BUENAVENTURA, Colombia—At a bright stucco hotel, a burly man in a purple checked shirt looks proudly over the city’s port, crowded with cargo ships, fishing skiffs, and stilted shanties. He points to the lush green strip across the bay, a brand new five-star hotel, and the boat launch for whale-watching trips. “Buenaventura, the best ecotourism destination in Colombia,” Edwin Zuluaga, director of Buenaventura’s Association for Tourism and Culture, reads off the first slide of a PowerPoint presentation. “Buenaventura has incredible touristic potential.”
Zuluaga’s ambitious presentation obscures a darker reality about Colombia’s principal port city: The ships and stilts out the window hover over a watery graveyard, a dumping ground for those who have fallen prey to ongoing violence. A horrific war between rival gangs has turned this impoverished city of 400,000 people on Colombia’s Pacific coast into the country’s most violent city, featuring “chop-up houses”—where people are reportedly dismembered alive—and one of the highest murder rates in the world. Colombia’s military is arriving in large numbers to restore order in the city, whose coastal position also makes it a major drug trafficking hub.
Meanwhile, locals are battling to transform their city’s reputation, arguing that Buenaventura is the best-kept tourism secret in Colombia. They hope the city’s natural beauty—pristine beaches, dozens of intersecting rivers, rich biodiversity—can overshadow its reputation for unspeakable violence.
“In two years we will have changed the image of Buenaventura,” Zuluaga says. Since the launch of his tourism association—a two-year-old consortium of 120 business owners and arts and culture representatives—the national government has invested in Buenaventura’s beautification and infrastructure development. President Juan Manuel Santos visited this month and announced construction of a multimillion-dollar waterfront park and walkway, and the city is currently converting a downtown street into a pedestrian path. Zuluaga’s association is working with boat operators to create more structured tours down the river to various beaches near the city, and is planning a new tourism route through five of the safer downtown neighborhoods.
In recent years, as Colombia emerged from its decades-long guerrilla war, the economy has boomed and tourism has flourished. But in Buenaventura, feuding gangs—the Urabeños and the Empresa, both successors to the paramilitary groups that were formed to fight the leftist FARC guerrillas—routinely terrorize local populations, threaten local journalists for reporting crimes, and sometimes kill young children. Adding to the madness, Colombian guerrilla fighters last month targeted the city with a bombing that cut off electricity for days. Police have done little to improve the situation, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, which found that police avoided patrolling high-crime neighborhoods and have been seen holding meetings with gang members.
Efren Vente, director of the city tourist office, notes that tourism could offer crucial jobs in a city with about 40 percent unemployment, and where jobless youth are easy recruits for gangs. “Tourism is the prime option for the development of economic opportunity here,” Vente says, noting that even though Buenaventura moves about 60 percent of Colombia’s imports and exports, the money never reaches residents.
“We’re living in a gold mine, but we’re poor. … Young people have to realize that tourism is an option for their careers.” He points to nearby San Cipriano, where tourism has thrived and violence has subsided, as an example of what Buenaventura could become.