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.
The view from the top floor of the Hotel Cordillera, in the center of downtown Buenaventura, shows a mix of old houses, recent developments and a new hotel under construction. Photo: Meredith Hoffman
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 multi-million 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.