Colombia is the only country in South America with access to both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. While Colombia’s Atlantic coast is taunted for all its beauty, history and culture – the Pacific coastline remains a guarded secret – like a family embarrassment they don’t want you to bring up and definitely don’t want you to visit.
There are only three access points to Colombia’s 865-mile-long Pacific coastline. Last June I visited Bahia Solano and Nuqui west of Medellin in the Choco region. A coastline only reached by boat or plane, and was impressed by its wild and remote natural beauty and pristine beaches.
See post – the Pacific beaches of Bahia Solano: colombiatravelreporter.com/colombias-north-pacific-coast
This year, against the advice of everyone I talked to, I decided to visit the beaches around the port city of Buenaventura in southern Colombia a 3-hour bus ride west of Cali. Being a port city and the only major Colombian city on the coast, there’s a modern highway going to the port offering the easiest access to the Pacific coast. A six lane highway tunnels through the mountains filled with trucks transporting containers to and from the port.
Overcoming Buenaventura’s Dicey Reputation
Colombians don’t encourage tourists to visit the beaches in this area due to the infamy of Buenaventura. A port city of 400,000, 60% of Colombia’s sea imports and exports pass through this town. The city is a gold mine for some but most of the city’s residents are poor. Meanwhile, the port city has also been a major transit hub for the country’s illegal drugs. In 2007 the cocaine wars made Buenaventura Colombia’s deadliest city.
Today, while the city is still rife with unemployment, gangs and violence, the murder rate is below the national average and the city is making a move to attract tourists. There is a tourism association of 120 businesses and they argue that Buenaventura is the best-kept tourism secret in Colombia today and promises a future for the town’s work force.
The culture of the Colombian Pacific is African inflected where an overwhelming Afro-Colombian population lives largely in small, scattered communities. Most are descended from slaves brought in by the Spaniards to work in gold mines. They have preserved their ancestral heritage of music and cuisine and it has been combined with a significant indigenous influence
Buenaventura is a busy, congested city, poor with rusted tin roofs and plaster sliding off the graffiti painted walls. The center of town, running along Calle 1, is packed with hotels serving port visitors and sailors with restaurants and bars blasting salsa music.
Heading Straight for the Beaches
Most tourists arrive at the bus station and head straight to the port to catch a boat to the nearby beaches without stopping in the city. “We heard the city was too dangerous,” one tourist said.
The beaches can only be reached by boats that leave from a dock in the port. At the train station there are booths selling tickets to the beaches outside of town. A ticket costs from $15 – $20 round trip depending on the beach one is heading to. There are boats going all the way up the coast to the landlocked, Pacific coastal town of Nuqui, a $45 fare from Buenaventura, which is half the cost of an airline ticket from Medellin.
It’s a short taxi ride to a dock called the ‘Muelle Turistico’ or tourist dock. Tickets can be bought here, too. After fighting through swarms of street hawkers you wait for your boat to be readied and full of passengers. The speed boat leaves the port at full throttle heading to beaches miles north of the city.
I got off at the beach of Pianguita. The boat pulls up short of the beach making the passenger’s jump out in waist deep water wading into shore holding their bags over their heads to keep them dry. A cluster of modest hotels, bars and restaurants line the beach front at the jungle’s edge.
Accommodations are rustic with plenty of places to stay for cheap. I stayed in a hotel with a private bath which included 3 square meals a day for $20 a day. The weekdays are quiet but it picks up on the weekends.
Not Many Visitors from Outside of Buenaventura
Most of the visitors are families from Buenaventura. Very few people were from the nearby city of Cali or from any other part of Colombia for that matter. Colombians traditionally choose to go to beaches on the country’s Caribbean coast or to the islands – like San Andres. These destinations are farther and more expensive, especially for the Colombian’s living in the south.
The hotels and restaurants serve meat and chicken or fish. Fish is the obvious fresh option and comes fried or in a stew with rice, fried plantains and lemonade. There is also an abundance of shrimp here which they serve up grilled, fried, in soups and with fried rice.
The silty brown sand beach stretches along a cove. It’s a nice beach that completely disappears at high tide in the early evening. At low tide the beach is scattered with plastic left by the withdrawing tide. Being so close to a port city, floating refuse is a problem, but not more so than it is around Cartagena or any other port city in the world.
The speed boats will ferry visitors up and down the coast stopping at the neighboring beaches of La Bocana, Maguipi, Juanchaco, La Barra, and Ladrilleros. They’ll pull up at waterfalls for dip.
The water is warm and the people spend hours just standing in the shallow water talking as the pelicans dive bomb for fish. Beach vendors will crack open a coconut for a buck. At low tide one can walk to neighboring beaches La Bocana to the south and Juanacho to the north. Just be sure to get back before high tide around 4 p.m. or risk crawling through the jungle to get home. Pressed for time? It’s best to hire a motorcycle for an expedited ride back to your hotel.
At night there’s not much to do. Pianguita is a safe laid-back pueblo. The tide comes up to the break wall in front on the restaurants. Join the crowd, grab a beer or an ice cream and watch the bats swoop. A few watch a soccer game on t.v. But most watch the fishermen standing waist deep in water under the restaurant lights. Every time one of them hooks a fish the crowd applauds and cheers.