Pura Rumba

The annual La Feria de Cali wasn't officially scheduled to begin for more than a week. But by last December 16, the excitement was plain in the banners and billboards plastered throughout Cali trumpeting seven days of bullfights, dancing, drinking, street fairs, sports events, and generalized nonstop revelry. Punctuating the anticipation was the announcement that nightclubs -- whose operating hours were recently curtailed to 1:00 a.m. to clamp down on drunk-driving deaths and homicides -- would be allowed to serve liquor until the wee hours.

Cali, Colombia, which has a population of nearly three million, is nestled in a fertile valley 1000 meters above sea level. In the United States, this idyllic location, frowned upon by the State Department, is best known for its infamous drug lords (most recently Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela, whom the DEA extradited to Miami last month) and its kidnappings, including the rather dramatic seizure of a church full of parishioners in 2002.

But connoisseurs know better. Cali is also known for its women, reportedly among the most beautiful in Latin America. It is celebrated for its music and its salsa dancing; virtually every salsa band on the planet, from Oscar D'León to Cali natives Grupo Niche, has dedicated a song to the city.

Then there is La Feria de Cali. Now entering its 47th year, it kicks off on Christmas Day, when all the praying is conveniently over, and lasts through New Year's Day, when the bullfight season is almost at its end.

When I returned to my native Colombia for Feria de Cali last year, my fellow passenger on the flight from Miami was a tall, well-dressed, 60-something American gent who was traveling to meet Cali girls through an international dating service called TLC (you get the drift). When our plane hit the ground, we broke out in applause and wild cheering.

La Feria de Cali is not a float-driven carnival in the tradition of Rio or Mardi Gras, although there are floats and parades. And it's not a localized music fest in the tradition of Miami's Calle Ocho festival, although dozens of street blocks are cordoned off to accommodate stages, dancing, and liquor stands.

Instead, it's a ceaseless party, or pura rumba, that literally takes over the entire city, from the poorest slums, which host daily Communal dances featuring live bands, to ritzy private clubs that hold members-only parties. By the time it is over, caleños (as residents are called) will have consumed nearly three million bottles of rum and aguardiente (the anise-based liquor made in the region), 200,000 hectoliters of beer, and who knows how many aspirins to stave off a week of hangovers.

When I drove into the city and hit Rio Cali, the river that splits the town in two, I found a blue stream of light that floated above it for almost two miles. But the most blinding lights are at El Ingenio, a neighborhood that's reportedly home to many midlevel mafiosi, where each house competes with the next to exhibit the most Christmas spirit. So fabled are its holiday decorations that busloads of tourists will drive slowly by with children oohing and aahing over the attractions. Late in the evening, the streets get their share of chivas bailables -- the colorful, traditional Colombian buses known as chivas, equipped with an interior minidance floor, disco lights (yes, really), and tables.

These over-the-top displays reflect the entire Feria concept. Forget about poverty and strife; when it's time to party, there are no limits in this corner of the world.

The actual Feria kicks off with La Cabalgata (The Horseback Ride). The name is simple; the event isn't. Four thousand riders, mounted on some of the finest horse specimens in the region, traverse seven and a half kilometers of major city streets. Three days before the event, there were rumors that it would be canceled due to some kind of equine epidemic that was reportedly making some horses sick. But things eventually flowed in a surprisingly organized fashion.

In my college years, my friends and I would pack into the back of a pickup truck and follow the cabalgata, parking in strategic locations that allowed us to drink, watch, and mingle with abandon. Riders would veer off the path and trot right up to their fans in the street; people would routinely step into the way of horses and offer up drinks. Aguardiente would flow.

And, invariably, stuff would fly (bottles, flour, firecrackers), tempers would flare, fights would ensue, and at least a dozen horses would end up wandering the streets, riderless, into the night.

This year, the riders were separated from the watchers by a long, low fence. You could look, but it was hard to touch them. But so what? Much to the delight of my male friends, the streets were lined with girls, girls, girls, all sporting the Cali uniform: brand new bosoms (plastic surgery is big in Cali) and low, low-cut jeans, the better to show off their sculpted tummies.

In the evening there was the official inaugural Feria concert, a free event at Parque Panamericano. Under normal circumstances, it would be a ten-minute drive from our cabalgata vantage point. But with Feria traffic, the trip took nearly four times as long.

Following a few speeches, the music began with the all-female band Orquesta D'Caché. Yes, indeed. In case you didn't know, Cali has its share of pretty, fantastic, all-girl salsa bands. Orquesta D'Caché was a pleasant surprise; sexy but musically nimble, with the right touch of humph to get people dancing. A better-known girl band, the veteran Orquesta Canela (it's been around since 1992), followed with a well-oiled performance.

The next day brought fifteen acts, among them Victor Manuelle, El Binomio de Oro, and Son de Cali, to the Superconcierto, where 50,000 crowded into Pascual Guerrero stadium for eight straight hours of music. Elsewhere around Cali, countless other bands -- from Jorge Celedón and Gilberto Santa Rosa to Don Omar and La Gran Banda Caleña -- played multiple parties every single night.

There were daily bullfights that cost as much as $100 a seat and unlimited beer for as little as $5; that was the amount needed to get into El Distrito de la Rumba (Rumba District), a strip of five blocks with live music (Cheo Feliciano played there) and free drinks. It brought a beauty contest, parades, and skateboarding competitions down Cali's steep hills.

But nothing came close to the first half of a national dance contest at Parque Panamericano on the second day of Feria. Here, pintsize couples, some as young as six years old, made that floor shine like few adult dancers can. They wore their best salsa outfits: tiny, sequined skirts and pantyhose for the girls, wide-legged pants for the boys, colorful caps, ruffled blouses, silk vests, strappy sandals, and shiny patent shoes. They danced salsa, mambo, and boogaloo -- the same steps no doubt danced by their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents -- with the effortless ease of those who don't learn the music but are born into it.

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