Colombia Chapter 2- Escobar's Medellín - Andy's Travelogues

Colombia Chapter 2

Escobar's Medellín

After a week in the climatically inhospitable Bogotá, I take a bus to Escobar’s homeland. I’m heading for Medellín. If you’ve seen the much-vaunted, raw, gritty and, from my perspective, hilarious Narcos (2015), heading to Medellín is the last thing on your mind.

Medellín isn’t going to get that tag off easily, and the locals know it. So they don’t even want to talk about it too much. Pablo Escobar is “the criminal” to them, and they prefer not to say his name. On a group tour, there are about 30 of us and a guide. Most of us want to ask questions about Escobar and the Narcos series that has mediaised/sold Colombia and Medellín quite well. Our guide doesn’t shy away from the topic, but he does process it very quickly:

“It’s still very fresh for us, a lot of us lost family members and a lot of friends during that time. When we have to talk about it, it’s like someone twisting a knife stuck in our stomach. It’s better not to say anything about the show, it’s shallow and the reality was much more raw.”

In movies and TV shows, Escobar is described as being something of a Robin Hood to a certain class of people. That, according to those here, is about half true. “Robin Hood” was only for the poor who worked for Escobar, he supposedly didn’t look down on the rest. Our guide put it at about 3-4% of Medellín residents may have previously thought Escobar was a do-gooder.

And how does Medellín work? Much more modern, cleaner and safer than Bogotá. For example, I was interested in the overground and its importance to Medellín. They worship it almost to the point of reverence, the stops are polished, the carriages are free of litter and using it is just a pleasure. The elevated crosses the whole of Medellín, allowing anyone to get from any part of Medellín to the opposite part within an hour (very simplistically speaking). This seems like a given, but for the people of Medellín it is a godsend. Without the overground, they would have to travel up to maybe 4 hours by bus to work or school, which just wasn’t happening. The accessibility to jobs and education that is now there because of the elevated line helps greatly in reducing crime. Whereas in the 1990s the number of tourists in Medellín did not exceed 10,000, today it is counted in the hundreds of thousands. More tourists, more opportunities to earn a legal living, lower crime.

I also asked Oscar in Bogotá what he thought of Escobar and Narcos. He didn’t really want to talk about it either. He was about 15-18 when Escobar was killed two blocks from where his parents live. He lost a few friends to this narc. I got to thinking that Oscar had a college degree and was an architect…I assumed all that blood and snow history was more about the lower classes living in the slums. Apparently not.

Medellín - Kolumbie

Jorque a jeho přítelkyně

Jorque je Kolumbijec, rodilý v Medellínu. Sektáváme se ve čtvrti, kde mám hostel. Hned mi kupuje lahváče a sedáme si v parku mezi dalších 100 mladých lidí a povídáme si o životě v Kolumbiji. Pití lahváče v parku pro nás Čechy zní možná trošku pod úroveň, ale ne tak v Kolumbiji. O něco později přichází i Jorqueho přítelkyně Johana (popis: Kolumbijka), usmívá se a usrkává ze svého lahváče 🙂 Oba jsou ohromně vřelí a přátelští. Vymýšlejí, co můžeme podniknout a zvou mě na grilování v širším okruhu rodiny. Připomínám jen, že Jorqueho jsem poznal před 5 lety v Anglii a viděli jsme se tehdá všeho všudy možná tak 5x.
Colombia Chapter 2 1

Kazachtánec UX

Colombia Chapter 2 2

The next day they introduce me to a young Kazakh man, Anatalov, who wants to spend 2 months in Medellín in their apartment for no reason. Otherwise, he lives with his family in California. Anatalov likes to sleep. Sometimes 13 hours a day. Anatalov wants to be a UX designer and is working on his portfolio. He can’t answer why he’s in Medellin and why he wants to stay so long.

Honestly, I have to say that I have always had a bit of a negative attitude towards the Germans and the Russians. All I know about them is from history lessons or from their tourist raids on my hometown of Karlovy Vary. So, prejudice is not an issue. While I’ve gotten to know a number of Germans in the course of my travels and can say that they are absolutely wonderful and incredibly friendly people, I haven’t gotten to know that many Russians. And Anatalov, unfortunately, did not exactly become an example of “Russian inferiority”. Which may be due to the combination with the Californian climate, so for now I’m throwing Anatalov in the same bag with the Var comrades and I’ll wait for the next comrade who will hopefully paint the picture of the Ivans in different colours.

Trip to the slam

I meet the Kazakh man at the overground stop and we don’t even have to pay any more tickets and we take the cable car straight from the stop towards the hills surrounding the whole town. In the hills there are straws spread out. Dwellings of poofy walls and mostly corrugated iron roofs. Watching it from a safe distance from the cable car is an interesting experience. It’s like peering into the kitchen of your neighbour in the opposite block of flats and not blinking with curiosity to see if you might see something unfair or naughty. At the same time, you feel a subtle spasm of fear in your stomach that the neighbor will look in your direction and see you.

Actually, we’re not even going to the slam, but to a nature park just outside the city limits. We take the cable car for about 20 minutes (it’s a long, long cable car). The nature park sucked, the Kazakh insisted that we shorten our journey, which should have taken about 20 minutes on foot, by riding horses. We’re both nearly two metre giants, whereas the local Colombian Pointers are rather overgrown dogs. When I was ten, I occasionally jumped on Grandpa’s pig and played cowboy, but I never jumped on Grandpa’s wolfhound, poor dog! Poor Columbian Pointers! Their knees buckled like a drunken 14-year-old.

The horses trotted their circuit in a completely different direction than where we were headed, so we paid and set off again on our 20 minute trail. On the way, the Kazakh was grumbling like a race that he didn’t want to walk that far and that it wouldn’t be worth it anyway. We didn’t really see anything interesting there, a one meter waterfall and a small river. We return to the slam.

This time, as we transfer between cable cars, we rebelliously step out of the line of tourists and enter the ground of the real slam, descending from the safe heights into the rough suburbs. We head to a restaurant that overlooks the whole of Medellín. All the accommodation we pass is a display of stark poverty, but the designer clothing shops and sleek restaurants quickly transform the image of Medellín’s slums into an open-air park. It’s like touching a cobra that’s had all its teeth pulled out.

Colombia Chapter 2 3

Colombian seahorses resemble an overgrown dog in stature. And since I’m the biggest (no matter what), I was rightfully given the tallest horse. Which unfortunately only had 3 legs.

Granades, exploding obese birds and Botero

Back to the centre. Walking through Medellín, you can’t help but notice the plump sculptures by local artist Botero. I’ve seen his art in a gallery in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he’s also very popular. His sculptures are huge and very expensive. However, the artist himself has donated over 30 bronze sculptures to the city to make it a more cultured and better place to live.

The last stop on the guided tour is San Antonio Square in the city centre, where there is hardly a foot in sight. The guide explains why. This square used to be used for cultural events and was always bustling with life. There was even a bird sculpture by Botero. Someone put a backpack full of explosives in it. They killed about 30 people, including children and women. The mayor wanted the exploded bird statue removed. But Botero talked him out of it, told him to leave it where it was, as a reminder, and that he would add a new bird next to it to show that Medellín would not give up in the fight for a better future.


In Medellín, art is used to fight crime and it works. In places where crime used to be common, the city has built parks, galleries, and plazas, slowly pushing vice to the outskirts of the city. That doesn’t happen in Bogotá, for example, where you can suddenly find yourself in a downtown neighborhood and run away quickly as soon as you realize that hungry vultures are circling overhead.

Getaway to Guatape

Jorque suddenly falls ill and crashes the family barbecue. Johana writes me almost every day and advises me what else I should visit and asks how I am. She continues to write to me after I leave Medellín and throughout my stay in Colombia. Look no further than Colombian helpfulness and friendly efforts to help. Very nice. Medellín offers a lot to explore, I still visit the small historic village in the center of town, which has retained its charm of the past, probably due to its position on the hill.

And right after that I run to the lake meadows and groves near (supposedly) the most colorful village in the world, Guatape.

Something about the city of Medellín

I don’t know why, but I can’t think of much to do in Medellín, and yet I feel like there are so many things to do in Medellín. Maybe it’s the atmosphere here.

  • The first thing to do as soon as you arrive in Medellín is book a Free walking tour for the next day (reservations are on the website). It’s in English, they’ll show you the highlights of downtown Medellín, explain why Medellín is the way it is, why Colombia is the way it is, tell you where to try the typical cuisine, and show you places you’ll want to come back to over time. So the sooner you do that, the better.
  • The cable car ride over the slams is definitely worth it, and you can combine it with a trip to Arví Natural Park. Don’t expect too much from the park, though, just think of it as a nature walk.
  • In the Poblado district, going to the parks in the evening (there are 2 bigger ones) to drink a bottle or two is not a bad idea. Get there early, around 10pm the cops might be forcing people to stop drinking. In Colombia you can’t drink in public, but in places where people gather the police tolerate it until a certain hour.
  • Pueblito Paisa is a historic village on a hill in the center of town. It’s well worth the climb.
  • Beware that the airport in Medellín, which is visible on Google maps, is not usually flown from there. The airport from where you fly to Bogotá, Cartagena etc is about an hour by bus from Medellín. I recommend going to Guatape from Medellín and then not returning to Medellín from Guatape because there is an airport halfway there.