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329km (204 miles) S of Medellín, 80km (50 miles) E of Buenaventura

Cali walks to the beat of its own drum. Caleños are quite proud of their home and quick to proclaim their city, not to mention their food, nightlife, and cultural institutions, as Colombia’s finest. The magic of the city of 2.5 million people, the capital of the Valle de Cauca department, not to mention the salsa capital of the world, can be lost among some travelers. It’s often hot and not nearly as walkable as some other major urban areas. Yet, for those willing to dig a little deeper, or just to wait it out until the evening when there’s a cool breeze and salsa fills the air, they’ll find one of South America’s most underrated cities.

Santiago de Cali was founded in 1536 by conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar, who first arrived on Columbus’s third voyage and later helped Francisco Pizarro conquer the Inca empire. There were several indigenous groups already living in the Cauca Valley when he arrived, including the Calima and Quimbaya. During the colonial era, Cali was part of the gobernación of Popayán, which was ruled from Quito, Ecuador. The city is known for the strong role it played in Colombian Independence. On July 3, 1810, an uprising in Cali refused to recognize Spanish authority, more than two weeks before calls for independence began coming out of Bogotá, and many men from the region fought in the battles for liberation.

Up until the 19th century, the city was quite small, dominated by haciendas and mango plantations, with no more than 20,000 residents. When the railroads were built at the end of the century, everything changed. Coffee and sugarcane could now be exported on the world market, creating a vast new economy and explosive growth that continues today.