Dance classes in Colombia's salsa capital

In the Colombian city of Cali - the world capital of salsa - the beat is infectious, but it pays to take lessons if you want to keep up with the locals

Spinning couples packed the tiny dancefloor, hips in synch and toes tapping to a frenetic beat, the walls decorated with scores of framed photos of salsa's maestros. Less than 12 hours after arriving in the "World Capital of Salsa" I was in Tin Tin Deo, a Cali institution, getting a taste of the city's favourite pastime.

Colombia's third largest city, Santiago de Cali, or Cali for short, is legendary for its tropical party vibe, beautiful women and sizzling nightlife. Here, salsa rules. Ride a bus, sup a cafecita or just walk past an open window and you'll hear the foot-tappingly infectious music blaring out of radios and stereos.

Salsa in Cali, Colombia
On the dance floor at club Changó. Photograph: Esme McAvoy Photograph: Esme McAvoy

The "World Capital" moniker was coined by salsa radio DJs in the 1980s - an era when Cali was the hedonistic playground of the country's drug barons. Cocaine cash flooded the economy, fuelling a real estate boom of plush condominiums and shopping malls. But it also helped the salsa scene explode. Their insatiable demand for live music and lavish private parties supported a new wave of flash nightclubs and homegrown Cali orchestras.

Surrounded by sugar cane plantations and verdant haciendas that were once farmed by slaves, Cali is a melting pot of indigenous, European and African cultures (it has one of the highest populations of African descent in Colombia). The African influence has helped salsa here develop a sound, as well as step, all of its own. Caleños, as the people from Cali are known, are the nation's best dancers, winning the lion's share of medals in the annual World Salsa Championships with their distinctive, fast-paced style. The city boasts just under 200 salsa schools and has more than 80 salsa orchestras.

When salsa records first arrived in Colombia, carried under the arms of US sailors docking in the Pacific port of Buenaventura in the late 1960s, they soon hit the nearby city of Cali and a music and dance craze was born. Like the Puerto Rican communities in New York, it was in the poorest neighbourhoods where this new music really took hold. Forty years on and many of Cali's best dancers still hail from these crowded barrios.

Arriving in Cali on a Sunday afternoon, I headed straight for San Antonio, the oldest part of town, home to painters, potters and jewellery makers. Unlike the city's traffic-choked thoroughfares further north and along the river, the neighbourhood enjoys a village-y calm. After checking into Cafe Tostaky, a cafe-cum-guesthouse a stone's throw from San Antonio park, I joined fellow backpackers, Australians, Jess and Jools, for a night out on the tiles. We jumped in a taxi to Changó, an upmarket salsa club in Juanchito, an eastern suburb teeming with hip bars and nightclubs. As the partying dies down in central Cali come 2am, young Caleños head here - or to fellow party suburb Menga - to party till dawn.

With two dancefloors surrounded by red booths and smart table service, Chango's oozes sophistication. There was a bottle of aguadiente, Colombia's favourite aniseed-flavoured spirit on every table. We ordered the same. After a couple of shots, Jools and Jess braved the dancefloor. I opted for another shot, hoping that it would help me figure out how everyone was moving their legs so fast.

Thankfully, a couple of women took pity on me, loaning me their boyfriends for a track or two. My first dance, with twentysomething Diego, was a bit of a muddle, despite his patience. I got the basic salsa moves but it felt as though we were hearing completely different music. Diego attempted a couple of spins with me before returning, no doubt relieved, to his nimbler-footed lady. With Jools and Jess equally baffled, we decided to call it a night, and vowed to get some salsa tuition in before the following weekend rumba rolled round.

Sondeluz Academy, near San Antonio, promises "salsa con sabor" (salsa with flavour) and, despite honing the dance skills of international champs, the young and energetic teachers here are accustomed to teaching clumsy foreigners too. While the traditional Cuban salsa is slower and more romantic, the Cali style is famous for its fast footwork, with plenty of spins and, for the Cali pros, a few Dirty Dancing-esque lifts too. After running through the basic steps, I was shown some trademark Cali moves and left the class energised by the music, ready to put what I'd learnt into practice. All I needed was a partner.

Through the travel networking site, I found a group of salsa-loving Caleños eager to take me out on the town. Charly suggested we meet at Blues Brothers bar, a popular haunt for locals for its Thursday night live salsa band.

I found him with a bunch of friends crowded around a table, the band already in full swing. Compared with the UK, where dancing with any gusto tends to happen only after plenty of booze, it was an incongruous sight to see so many young couples dancing so well. Completely sober.

After barely a sip of his beer, Charly was on his feet. Clearly graced with natural rhythm, he shook his head laughing when I asked him if he'd ever had dance lessons. "Esmé, I'm Caleño. It's in the genes!" He pulled me up for a dance and soon had me spinning about, despite my toe-treading tendencies.

Although Charly said he was impressed with my moves, watching him dancing almost jive-style with another friend, Carolina, I begged to differ. I needed practice, so the guys promised to take me to one of their favourite watering holes the next night.

La Fuente is a tiny, roadside bar with a studenty vibe and cheap beer. Located by a roundabout, the place is little more than a cornershop with an awning and some big speakers but it's packed, the casually dressed crowd spilling out on the streets. The now-familiar "Cali! Cali! Cali!" refrain of a popular salsa song was playing loudly. Inside, a few locals were adding to the percussion, playing drums, shaking maracas and beating out the rhythm by whatever means possible.

Squashed in with other couples on the pavement Charly's friends taught me a few shoulder shimmies, cheering me on as an elderly Caleño took my hand for a dance.

Despite getting in past 2am, the sunshine had me up and out early the next morning to explore the city. Working my way along the many street vendors, I tried shaved ice slush puppies, pots of chopped pineapple, arepas (maize flat bread) toasted over hot coals and barbecued corn on the cob. I also sampled my first chontaduro, a palm fruit beloved by Caleños that looks like a peeled apricot. It's served drizzled in honey, but is dry and starchy, akin to boiled yucca or roasted chestnut. I got plenty of smiles when I tried not to gag.

I'd hit Cali in time for the city's annual summer salsa festival, Salsa y Verano, and that night headed to the city's football stadium for a free concert. As the orchestra began to play the stage filled with scores of teenage dancers from some of the city's most prestigious academies. It was a spectacular show, the dancers executing Cali's acrobatic style of salsa with lightning speed and wide smiles. The beat was contagious and soon the whole place was throbbing mass of gyrating hips and blurred legs as 40,000 spectators started to dance. "World salsa capital" is a bold claim but, watching the Calenos around me, I couldn't help thinking it was spot on.

Let's dance – Cali's top salsa clubs and events


Tin Tin Deo ( is a Cali institution with photos of salsa maestros on the walls. It is regularly touted as the best place in town.

Zaperoco ( is a tiny club with a big reputation.

El Habanero plays salsa with Cuban rhythms on Wed and Thu night.

Changó (, on the outskirts of Cali in party-central Juanchito district, is where the beautiful people strut their stuff.


Delirio (, on the last Friday of the month, is Cali's answer to Cirque de Soleil, with hundreds of dancers, acrobats and musicians. Incredible.

Festival Mundial de Salsa ( in September is a competition between around 5,000 young dancers from Colombia and worldwide.

Feria de Cal (25-31 Dec, is the biggest party of the year with live music and carnival-style parades across the city.

Salsa y Verano (, in late July, has plenty of live music in the Parque de la Musica in the north of Cali plus seminars on the history of salsa.

Way to go

Getting there

Flights from Heathrow to Cali via Paris and Bogotá start from £659 rtn inc taxes with Journey Latin America (020 8747 3108,

Where to stay

Hotel Posada de San Antonio ( is a colonial-style hotel with rooms from $50,000 (Colombian pesos; around £15.40) for a single or $70,000 (£21) a double. Cafe Tostaky ( is a backpacker-friendly guesthouse with five rooms from $25,000 (£7.50) for a single and $35,000 (£10.50) for a double. Dorm beds also available. Casa Agua Canela ( is a tranquil guesthouse with three rooms, the largest with private bathroom and balcony, from $60,000 (£18).

Salsa classes

Private classes start at $25,000 per hour or $200,000 (£60) for a bloc of 12 hours tuition at the Sondeluz dance academy (

Esme McAvoy

The GuardianTramp

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