Buenaventura, Colombia’s Uncharted Food Paradise Is More Than Meets the Eye

Walking into the best food market in Colombia is an experience all on its own.  Tucked deep inside a temporary storage yard, the dozens of garage stall kitchens would be all but invisible if it weren’t for the half dozen ladies waving their menus at each passerby.  Entering the makeshift food court without one of these kitchen owners alongside means an almost guaranteed squabble as to who claims the newest customer.  The small concrete courtyard is filled with plastic tables and surrounded by mini restaurants, each identifiable solely by their stall number.  We had followed a young lady to stall 92, and were now being served a bubbling cauldron brimming with cazuela del marisco.  Resembling a thick seafood étouffée, this dish displays the Afro-Colombian influences which make up the rich culture in this port city.  This was like discovering New Orleans without the spice or the price.

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Triple (“tree-play”), a local specialty, is usually a combination of shrimp (camarones), surf clam (piangua) and crab meat (carne de jaiba) and is typically served with rice, salad, fried plantains (patacones) and fresh lemonade

Until lately, it would have been a risky venture to visit this town of 400,000, located on the Pacific Ocean, about three hours from the better known city of Cali.  More recently than other parts of Colombia, this town had been an epicenter for the drug trade, often experiencing violent drug wars.  While this problem has not entirely vanished, it has now been tamed by the constant presence of rifle toting policemen who are stationed in most parts of the city.

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The pristine park is a clear representation of the city’s attempt to re-identify itself

The culture is heavily shaped by the majority population descending from slaves brought by the Spanish in the 17th century blended with a Pacific Colombian vibe.  While the town may not have the colors or charm of Cartagena, Jardin, or others, it does have a unique feel which we found refreshing after spending the previous month in the country.  A visit to Buenaventura may not be for every traveler, but the unique culture and cuisine of this area put it squarely among the best experiences in the country.  This city is better fit for second time visitors or those wanting to diversify their taste of Colombia.

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Many restaurants are open only at lunch or until they run out of fresh seafood

Our trip began with two days in an Airbnb shared with Luis, a smiling example that there is more to the people here than what the dire headlines often read.  He happily showed us a safe route to walk to the Centro where a majority of the activity is located.  Despite our original plan for a short trip, our visit to stall 92 had us quickly add a couple nights to our stay.

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People gather in the park by the water every evening

Despite warnings from several locals including one slightly disturbing “look out for the Mafia” comment from a fruit vendor, we always felt safe during our five day visit.  We found a town full of helpful people, mostly quick to offer a friendly “bienvenidos” or directions to the rarely seen foreigner.  In one memorable encounter, the owner / server / chef of a restaurant we visited walked us to a shop nearby, ensuring that we did not wander astray while searching for groceries.  She even wrote down her number to call if we needed help while in town, and refused our offered tip for dinner.  While we tend to be slightly more adventurous than average, we did note this not to be a place to aimlessly explore on foot, especially after dark.

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Outside of the Centro, the town is not particularly notable

We ended up moving to the Centro, although its ocean side location at the far northwestern tip of the city on Isla Cascajal is anything but centered.  The area is mostly along Calle 1, and flanked by a large city park and a handful of decent hotels which overlook the playgrounds and coast.  At any time of day, the courts, playground and waters edge are filled people playing, soaking up the sun, and enjoying salsa rhythms in this new freedom from violence.

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Early morning is one of the few times the park isn’t full of locals

Without any agenda, we found ourselves wandering through the park a couple times daily.  Along the water are people selling snacks including fresh coffee, ice cream popsicles (the chunky coconut is the best) and biche, a local ceviche style shredded mango.  Grabbing a 1,000 peso espresso and watching a handful of kites soar hundreds of meters overhead is always a bonus.

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Look for waving menus and Isla signs immediately to the south of the park across from the Centro Administrativo building to find the hidden food court

As a side trip, we ventured 45 minutes from the center to visit San Cipriano Nature Reserve.  By hopping on one of the “Ruta 5 Cordoba” collectivos (shared vans which allows passengers to hop on and off along a certain route) from the Centro, we were delivered straight to the small village of Cordoba for a mere 3,000 pesos each.  This is one of two entrance ways into the park, which is accessible from here solely by brujitas, one of the more ingenious local inventions.  These modified wooden carts powered by motorcycle transport small groups of passengers along an old railway line.  For 12,000 pesos, the “vehicle” takes visitors 15 minutes to and from the park through the steamy forest.

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The brujita is powered solely by a motorcycle which is rigged so the back tire sits atop the track

We spent some time walking around the park, which requires a meager 2,000 peso entry fee, but opted to forgo the optional guided tour.  The reserve, a dense jungle located along a crystal clear river, was nothing special but the ride in and out made the trip a must.  Including the collectivo from the Centro in Buenaventura, the total cost of our self guided adventure was only 17,000 pesos per person ($6 USD), far less than the 175,000 day tours offered from agents online.  You could also extend your trip by tubing the river for 10,000 pesos or staying overnight at a cabin in the park.

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San Cipriano is an unsurprising but clean nature reserve with a clear river and a couple waterfalls

The port of Buenaventura serves as a hub to import mainly Chinese goods.  While the oceanfront here is nothing special, off the coast are a series of islands and beaches surrounding the Urangua Malaga Bay National Park.  This is where the few visitors that do venture into the city typically end up.  There are a handful of destinations accessible from the boat dock at the north end of the city park, with prices clearly marked on the series of ticket windows out front.  Some of the further beaches, including Juanchaco and Ladrilleros, are said to be beautiful in that coastal Pacific way and mostly vacant save for a handful of restaurants and ocean front cabañas.

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The port is colorful and mostly clean

We made an ill fated attempt at a day trip to Ladrilleros, accessible only via a 70,000 peso round trip to the dock at Juanchaco.  Despite assurances that the first boat would depart at 8:00am, we waited until around 9:00 before finding out that there were not enough passengers for a departure until later that day.  Apparently two people does not justify the trip, proving that the beach would have been almost entirely our own.

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The ride along the rails on a brujita towards San Cipriano

With our freshly returned pesos, we decided to reinvest them in what made us fall in love with Buenaventura from the start.  Ocean front with a steaming plate of seafood and a fresh espresso, we were reminded that shaky tourist infrastructure in seaside towns such as this have their own form of charm.  There are plenty of places to visit with well trodden paths and reliable times, but only the uncharted offer that obscure experience which some people crave.

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Cazuela del Marisco, a chunky stewed mix of clam, shrimp, fish, squid, shark, sea snail or whatever other fresh catch is available, served in a boiling pot with rice, salad and patacones.

If you want more inspiration for your Colombia trip, make sure to check out:

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