Medellín’s story is linked inextricably with Colombia’s past few decades and has played a huge role towards the country’s reputation and international stigma.
Medellín is Colombia’s second largest city, snaking its way through the Aburra Valley in the northern Andes. Its weather is temperate, giving the city a reputation for having an eternal spring.
Most of the gringo hostels are located in El Poblado, a leafy, affluent suburb not too far from the town centre, located in the Zona Rosa, which is basically where all the hip bars and restaurants are at.
The city centre is a thriving hive and overwhelms the senses with the delicious meaty smells emanating from food stalls, the sights of the colourful fruit stands tempting your taste buds, the jostling of a crowd against you, and the calls of street sellers for you to buy their stuff, amigo.
The focal point is around Plaza Botero and Paseo Junin. This former is a large spacey square decorated with the statues of bloated people and animals typical to the Colombian artist Fernando Botero. The latter is a pedestrian strip full of classy clothing stores and a variety of different – but essentially Colombian – restaurants.
Yet Medellín is mostly famous for its violent history that allcomes down to one name: charlie, aka cocaine. And with the lure and power associated with controlling that tiny little white powder, we came to know the Medellín cartel and its leader, Pablo Escobar.
I’ll be honest. I knew little about this dude before my travels, but everyone says that if there is one thing to do in Medellín, it’s the Pablo Escobar tour and so that is precisely what I did.
The Pablo Escobar tour
A rather pricey tour teaches you all about Escobar’s exploits. At one time, he was estimated to be the seventh richest man in the world (with a personal wealth of some $24 billion), yet no one precisely knew the origins of his riches; it is widely believed he was responsible for up to 80% of the cocaine transported into the United States.
Escobar had a strategy called ‘plata o plomo‘, literally ‘silver or lead’, meaning that someone must accept a bribe or they die. Escobar once reportedly boasted that he was something like God because he could order the death of a person and the act would be committed before the day was out.
In this way, he rid himself of many of his enemies; people who supported extradition to the United States, judges, politicians who ran against him for congress (he won), and his arresting officers, to name but a few.
In the 1980s and 1990s, constant warring between the Medellín and Cali cartels created terror across all Colombia as civilians were constantly caught in the cross-fire. It is believed some 10,000 people died as a result of this conflict, which contributed immensely to Colombia’s reputation as a hugely violent country best avoided.
The tour takes you to Escobar’s former headquarters – now abandoned and covered in graffiti, just the remains of a car-bomb that exploded here – and Escobar’s gravestone.
Yet the best feature is meeting Escobar’s brother, also the former accountant of the Medellín cartel, Roberto Escobar.
One doesn’t know what to expect as this old man invites you into his home; he was imprisoned for 11 years and was clearly intimately involved with the goings-on of the cartel’s operations, so it’s easy to view him from a pedestal.
Yet the more time I spent with this old and fragile man, whose sight and hearing was impaired from a letter bomb sent to him in jail, the less suspicious of him I became.
He showed us around his home: his heavy bullet-proof van where a bullet had splintered the glass in one window; his secret compartment behind some shelves where he could hide from police or other enemies; the hidden spaces in his desk that could fit $US2 million; the bullet holes about the house as a result of a kidnap attempt on his children in 2010.
Through it all the man smiled, invited questions, and showed a sense of humour and clear love for his beautiful children. It’s difficult to condemn a man, I tell you, when you see him as simply another human.
Pablo Escobar died in a shoot-out in 1992 at the age of 44. Afterwards, the streets were cleaned up immensely so that today, young backpackers can wander Medellín without concern for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
People would say Medellín has an ugly history – and it certainly showcases more of the ugliness in humanity than I want to believe possible – but at the same time, it gives you hope.
Today, its people are kind, considerate and warm. Their optimism for the future, having endured a horrifying past, gives me courage that a community can recover from almost anything.
More of Colombia
Colombia is a diverse country with so much more on offer than you could ever expect: