This post was contributed by Michael DiNatale
As we stood up ready to leave, I quickly gulped down what remained of my once cold Colombian lager. Good conversation will make you forget about your drink, I realized at that moment.
Our group was one of those magical motley bunches you’ll only find in a hostel. Hailing from all over Europe and the Americas, Spanish was the most common language among us. Sign language and the occasional bit of English or French were also mixed in on an “I forgot how to say this” basis.
For the last few hours, we had been pre-gaming and dancing around the pool in our hostel. The speakers by the bar were blasting salsa, bachata, and reggaeton – proper preparation for the night we were about to have.
Spilling onto the street in front of the hostel, we’re greeted by that warm summer breeze that always accompanies a memorable night. It was also the first night in town for most of us, so we had that vibrant collective energy that ensured we’d have a good time no matter what.
I climbed into the backseat of a beaten-up yellow cab with a tall Dutch guy who looked about 20. His friend hopped in the front. Having the most Spanish between us, I instruct the cab driver to take us to the club where all of Cali was apparently going on this Monday night before a holiday, Cafe mi Tierra.
We gripped on for dear life, the cab driver only briefly slowing at red lights and then rapidly accelerating around the windy deserted streets. At some point, we started to talk about the electronic music scene in Europe vs the Latin music scene here in Cali. My Dutch friend then said something profound that I can’t stop thinking about for the rest of our bumpy ride:
“In Europe we dance with our heads, but in South America, you dance with your heart.”
When we arrived, the cab made a slow U-turn around a construction site and parked directly in front of the club. While rounding up the 15 thousand pesos to pay the driver, we already heard an Ozuna song blasting from the club. “This is going to be lit!” our friend in the passenger seat blurted out.
We received a quick pat down from the bouncer at the door and walked up a short flight of stairs that lead directly into the single-story club.
It was massive.
I counted 4 separate dance floors with dozens of tables surrounding each of them. Each dance floor was separated by open partitions and all of the walls that lead to the outside had wide open windows.
While most of the tables around the 2 main dance floors were already full, I spotted the large group of Puerto Rican guys from our group posted up at a table to our left. They only left a few minutes before us, but they somehow already had a bottle of rum and were passing out shots to everyone in the vicinity.
After we threw the first shot back, the DJ threw on “Te Boté” and our entire group flocked to the already packed dance floor. We carved out space in front of the very clutch standing fan and quickly resumed the dance party we started back at the hostel.
A few sweaty songs later, the music switched to salsa and we make our way back to our table.
The energy of the club shifted, but it was just as dynamic. Pairs of people replace the singular giant mob that consumed on the dance floor during the reggaeton set. As the song picked up, the couples started busting out their famed Cali-style salsa moves.
Haven taken salsa classes in New York some years ago and a refresher class earlier that night at the hostel, I thought I was going to be prepared for this moment.
I was not.
Feeling a sense of both admiration and intimidation while watching everyone do their thing, I sat the first salsa song out. And then the next one. And then the one after that.
Starting to feel ashamed that I can’t pry myself out of my chair while most of my friends are already back up dancing (or attempting to dance), I finally found my motivation to get out there.
She was wearing short jean shorts, a black off the shoulder top, and had cavernous dimples that punctuated a warm smile (my weakness). By the way she danced I knew she had to be a local, and by the way we made eye contact I knew I’d hate myself if I went the whole night without speaking to her.
As the last note of the next song was finally winding down, I couldn’t stall anymore.
I got up and briskly cut through the hot air on the dance floor, dodging couples finishing their last dips and spins. Having assessed the environment by now, I knew I only had a few seconds to get to her before some other suave salsero swoops in and grabs her to dance to the next song.
Flashing that charming smile, she accepts my invitation. I lead her by the hand to an open spot on the dance floor and we begin to move in rhythm to the music. In that moment, a slow grin drapes across my face as I have a goosebumps-inducing thought:
Here I was in the so-called Salsa Capital of the World, engaging with local people in exactly what they love to do the most. Although I’ll never be able to fully understand what it’s like to live my life and grow up as a Caleño (someone from Cali), our pulses were in sync for the next few minutes.
Realizing this is the exact type of experience I set out to have when I first started traveling, I feel like I was in a dream. Except for deep down, I knew there was no way my brain could be in REM sleep.
It was too busy listening for dancing instructions from my heart.
Meet Michael: Travel pet-peeve is definitely airlines that charge baggage fees & trying to squeeze my long legs into economy class seats. Keep up with him on IG.