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Introducing Cali & Southwest Colombia

From the sultry, palm-filled Valle del Cauca to the barren grandeur of the Andes, southwest Colombia encompasses an astonishing variety of natural beauty. Along the coast, mangrove swamps and long sand beaches give way almost immediately to dense jungle. Yet a little over 100km inland stand the snowy slopes of the towering Nevado de Huila (5750m). From its peak, you can by turns look down onto the sweltering Tatacoa Desert and the rolling green hills of Tierradentro and San Agustín, home to some of the most important pre-Columbian sites in the Americas. Heading south to the Ecuadorian border, dry, rugged highlands suddenly give way to lush, volcanic valleys around the High Andean cities of Pasto and Ipiales. All these contrasts will wow you, just as the variations in altitudes may leave you feeling a little dizzy.

The people of southwest Colombia are nearly as diverse as the landscape. In coastal towns such as Buenaventura and Tumaco, the population is almost exclusively of African descent. Along the Andes, there are a series of indigenous communities that are only partially integrated with the rest of Colombia. There is the small but surprisingly sophisticated Popayán, which is both a university town as well as one of Colombia's best-preserved colonial cities. And, finally, there's Cali with its pleasantly tropical climate and stunning mix of races and cultures, all of whom have embraced a love of salsa - the city's unofficial religion and favorite pastime.