How many people can simply nip to Colombia’s Pacific coast when they have a few days off for Easter? Well, mainly people in Colombia and luckily I am one of them. I’m not gloating (well, maybe a little), but simply highlighting the amazing diversity and opportunity for travel that living in Bogota offers.
Last week I (and about 4,000 of my closest friends) made my way to the coast for Easter. Flying into Buenaventura I was given the first glimpse of just how much this part of Colombia differed from most other parts and especially the capital. Thick jungle dominated the landscape, making it almost impossible for me to see where the airport was. No surprise, given that the small runway appeared out of nowhere amidst the tropical rainforest. The airport was a small room with a fridge selling drinks. I was reminded of the airport in Leticia, in Colombia’s Amazon, which surprised me, given the relative size of Buenaventura.
As we drove from the tiny airport to the port, I was struck by the image of a city that has experienced a long and gruelling decline; its dilapidated, once-grand architecture mixed with tin-roof shacks a stark reminder of its former glory that has all but vanished. For here, Colombia’s internal battle still rages, a fact that might elude those of us living in the big cities.
As Colombia’s largest port, Buenaventura is something of a drug superhighway, with conflict between drug cartels, rebel forces and now security services rightly giving the city the moniker of Colombia’s deadliest city. In fact, gunfire from the waterside slums can be heard daily and the murder rate is over 20 times that of New York. Set within this backdrop of crime and violence is the fact that unemployment in some parts of the city is as high as 70%, which simply exacerbates the problem, as it is incredibly easy for drug lords to recruit people. The poverty is overwhelming and most Bogotanos who visit are truly shocked by the level of deprivation.
Yet, despite all this, Buenaventura is a city with plenty to offer. As a gateway to Colombia’s Pacific coast, there is no doubt that the city will see improvements in the future, with more investment and tourism leading to greater interest from the political classes. For Buenaventura has largely been ignored by the authorities in Bogota, but now they have no choice but to pay it some much needed attention.
Once we arrived at the port, we took an extremely choppy and stomach-churning boat to Juanchaco and from there it is either another short boat ride or a motorbike journey to La Barra. The tiny village (whose population doubled with the arrival of a bunch of rowdy Bogotanos) consists of a couple of cabañas and some shacks serving up fried fish, rice and plantains. All the time.
As far as the beach is concerned, don’t expect the picturesque golden sands and crystal clear waters of the Caribbean coast. No, here you will find a different kind of beauty, raw and savage, with the jungle nonchalantly making its way down to the debris-strewn black sands and slightly murky waters. Perhaps I’m not selling it too well. For me, this beats the beaches of Tayrona and Santa Marta – untamed nature at its best. When the burning rays of the sun hit your face and you stare down a deserted, wild beach with a bottle of the coast’s finest viche (amazingly, there is a drink that is worse than aguardiente, but maybe that’s best saved for another day) there is almost nothing that can bring you down.
There is nothing to do here. Days are spent swimming, drinking, playing football and ignoring the fact that you haven’t washed for nearly a week. A short boat ride away is a small waterfall with a freshwater pool but apart from that you have to make your own entertainment. Hardly a chore to be honest and if you get bored somehow you can just summon some of the local children who will be more than happy to cheat while you play cards with them.
Amazingly, La Barra has a ‘club’. It is a room. Due to the heat, people prefer to dance outside. As a foreigner who is yet to master any kind of Colombian dance, there is little more emasculating than walking into a group of massive, ripped costeños with their shirts off who immediately proceed to steal all the women that you thought you had arrived with. So while the ladies cut some (mind-blowing) shapes with a variety of Pacific adonises, most of the lads opted for a cheeky arepa and a slight wiggle of our basically motionless hips.
Given the immense beauty of this region and the relative lack of tourism, this is a truly stunning place for a getaway. There is no doubt that the coming years will see an influx of visitors and an improvement of the infrastructure, but I would suggest going now to experience the Pacific as it should be – remote, scenic and fascinating.