One of Colombia’s Most Violent Cities Is Trying to Become the World’s Next Great Beach Resort

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Aug. 22 2014 9:09 AM

Beaches and Bodies in Buenaventura

Can a city known for bloody gang wars become a tourist mecca?

(Continued from Page 1)

Currently, Buenaventura has virtually no tourists, but Zuluaga estimates that it has 120 hotels, whose guests usually work for companies importing or exporting goods. Hotel Cordillera, where Zuluaga serves as director, now counts police and national security as guests. But the new five-star Hotel Cosmos, heralded by Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper as a major tourism investment, was largely empty during my visit. Buenaventura’s surrounding beaches attract about 290,000 tourists annually. But that rate dropped by about 10 percent this year as news of the brutal violence became widely known, Vente says. Even business travelers have started to avoid Buenaventura whenever possible.

Vente says the violence is confined to certain areas of the city, and the “tourist walk”—an approximately 20-block radius whose brick waterfront path features bright food and liquor tents blaring reggaeton, and uniformed soldiers slurping ice cream standing next to men getting outdoor shaves—remains unaffected.

 Buenaventura's main waterfront path.
Children play in the sand during low tide by Buenaventura's main waterfront path.

Photo by Meredith Hoffman

Other locals agree that Buenaventura has plenty of safe areas and they say the violence does not impact their daily lives. Jewelry-maker Gilberto Varon, who organizes a waterfront artisanal market, says people are safe as long as they don’t involve themselves with the rival gangs. Upscale restaurant owner Roul Monand says the conflict is just a part of life here, and it doesn’t overshadow the city’s vibrancy. “It’s like waking up and your wife has bad breath, you know you’re not going to leave her. You’re committed,” Monand says.

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But cross the wrong bridge, or turn the wrong corner, and the friendly city turns menacing, with neighborhoods even locals won’t visit. One evening I meet a group of local journalists dancing salsa at a discotheque downtown, and the tight-knit group quickly welcomes me into their circle, commending me for wanting to focus on the city’s tourism potential instead of its violence. The 1 a.m. walk back to Hotel Cordillera several blocks away feels relatively safe, with cops on the street and convenience stores still open. But the next morning, one of the journalists tells me there was a drive-by shooting just eight blocks away, in an enclave known for its high incidence of violence.

“There is a situation we are living in Buenaventura that is so enigmatic and unstable we don’t know what to do,” says Basilia Garcia, director of Extra Buenaventura newspaper. She tells me that there is plenty of news the paper can’t publish because it would put reporters at too much risk. I ask her why so many people have told me the violence isn’t that bad. “A person gets used to this. It becomes our natural state. … Yes, it bothers us that so many bad things are occurring, but it’s like being sick with no medicine. If you don’t have a solution, why complain?”

The current pier and boat launch
The current pier and boat launch.

Photo by Meredith Hoffman

Garcia doesn’t see the answer in tourism—but she agrees with Vente that travelers have never been targets in the city’s conflict. “The tourist has always been well-treated. You can come here and find incredible beaches and welcoming people,” she says.

The one foreign tourist I meet in Buenaventura—Marla Benoit, an American woman who caught a ride with me and my Colombian friend from Cali, a metropolis three hours west—finds herself captivated by the city. Benoit came to the city to go whale watching, but was also curious about the territory seemingly off-limits to the backpacker circuit. She felt safe walking around alone, and in the evening she watched the sunset over the waterfront and had a cocktail in a tropical outdoor bar, overlooking the stilted shacks in the sand.

“I thought about everything I’d read about Buenaventura before coming here and how it juxtaposed with my experience, and it made me wonder what I wasn’t seeing,” she says. “It made me think about how people can be under such pressure and have time to laugh.”

But most travelers who venture to the coast for whale watching or to visit the nearby beaches head to Buenaventura’s boat launch without stopping. “We heard it was too dangerous,” Antoine Sallier, a French traveler, tells me after going directly to the beach at Juanchaco, skipping Buenaventura.

This sentiment pains Zuluaga. But he acknowledges that the negative news of recent years was necessary to mobilize broader government support for the city. He tells me that Buenaventura is holding its first ever ecotourism festival for young people this fall, where experts from Ecuador and Costa Rica will give seminars on developing the local economy. “We’re just waking to this process.” he says. “It requires a change in culture, in our country’s whole way of thinking about Buenaventura.”

Meredith Hoffman, a freelance journalist in South America, has written for the New York Times and World Policy Journal, among others. Follow her on Twitter.