Cali in Colombia is a city that got rich in the 1980s and 90s on the back of the drugs trade, but it is now celebrated for another industry: sex. Kurt Hollander’s series of images and commentary give a vivid picture of sex in a city where anything from an ice cream parlour to a liquor store can double as a brothel.
Cali proudly refers to itself as the Salsa Capital, the “sweetest”, most “partying” city in Colombia, and also as El Sucursal de Cielo (the equivalent to Heaven on Earth). The fact is that Cali enjoys tropical heat year-round,is famous throughout Colombia and beyond for having the most sensual women, and is a city where everyone dances, people drink and smoke pot on the street and cocaine is purer and cheaper than anywhere else in the world. It is also the second least polluted city in Latin America and with very low levels of stress. Given all that, it’s no wonder that sex is so widespread and mostly without taboos.
On my first trip to Cali, I lived for two weeks in a suite (complete with jacuzzi and sauna) in Motel Kiss Me and spent my days taking photographs of the 180 themed rooms. Kiss Me is one of Cali’s most recognisable buildings, not just because of the 17 metre high Aphrodite on its rooftop, but also because a significant portion of the local population, couples of all colours, ages and genders, have passed through its lobby to enjoy sex in rooms alongside exotic paintings and art installations representing the world’s greatest cultures.
On my next trip, I took photographs of the dozens of other love motels that service locals throughout the city and of the city’s most traditional institutions of sex. Bar la 20 has been around for almost 50 years and is the city’s largest whorehouse. Even though it is located in one of the most dangerous parts of the city centre, as many other bordellos and sex clubs are, the place fills up on most nights. There’s a disco where everyone can dance, a place to watch live sex shows and customers can have sex in any of the dozens of rooms within the hotel. El Escoces, by contrast, is a high-class men’s club that has been around for over 50 years, catering to the city’s elite and to the infrequent tourist.
Prostitution in Cali has always been legal and is well integrated into a local culture. There are discos, bars, fuentes de soda (something like ice cream parlours), cybercafés, pool halls, sex shops, and liquor stores that all double as whorehouses. The Cine Mariscal Sucre, once one of the city’s cinema palaces, is now dedicated to showing international porn films while women offer sexual services right in the seats during the show (other porn cinemas have transvestites working the crowds).
The rise of the Cali Cartel throughout the 80s and 90s – cited at one point as having control of 90% of the world’s market in cocaine – and the huge amounts of cash that poured into the city changed everything within the world of sex there. Where once sports used to mould the local women’s bodies into shape, now aesthetic surgery became the city standard (even the mannequins in clothes stores are incredibly well-endowed) and luxuriously tacky discos, hotels, men’s club and bordellos sprang up throughout the city.
Since international sex tourism tends to avoid Cali due to its high level of violence, Cali exports its erotic capital internationally. Colombia is currently number two in the world, behind only Romania, in providing erotic videochat for the web. The first of such studios was created in Cali, and there are now several large studios with dozens of rooms in which mostly women, but also transvestites and men, play with themselves in rooms designed like film sets for their clients in the USA and Europe.
What particularly characterises the very varied interior and exterior architecture of sex in Cali is the desire to add a touch of class and a bit of fantasy to love-making. These venues work hard to provide an environment that is more exotic than erotic, something the people from Cali naturally and abundantly supply for themselves.
– Kurt Hollander is a writer and photographer, originally from New York City but has lived in Mexico City since the 20th century. In 2012 he published his autobiographical book Several Ways to Die in Mexico City. His photography series on the abandoned city of Tampico, Mexico, was nominated for this year's Prix Pictet.