Buenaventura is the busiest port on Colombia’s Pacific Coast with a primarily Afro-Colombian population. In the world of trade, Colombia is unique in that it is the only South American country with ports in both the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans. This facilitates more access for imports of U.S. products into both Colombia and inland South American countries, including red meat, which was my reason for visiting this humid port city cut out from the surrounding jungle.
If you do an Internet search of Buenaventura, you will find a) the U.S. State Department says you should NOT go there and b) the rest of the headlines will terrify you. We were with locals the entire time and never had any issues.
The first thing to note is that Buenaventura is very difficult to get to. You can fly into Cali and drive there, but we took the once every-other-day flight from Bogotá due to some travel restrictions that our colleagues had to follow. The airport is tiny and tucked into a little sliver of cleared jungle. You can even watch the planes come in through an open window while waiting to go through security at the airport’s single gate. How cool is that?
We stayed at the newest hotel in the city, the Cosmos Pacifico Hotel. The rooms were well-appointed and modern, with a small patio to each. I tried one of the treadmills in the gym for about 45 seconds before deciding swimming in the high heat and humidity was a much better option. I recommend doing laps in the rooftop infinity pool instead, taking routine breaks to look out over the city and river. It was the perfect morning workout and also provided a nice afternoon reprieve from the 80-90% humidity that I was struggling with.
Buenaventura has been working to promote eco-tourism in the area, which is not surprising based on its ideal location on the river, ocean coast, and jungle. However, it still faces an uphill battle to get over its violent reputation, which scares many away. The city is so starved for business travelers and tourists that you really do get the absolute best in customer service. Every hotel employee I interacted with was very polite and readily willing to help with anything I needed. I was even able to practice my Spanish and get an $8 dollar manicure in the hotel’s salon. (Side note: This was the longest lasting manicure I have ever gotten. I am still on the hunt for this “miracle” nail polish.) I didn’t test out any of the other spa services, but they did also offer haircuts, pedicures, and massages. We spent the first night on the rooftop watching the boats come in on the river. The evenings cooled off a bit, but even with the heat, we had to be conscious to wear long sleeves and pants or insect repellant as there were billboards all over the city warning about chikungunya (similar to dengue).
Our last day in Buenaventura included lunch at the Leños y Mariscos Restaurant. The view over the river is probably not the most scenic you are ever going to witness, but the delicious seafood and nice breeze through the open restaurant make up for it. Even though you are already sweating buckets, I recommend the seafood cazuela (stew). We tried one with a mix of squid, shrimp, crab, and piangua, a type of shellfish collected from the local mangroves.
During pre-dinner drinks on the rooftop, and due to a slight mix-up with some work catering we had ordered that day, we each got a gift of special crèma de viche, a.k.a. a drink that tastes like eggnog, looks like Caesar dressing, and is supposed to increase your fertility. Not exactly what my pre-nuptial self was looking for, but pretty tasty if you can get past the dressing-like appearance.
For dinner, we walked about ten minutes from our hotel to AmBar at the Hotel Torre Mar and shared a giant cookie sheet of fried seafood and plátanitos. It was large enough to barely be finished by our group of six. I finally had my first taste of the anise-flavored liqueur, aguardiente, served by the bottle with tiny little plastic cups. Not my cup of tea, so for the rest of the night, I stuck to my old favorite by then, Club Colombia Red.
After dinner, we ventured downstairs, ending up in what I originally thought was the basement, only to find out it was a discotech. It reminded me of a retro diner with its checkered floors and red chairs, but jazzed up with a DJ booth and strobe lights. I learned, or attempted to learn, how to salsa dance, but mainly just sat in awe as we watched the locals dance every form of salsa imaginable. Sometimes it was R-rated, but always absolute art, and literally the most amazing dancing I have ever witnessed. One bottle of aguardiente and many Club Colombias later, we strolled back to our hotel sometime after 1 a.m. to get ready for our early morning flight back to Bogotá.
The constant presence of the national military in this part of the city was both intimidating and comforting, but having locals take us out to those places we probably wouldn’t have ventured out to on our own ended up making that night the highlight of my trip.