Halfway through our time in Barranquilla, we began the search for our next destination in Colombia. We focused mainly on the cost of living in the next city and cost to get there from Barranquilla. Cali came up on or radar.
Cali, all told, fit our budget for cost of living and was cheaper to fly to than Bogota. It was close enough to the coffee region to avoid having to ride on a long haul bus with a 5-year-old to see the places we want to visit in July as well.
Rob booked our flight a week before our rental in Barranquilla was over and thought he had found the perfect flight. He found one for an awesome price at the perfect time of day. It was the perfect time of day so he thought. When he booked it he was sure the time to fly out of Barranquilla was for 9:30 am and we would get into Cali before lunch.
But when he went to confirm our flight the day before we were to fly he discovered we would be leaving Barranquilla at 9:30 pm and arriving in Cali just before midnight.
One thing we had not looked at critically before we booked our flights was safety in Cali. Not being aware of dangers as we like to be, we felt quite unnerved when our plane touched down in the darkness outside the huge city. We had never arrived in an unfamiliar place late at night.
We did not know at this point Cali was ranked the most dangerous city in Colombia.
We had booked our Airbnb rental near the center in downtown Cali for 1 month. The apartment looked perfect, with a washing machine, 2 bedrooms and close to shopping, culture, and the sights. The apartment also had great Airbnb ratings and reviews.
We had read in one of the glowing reviews that the Airbnb hosts were amazing and the area was nice and close to everything but restaurants wouldn’t deliver to the apartment after 6 pm because things “got a little wild at night”. Hmmm sounds sketchy.
That caused us to pause, but we discounted it as a drawback because we don’t go out at night or order food in as a rule.
We knew downtown areas in all big cities can be less safe at night, that’s normal.
If we needed to go out after 6 we would get a cab instead of walking, no big deal. The review went on to say they so enjoyed their stay and would definitely visit Cali and stay in the apartment again. So we booked it.
We did do some reading about Cali before we decided to make it our next stop. But feeling so safe in Barranquilla we focused less on crime rates than the cost of living. But when the plane touched down we wished we had read more about safety in Cali. Given that, and the lateness of the hour we didn’t waste any time collecting our bags to find a cab to our apartment.
The cab system at the airport in Cali is really good. There is a taxi stand where you give an attendant the address of your destination and he calculates a fair price. He then prints a receipt from a computer with the price and hands it to the driver after your approval. The receipt he printed for us was 20000 COP less than we were expecting. A nice surprise but we should have known if it seems too good to be true it usually is.
Our cab driver set out and we drove for a while, the airport is just outside Cali so we knew it would be a longer ride. Driving through the city everything looked nice and calm not wild at all. We started to feel a little more at ease. Then our cab driver turned into an apartment complex and stopped.
It was the wrong apartment.The attendant had entered the wrong address. Clearly frustrated, the driver got back in the taxi and we sped off to find the right apartment. We drove for a bit longer and as we neared the center you could slowly start to see the calm and safe streets deteriorate. We started to see more of what we would expect to see downtown Calgary late at night: partiers, homeless, general riff-raff.
And then our cab stopped.
The driver got out and started to unload our bags on the street. Feeling uneasy I had a heightened sense of paranoia. That paranoia made everything on the street look more intimidating. The attendant inside the apartment came to greet us and help with the bags as a homeless man approached Rob and began hanging off him begging for money.
Both the cabbie and the attendant seemed oblivious to the man as though he was a harmless annoyance. Rob managed to shake him off and pay the cabbie who thanked him for the extra pesos for the longer ride. The cabbie promptly jumped in his cab and left. We all skittered inside.
The attendant had the key to the apartment for us and he helped us up to the 21st floor. We chatted politely in his limited English and our limited Spanish, but one thing did come across loud and clear.
“If you go out at night let the attendant at the front desk call a cab to the front door for you. If you are out and it’s starting to get dark take a cab back to the apartment as well. Bienvenidos to Cali. ” The experience getting into the building kind of tainted my whole outlook at first. Did we make a mistake with the location? We paid too much for this apartment then! Will we be safe here???
The apartment, being on the 21st floor has sweeping views of the city and that night as I looked out over the city
I finally settled down and thought, it can’t all be unsafe.
The next morning the scene outside changed dramatically.
A lively, bustling city is what we could see and hear. The view in the morning was much clearer and so was our perspective. We can see colonial churches and buildings and bright colored umbrellas that cover a huge street market. Mountains rise up around Cali bringing cooler temperatures and outstanding views.
Now this is more like it! The apartment looked as great as it did in the pictures. We haven’t had a washing machine or coffee maker since Cartagena, it’s definitely nice to have those modern conveniences. The place is nicely furnished and bright with more room than we have had in any accommodation we’ve rented yet.
Our host contacted us by phone that first morning and put us in touch with his family, Therry, and Jaime Sr. who lived in the building. He welcomed us and offered some sage advice for safety in a downtown local. Therry came down at 11 to show us around the immediate area. She is made us feel so welcome and showed us the best places to eat and buy groceries.
We asked Therry if it was safe to walk around during the day and she emphatically said yes, yes it’s safe. We walked and shopped for supplies and were back at the apartment in a couple of hours feeling much better about our location.
We left Barranquilla for Cali a week ago and we have already seen so much. Cali is a beautiful city and where we are staying lets us enjoy so much of the best parts of the city by walking. Being able to walk to see the sights and forgo cabs fits our budget just fine.
Knowing what we do now about crime stats in Cali, we will be more diligent about safety and have already adopted certain theft prevention and safety preservation behaviors. There are always safety concerns in any big city, especially downtown locations so it’s important to learn where and what those are to avoid bad situations. Here are 5 things we are doing to stay safe in Cali and traveling in general:
- Makai is wearing a lanyard beneath his shirt with contact information in Spanish with his name and our full names as his parents. Our cell phone number and the cell number for Therry, our host for the apartment we are renting. The address of the apartment including apartment number. Mak knows what’s written on the card and should we become separated he knows to ask for help by police or security officers (they can be seen everywhere here in Cali) and show his lanyard.
- We locate where the “no go” zones in a city are on a map and avoid those areas altogether.
- We’ve defined situations for Makai for when he must hold hands and times where it’s safe to run free (as long as we can see him and he can see us). He knows when running free when he hears Dad or Mom yell” stop!” he’s to stop dead immediately.
- We don’t wear jewelry or flashy stuff. We only carry stuff with us we really need.
- We, in any big city we visit, employ a heightened awareness of our surroundings and know not to question our instincts. If something doesn’t feel right we stop doing it and reevaluate.
Good common sense also goes a long way to keeping safe and we will be using that too. With common sense in mind, we have a positive feeling about Cali. We prefer the temperature and the views to that of both Barranquilla and Cartagena. Food and living costs are also substantially less so far which makes us and our budget very happy. We also learned a valuable travel lesson, safety first and know the risks before you’re on the ground in a new place.
Are there any safety tips or tricks you use when in unfamiliar territory?
We are always interested in new ways to improve travel experiences. Please share your thoughts in the comments.