Colombia's Buenaventura: A Destination for the Intrepid

Pleasant beaches lie off the coast of a rather grim-looking city
Colombia's Buenaventura: A Destination for the Intrepid

Buenaventura is a small city on Colombia's pacific coast that is home to the country's largest port. For the most part, Buenaventura makes it into the news, and into the international limelight, only when reporters make reference to the serious political and security problems which blight much of the city, especially its poorest neighborhoods.

As you might imagine, a port city that is famous for security problems has not proved to be a huge hit with holiday makers. Tourism -- of both the domestic and international kind -- is pretty minimal as a result.

This port city, famous for its security problems, has not proved to be a huge hit with holiday makers

Indeed, if you're looking for an entirely relaxed atmosphere or for a tourism destination loaded with top notch restaurants, hotels and bars, Buenaventura is not the spot for you. This city cannot offer you what you're looking for. You should probably skip it too if you don't speak much (or any) Spanish; it's a difficult place to navigate round if your language skills aren't up to much.

So, Buenaventura is not for everyone. But neither is it fair to say, as the Lonely Planet has done, that the only reason to go to the city is to catch transport away from it again.

Buenaventura offers more interest than that. In particular, the city (and more accurately the beaches which lie off it) will appeal to those who like to travel to unusual destinations, as well as anyone who has been in Colombia for a while and wants to avoid returning to the increasingly well-visited beaches of the Caribbean coast.

If you do decide to go, make sure to push straight on through the run-down and grotty city center and head out instead to the beaches which lie farther along the coast.

Buenaventura City Center

Downtown Buenaventura has remarkably few attractions or points of interest for tourists (or locals, for that matter). It is one of the poorest cities in Colombia and is in no danger of being described as picturesque. As already mentioned, it is the site of the country's largest cargo port - in terms of value of goods transported - and what little tourist infrastructure exists mainly caters to business visitors in the immediate vicinity of the docks.

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There are a small number of mediocre hotels, bars and restaurants round here. In between these establishments though you'll often find large numbers of heavily armed troops on patrol. Their presence actually makes this the most secure part of town, but the sight of so many soldiers and guns can be more than a little disconcerting. It is hard to fully relax into vacation mode when the repeated passing of troop-laden military trucks serves as a constant reminder that all is not well in Buenaventura.

Foreigners that have been in Colombia for a little while, the city will hold more interest

Foreigners that have been in Colombia for a little while will probably find central Buenaventura interesting, at the very least, because it is so different from the rest of the country. This even goes for the local population, which is overwhelmingly comprised of Afro-Colombians, and who speak Spanish with the distinctive accent of Colombia's Pacific coast.

In terms of its architecture and infrastructure, Buenaventura is almost like a monument to the problems of political corruption and underdevelopment. Much of the city is comprised of informal housing, and countless half-finished, derelict-looking buildings and public works are dotted about all over the place. These semi-completed constructions are the sad legacy left by the string of light-fingered administrations that have run the city over the years. Such sights give you a radically different view of the reality of Colombian daily life, that the one you get from spending time in the upmarket districts of cities like Bogota and Medellin.

The Beaches

With so little on offer in the main city, it is easy to see why most who come to Buenaventura choose to spend their time instead at the significantly more attractive natural and beach destinations found a short boat tide away.

If you wish to do likewise, you'll need to pay a bit of attention to the transport schedule. Speedboats to the beaches leave from the city’s port throughout the day, but only at infrequent intervals (check at the port for the latest departure times). From July to November, whale watching tours also leave from the port, with departures mainly scheduled for the early morning.

Most travelers visit Buenaventura only to catch the boat to more attractive natural and beach destinations nearby

After heading out of the docks, the speedboats will whiz you past a string of dramatic rock formations and jungle habitat before reaching sandier spots. The most famous of Buenaventura's beaches are Juanchaco, Ladrilleros and La Barra. While you shouldn't expect luxury, all of these three villages do at least have a handful of budget and mid-range accommodation options.

The three areas are home to typical Pacific beaches, meaning the sea is wilder and the sand darker in color than is the case on the Caribbean side. However, the dramatic landscape, of beaches flanked by rock formations and wooded terrain, gives the area a markedly different appeal to the sanitized beaches of Cartagena.

The fact that tourism levels are substantially lower, the terrain more rugged and the beach access much more challenging (you'll have to scramble over along some muddy tracks and through coca palms to get to some areas) also adds to the whole sense of adventure of the place.

For most of the year, these beaches are all but deserted

Your reward will be the huge stretches of sand, and the smaller bays, which are all but deserted for most of the year. The exceptions to this rule are the periods are Semana Santa (or Easter) in March / April, and in whale watching season which runs approximately from June to October or November. At these times, the number of tourists at Buenaventura's beaches increases a lot - though the place never gets seriously busy.

Some Practicalities

Boats from Buenaventura will leave you directly at Juanchaco. It is well worth catching one of the waiting mototaxis from here to get to Ladrilleros; a beach nestled within a small bay. The better quality of the beach, and greater distance from the docks and boat fumes, mean that Ladrilleros is a better place to spend your days.

Ladrilleros also has more options of places to stay, which range in price from about 30,000 COP per night for a basic cabaña, up to around 100,000 COP for the higher-end options. Waves are of a reasonably decent size - good enough that you can have a fun time on one of the body / surf boards which are available to rent here.

To reach the larger, untouched, beach of La Barra visitors need to walk approximately 2km along a track through the wood to gain access. There is almost no tourist infrastructure here – part of its charm – so very few people stay here overnight. It's better just to go for the day and return to Ladrilleros before dark.

Buenaventura's Transport Options

There are two main ways to reach the city: by bus (from Cali) or by plane. The small airport, located about half an hour outside Buenaventura, has a very limited offering with direct flights only to/from Bogota, Pereira in the coffee region, Quibdo and Bajo Baudo. Routes are operated by local airlines Satena and Aexpa.

The bus journey from Cali is unexpectedly pleasant thanks to the constantly varying scenery

Most people come by bus from Cali’s main terminal. The 130km journey takes a surprisingly long time (about 3 and a half hours) because of the difficult topography, limited availability of dual carriageway and the presence of police and military checkpoints just outside Buenaventura. That said, it is an unexpectedly pleasant journey thanks to the constantly varying scenery.

Starting from the scruffy bus terminal in the low lying, hot city of Cali, you rise up into the fresher climate of the Cordillera Occidental - the Andean ridge traversing the west of the country - before then descending down again into the tropical, humid climate of Buenaventura at the end of the journey.

When in Buenaventura itself it is sensible to travel by taxi between most destinations. In the port area, you can wander around on foot due to the better security here. If moving around and between the beaches, you'll go either on foot or by motorbike taxi, rather than by car. Roads here are essentially dirt tracks, making it difficult for large vehicles to negotiate.

A Small Note of Warning

Security in Buenaventura is significantly better today than it was around 2007, but the situation still periodically fluctuates. While any violent incidents here overwhelmingly affect local residents and not international visitors, it may still be wise to consult the latest travel advice of your national government before planning a trip to the city.

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