Millions upon millions greet a traveler coming into Cali from Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport. Millions and millions of sugar cane stalks.
Adela, my fiancée and I passed this way to visit the third-largest city of Colombia, the sweet spot for the national sugar industry. Our 45-minute drive crossed vast sugar cane plantations stretching to every horizon, vistas of shaggy green broken only by an occasional sugar processing plant.
As it turns out, sugar is not the only sweet thing in Cali. Once notorious as the ultra-violent haven of drug cartels, the city of 2 million today entertains visitors with an easy, unshowy grace where good luck waits to happen.
Here’s how it happened to us.
We arrived at our hotel about noon, an inexpensive Hampton Inn with a view of Río Cali, splashing happily through the heart of the city (past a famous cat sculpture and cat theme park). Hungry, we set off on foot following the river. In four or five blocks, we came to El Museo de Arte Moderno La Tertulia and decided to stick our heads in.
I’m curious to see museums and churches everywhere we go. I’ve found these two institutions often hold surprises—or shocks—with great value to a questing writer. I had no clue in Siena, Italy, years ago, for example, that I’d stroll into the Basilica of San Dominico and come face-to-hideous-face with the severed head of St. Catherine. Or that a cathedral in Chiquinquirá, here in Colombia, would display the most beautiful carved-and-plaster effigies of the holy family and saints that I’ve ever laid eyes on, including the ones in countless European and North American churches.
The museum sits on the edge of the fashionable El Peñon section of the city. The neighborhood holds antique shops, boutiques, and restaurants. As it happened for Adela and me, the museum delayed those discoveries. After admiring huge trees and a thick, frog-loud garden outside several museum buildings, we noticed young folks hanging out. Maybe a film class? Maybe young artists practicing their sketches?
It seemed like a place with life. And with life, maybe food.
We found a museum café. And we would basically remain there the rest of our entire first day in Cali. We ordered salads and sandwiches, which came fresh and with the sort of service that we frankly don’t get often in Colombia. The country has some catching up to do to reach the customer service levels one simply takes for granted many places in the United States, and even more places in Europe.
The maestro of the customer experience turned out to be José Manuel, the museum store manager.
You meet this kind of professional in Europe: The charming, attentive, selfless-seeming staffer who makes a career of helping others feel completely comfortable with an experience. These service people are proud of, not demeaned by, the talent he or she has cultivated for making others fall in love with a restaurant, a hotel, a taxi cab, a shoe shop … or, in our case, a museum store.
José Manuel came to the table to talk, telling us a little about himself, a Spaniard who long ago decided to call Colombia home. He invited us to examine the art works on sale in the shop. Our order taken, we began to poke here and there. One piece of art simply gave itself to us.
Originals of oil paintings, lithographs, posters, and other artworks decorated the walls of the café. In a small alcove, a photograph of a Mexican landscape captured us. I’m staring at it now, mounted on the wall of our apartment here in Bogotá—a misty black-and-white hill topped by leaning, wind-bent pines, a small road cutting past in the foreground. Somehow the photo told a story, held mystery, the way that paintings by Edward Hopper seem to hold some unspoken great fiction waiting to be revealed.
There in the museum store, we stared in wonder at the photograph’s power, and flinched at its price. José Manuel approached, stood by us, and began to explore with us the finer details of the photo, taken by Catalina Holguin, a Cali local. Then, that exact instant, as if by magic spell, the nicely framed-and-glassed photograph leaped from the wall and crashed at our feet.
Horrified, we turned to the José Manuel. He shrugged, disappeared for a moment, returned. It turned out that a construction worker under a load of heavy materials had passed by on the other side of the wall and slightly bumped it, dislodging the photo.
The glass had shattered, cutting the photographic image just slightly in one place. Adela and I asked what would happen to the picture.
It will go back to the artist, José Manuel told us. With our regrets.
Instead, we made an offer on the spot, much lower than the original. The manager countered, we counter-countered, and the horse-trading went on. Adela and I left the restaurant without an agreement, and without a beautiful photograph.
But José Manuel, shrewd and very good at his job, had left an enticement for a few hours later: free tickets to an outdoor jazz concert on the museum patio. A Cali import from Birmingham, England, Stephen Bradbury, would play sax with Eliseo, a local sideman, on piano.
At 9 p.m., we sat in the cool of the evening, among attractive, stylishly dressed Cali jazz fans. We ate delicious food. We drank wine and savored the city. José Manuel approached with a woman at his side. Catalina Holguin. The photographer.
The manager had invited her in person to meet us that evening. He had agreed to our price for her fine work of art, too … with a flourish. Catalina personally signed the photograph, and we talked for a half hour at our table. We made a talented friend.
So, what are our first impressions of Cali? Forgive me. This place is … sweet.
Image: Luz Adriana Villa, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.