“Would you like to dance?”
Ever since walking in the door, I had been feeling uncharacteristically shy–sitting in a booth sipping aguardiente, entranced by the people on the dance floor and wondering how I could ever move so beautifully.
I told the stranger–Andres–that I’d never salsa danced before, but that didn’t seem to matter. He quickly pulled me out of my comfort zone and into the crowd. “Just move,” he said in a reassuring whisper. “Follow me, and you will feel the music.”
My first few steps felt awkward, but Andres placed his hands on my hips to help me catch the rhythm. After a few songs and several patient dance partners, my body started moving in ways it never had before. I was slowly becoming a Caleña.
Salsa is woven into the fabric of Santiago de Cali–or simply Cali, as it is popularly known; every restaurant, shop, and cab is set to an Afro-Caribbean beat. Located in southwestern Colombia, Cali is one of the South American country’s largest cities, with a population of more than two million. Gritty and real–and lacking the tourist vibe of the north–Cali is a particular draw for off-the-beaten-track travelers like me.
The next day, after dancing into the early hours of the morning, my travel companion and I took a bus to Pance, a small town a few hours away, to go hiking in the Andes. The town is a popular weekend destination for urbanites seeking refuge from the heat, and the bus was full of locals ready to unwind in the cool mountain air.
Along the dusty road to Pance, we struck up a conversation with a young man named Alfonso and his father-in-law, Julio. The overcrowded bus stalled going up and down the steep mountain roads, but we were all too deep in conversation to care.
Alfonso wondered why two American girls were visiting southern Colombia. (The area is often overlooked by tourists, as it is not as shiny as northern cities like Bogotá and Medellín.) Our answer was simple: We were here to dance. His eyes grew bright. “Salsa dance is amazing,” he said. He explained that growing up in Cali meant salsa was a way of life. “I see people in the street dancing while they work. ‘Work dance,’ I call it. If the music is playing, people are dancing.”
By that evening, we were back in Cali and ready to experience the rhythm of the city again. After a long day of hiking, we decided to forgo a club in favor of a quiet bar.
But, as I quickly learned, there is no such thing as quiet in Cali. Soon the bar turned into an impromptu salsa club. It didn’t take long before I hit the dance floor, this time armed with the courage to ask people to dance myself.
In Cali, salsa breaks down barriers. Age, size, race, gender, nationality—none of it matters on the dance floor. People from many different backgrounds—Afro-Caribbean, Spanish, indigenous—come together here, and their varied cultural and musical influences explode into the frenetic salsa the city is known for.
Cali, just like salsa, isn’t for everyone. But for those who can “hear the music,” it’s not only a great place to learn to salsa, it’s a great place to learn how to live a little more vibrantly. One person I met told me that Cali is the happiest place in Colombia. I happen to disagree—I think it’s the happiest place in the world.
Diana Warth–a writer and fundraising diva based in Charlotte, North Carolina–has more hobbies than she can count, but is happiest when traveling the globe. Follow her story on Twitter @DianaWarth.