasts pod-style beds. It looks like a dreamy place to stay.
Price: dorms from 22.000 COP, privates around 90.000 COP
where to eat:
The veggie burgers at this vegan restaurant are divine, with many patties,sauces and toppings to choose from, and the pasta I had was delectable. It is a little more expensive than the otherplaces on this list, but definitely worth the extra pennies in my opinion! The location found on tripadvisor is incorrect, it is now connected to Zanahoria hostel.
This vegetarian restaurant quickly became my got-to place for lunch,dinner and anything in between. They offer a good lunch menu as well as a variety of dishes ranging from pizza to falafel, really good coffee and (vegan) cake. I haven't seen vegetarian food done so well often!
Sadly,I only found Yala during my last days in Cali,otherwise I would have eaten here more often. The place is extremely nicely decorated so you feel right at home while enjoying some of the best arab food I've had on this continent! Portion sizes are generous for the price.
If you, like me, have been disappointed at the lack of creativity of common arepa-fillings, this place will satisfy your cravings! With a huge list of options,it's difficult to choose just one way to eat this colombian staple - good thing they offer small sizes so you can try to your heart's desire.
Though I only had coffee here once, I imagine it's a nice place to have dinner or lunch as well. The coffee in and of itself is incredible and there's live concerts on the weekends - when we showed up one saturday there wasn't a single table available so be sure to reserve in advance.
When booking classes through El Viajero,you mostly end up taking classes with one of the teachers at Rumba y Salsa. I loved my classes with Michelle and Victor and they definitely offer the best price for private classes.
Price: 1 hour for 45.000 COP, 5 for 180.000 COP (36.000 COP/hour) and 10 for 300.000 COP (30.000 COP/hour)
This salsa school is roughly 5 minutes by foot from El Viajero and has the benefit that you're in a nicer dance studio than the one at the hostel. They have a ton of great teachers, I had the pleasure of taking classes with Dani and Jessica who were both delightful. That being said, the classes are quite a bit more expensive, so it is up to you to decide if the slight raise in quality is worth the steep pricetag. I enjoyed the combination of taking classe at both schools, as thepackage at Salsa Pura also gives you access to their group classes for free!
Price: 1 hour for 50.000 COP, 10 for 430.000 COP (43.000 COP/hour)
I heard good things about both El Manicero and Son de Luz, though they're a little further south so you'd have to take public transport to get there if you're staying in the San Antonio neighbourhood.