A little liquid courage in Cali, Colombia

In the self-proclaimed salsa capital of the world, a drink that tastes like embalming fluid mixed with a spot of rum makes it easy to move to the beats of Pacific Colombia.

In Cali, Colombia, the self-proclaimed salsa capital of the world, life revolves around the rhythms of Latin music. In the streets in the afternoon, on party buses at night, or in clubs that pulse until the early hours, hips sway as naturally as waves crashing against the shore of the nearby coast. But in late summer, for the five days of the Petronio Alvarez Pacific Music Festival, salsa takes a back seat to the diverse sounds of Colombian Pacific music like cumbia and currulao, and its cacophony of percussion instruments, like the marimba.

Held in Cali’s Pascual Guerrero football stadium, the free festival celebrates the indigenous music, food and culture of the largely Afro-Colombian Pacific region that surrounds Colombia’s third largest city. And since you will most likely be worse than 99% of the other dancers there (unless you happen to be from Brazil), a little liquid courage is just the thing to get your feet moving.

Unfortunately, at the 15th annual Petronio festival, beverage options were limited to viche – an alcohol made from sugar cane that is unique to the Afro-Colombian Pacific coastal communities – and other Pacific specialties such as arrechon, tomaseca and tumbacatre, most of which seemed to contain viche.

Thankfully, Colombia’s Pacific region is responsible for some of its most flavourful cuisine, and dishes like shrimp ceviche and spicy pescado (fish) helped coat my stomach before I had to force viche down my gullet. At its worst, the spirit tastes a little like embalming fluid, or at least how I imagine embalming fluid to taste. At its best, viche tastes like embalming fluid mixed with a spot of rum.

Sadly, for four nights in August, drinking viche was a necessary evil, a rite of passage in the same way that cheap keg beer is a part of university and getting hit in the groin is a disagreeable consequence of riding a mechanical bull. Though aguardiente – a relatively palatable, anis flavoured liquor – is the national drink of Colombia, viche seems to be the object of some (probably misplaced) pride, possibly for its alleged aphrodisiac qualities.  

At the Petronio, as well as in certain areas of Pacific Colombia, viche is difficult to avoid, as some friendly local will undoubtedly make sure that you always have a full shot glass. He will then – most likely – send you off to dance with his girlfriend.

Most of the viche and the other micro-produced liquors at Petronio came in plastic bottles with conspicuously homemade-looking labels. The key, it seemed, was to pick something with a label that wasn’t too terrifying (bottles with grey-and-white labels printed on office paper looked extra scary, like perhaps they were brewed in some one’s bathtub). If I made a bad choice, perhaps I could contact the producer via his personal email or phone number listed on the bottle, and demand a refund.  

Apparently I chose a bad bottle.

It took less than three minutes before a genuinely concerned local approached and informed my travel partner and I of our mistake. We must try his, he said. It would taste much better. He would come back later and drink it with us, but for now we should just enjoy it. So with two bottles in hand, we continued to drink until another new friend approached. His viche was the best, he assured us. We must drink it. And in fact, both these gentlemen were correct. The difference between each variety was noticeable, in the same way there is a noticeable difference between the taste of regular, plus and premium grades of petrol.  

Soon our newest amigo was introducing us to his cousins, all of whom, he explained, were eager to dance with us, a task made difficult by the fact that we were now holding onto a half-dozen bottles. So we passed some viche to neighbours on all sides and danced unashamedly, while the locals attempted to teach us how to move to the beats of the Pacific.

Espera, espera!” (wait, wait), they would say. “Escucha, escucha” (listen, listen), with a finger to the ear. And they began to clap out the rhythm that remained confusing to our non-Latin ears: clap clap! clap clap clap clap! Clap! Clap clap clap! clap, clap clap clap clap! And then: “OK?!”. After more than a month in the country, this was becoming a regular interaction, as there is always dancing going on.

I smiled with the rest of the crowd and continued dancing as new partners continued to offer pointers: “Watch my feet”, and “Move your hips more” and “One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three”.

Finally, at the end of my second night at the music festival I had a breakthrough. Maybe, I was still worse than the 99%, but I was getting better.  Or maybe it was just the viche.

The joy of travelling in a country obsessed with shaking its hips is that no matter how big the language barrier, dancing serves as a wordless form of communication, and – as with speaking – no matter how bad you are, making an effort is always appreciated.

As we made our way through the sea of people, the dancing and shots continued. We were handed tipples of what tasted like extra spicy eggnog, something resembling cough syrup and just the regular old viche we eventually came to know and tolerate. Chants of “Gringo! Gringo!” resounded as we danced with the locals. More shots were poured, more people eager to dance with us.

Groups broke into spontaneously choreographed dance, a shockingly impressive, real life version of the parade scene in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Whole groups – up to what seemed like more than 100 at a time – were singing and dancing in step. Circles of people would fall back at the waist while a man in the centre shot an invisible machine gun. Dozens of lines of people busted out their best Thriller as the band played Michael Jackson with a Colombian twist.

Everywhere people were cheering, singing and waving flags. Men, women and children were being launched high in the air before landing back on top of the hands of the masses to surf the crowd.

As unique as this experience was to Pacific Colombia, it still seemed to characterise the spirit of the whole country: perpetual music, laughter and passion.

“Really, I cannot tell you how happy I am to be here,” one Colombian told me as he waved a flag high. “I really feel blessed to be at this festival. I pray I can return next year.”

I would love to return next year, too. But next time I might bring along a bottle of rum.