What to do in Medellin? Certainly, you can’t plan what just happened to me, but you might get close. Watch the video below to see the story, or read on:
I grew up in Romania thinking that Medellin, Colombia, was the worst city in the world. It was because I heard daily news about the hundreds of gruesome murders, from politicians to journalists.
Stories of Pablo Escobar, Popeye (Escobar’s hitman, responsible for the deaths of over 3,000 people), blood baths, and car bombings were fascinating, yet frightening. Yet, I was intrigued – because I was a huge soccer fan – how the Medellin Cartel sponsored the local soccer team and the Colombian national team (despite the criminal activities, both teams did extremely well – Nacional Medellin winning Copa Libertadores in 1999) and gave support to schools, hospitals, and other public institutions.
The Medellin Cartel’s blood full stories made me scared, at 13, to ever end up in Colombia. Although deep down or secretly, I wanted to. It must have been that “going there will be like going to a movie set” kind of mindset.
Life beats the art, though.
I ended up in Medellin two and half decades later. And as faith would have it, I ended up face-to-face with Popeye, aka Jhon Jaime Velasquez. But I will get to that in a minute.
The city is phenomenal. I have seen 50 countries so far, and Colombia is my second favorite. The first one was Bermuda (check out my article/video on the truth about the Bermuda Triangle mystery, as I am also giving away a free hotel room and a car to drive while there).
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In Colombia, people are extremely friendly. Thousands of joggers are seen running through the neighborhoods; public gyms are populated at night, Zumba sessions are in plain sight in a mall (Unicentro), and – my favorite – not once, was I the victim of an attempted scam.
Not to mention that Medellin probably has some of the best nightlife out there – I had a blast.
The Attack of the Teenage Prostitutes
People warned me about the scammy ‘mujeres’ and how they would try to lure one into all kinds of scenarios. I never had a problem in dealing with the ladies, so Medellin was an easy breeze. Except for the night, when I couldn’t run fast enough from Maria Luisa, a 19-year old prostitute. It happened in Parque Lleras, which is the best neighborhood to party in Medellin.
After she had said hi to my friend Nathan and I, she took her iPhone out to use Google Translate – just to let me know her name, her age, and the fact that I won’t be ‘escaping’ too easy that night. Needless to say, ‘gringos’ are a high target.
As Nathan and I moved to a different corner of the bar, she followed us along with another teenage prostitute. They must have had some guys around them too because they were always looking for and signalling random people.
We left the bar, and so they did. When we saw that, we literally started to jog. I felt like I was running away from a cobra with a lethal bite.
Of course, every city has its prostitutes. Medellin didn’t differ. And sure, there are also robberies and scams everywhere, but in my 10-day trip, I didn’t get to experience any of that nor did I hear of any such happenings around me.
Both my Airbnb hosts were amazing. I totally recommend using the platform. I always did and I always will. Locals are your best tool if you want to have the best experience.
“One who goes to travel comes back a different person” – Chinese proverb
It always amazed me how a lot of people are reluctant to immerse themselves in other cultures. Traveling teaches you about life in a way that school never does. The more you learn and immerse yourself into other cultures, the more powerful you become, whether that’s speaking Spanish or mastering Salsa.
There will be moments in your life where the knowledge you accumulated on a previous trip will save you in difficult situations. Guaranteed.
The Private Pablo Escobar Tour
One of the coolest people I met was Diego, an Uber driver who picks people up at the Jose Maria Cordova Airport, exclusively for Airbnb hosts that hire him. Diego doesn’t speak English, but he knows a lot and can get you a lot.
As I was telling him about my childhood soccer days when the Nacional Medellin and the Colombian national team identified themselves with Pablo Escobar and the Cartel, he offered to drive me around town to all the ‘historical’ places related to the drug lord, and give me a private tour of some of the exclusive local spots.
However, as a note, if you ever go to Medellin, never tell a local that you are going on a Pablo Escobar tour.
Escobar: Death Location
The first location Diego took me to was the house where the infamous drug dealer was killed. Or, as his brothers would say, where he killed himself. If you’ve ever seen documentaries or a Netflix show like Narcos, you know what I am talking about.
After 16 months of intense searching for Escobar after his escape from La Cathedral prison, Pablo was finally located via phone satellite capturing his phone signal. He was in one of the medium-class neighborhoods of Medellin, called Los Olivos.
As the Search Squad found him and a shoot-off was going on, Escobar and his bodyguard, El Limon tried to escape through the back window on the roof, only to be surrounded and killed.
However, Pablo’s brothers – Roberto and Fernando – claim that he shot himself with the final bullet: “He was always saying that if he ever gets cornered without a chance to escape, he would shoot himself in the ear.” Escobar was found dead with a gunshot in his pelvis, and one in his ear.
For those who don’t know, Escobar was on the run after he escaped from La Cathedral (see pic below), a prison which he designed himself after reaching an agreement with the Colombian Government.
According to the deal, Pablo asked not to be extradited to the United States, in exchange for reduced sentence in a local jail, plus ceasing any violent conduct and crimes against authorities. However, that didn’t last long.
Escobar agreed to spend five years in prison, but with the condition of picking and choosing his jail. This led to the construction of the La Cathedral, on one of the beautiful hills overseeing Medellin.
La Cathedral was more like a mansion, with entertainment rooms, soccer fields, and many more facilities. I visited La Cathedral as well, see below.
“Bienvenidos Al Barrio Pablo Escobar”
The next place Diego took me was the neighborhood that Pablo Escobar funded and built for the poor people of Medellin. Located in the Caldas area of the city, ‘el barrio’ (neighborhood, in English) overlooks the town and has very abrupt and narrow streets.
Paraphernalia is sold all over, from mugs with Pablo’s mug (no pun intended) to matchsticks and T-shirts with his face on.
The atmosphere is friendly with children playing, and hundreds of motorbikes buzzing. Not a day passes (even now, 25 years later) without the locals seeing Pablo’s face on the walls.
Monaco Building, Bombing Trap
While Escobar was imprisoned in La Cathedral, his wife Maria and two kids lived in a building called Monaco, in downtown Medellin. Even though it was 50 kilometers away, Escobar had a tower built at his jail on the top of the hill.
From that tower, he used a powerful telescope that could zoom in all the way to the Monaco building (photo below) in the middle of the city. This way, he would call his family and talk to them on the phone while watching them through the telescope.
The Monaco building was the object of a car bombing that killed two of the guards and made $7 million in damages (6 feet crater was created on the street and several adjacent buildings destroyed).
The Escobar family was not hurt, and the buildings and the neighborhood have been restored. Today Monaco is closed and under Police supervision.
Visiting La Cathedral
This place is still majestic although partially ruined. A small part of it was turned into an asylum for older people, but most of it is presented as a historical landmark.
“The country that doesn’t know its history is doomed to repeat it,” is printed on a small sign as you walk in. The original statement belonged to Italian philosopher George Santayana and was more like: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Relevant in all sorts of ways. See this pic below taken at La Cathedral
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Escobar designed his own prison, ordering everything a mansion has, and more: playing rooms, soccer pitches, a helicopter landing platform, etc. He would regularly entertain guests, including victims that were brought there to be killed.
The jail even had a sexually fantasy room with a rotating bed, where Escobar would have young girls for his pleasure. At the time, the part of the building was destroyed by an earthquake and all that was left is the round rock below that the bed was installed on.
Escobar escaped La Cathedral when he got word that the government was about to break the deal and move him into a conventional prison, with the possibility of extraditing him to the United States.
The drug lord escaped through a back gate, running into the mountains.
Visiting Escobar’s Grave
The biggest surprise I had was the last stop that Diego and I had.
As we visited Pablo’s grave, we found another person there. It was Jhon Jaime Velasquez, aka Popeye. The one I was terrified of as a kid. The one responsible for the deaths of over 3,000 people. The man who would kill daily with only ice running through his veins. The one who kidnapped tonnes of powerful individuals and bombed several places. The one I saw in movies such as The Two Escobars. The man who killed his own girlfriend.
Popeye was there, in front of me, holding his hand up for me to shake it.
After 22 years of jail he is now free, but still walking around with guards, guns, and walkie-talkies. In an interview for Daily Mirror HERE (which calls his the world’s most dangerous man), Popeye confessed that: “I am a repented and reformed man. If possible, I am looking for reintegration back into society. I am still capable of killing, but unless I am cornered, I hope I will never have to do it again.”
In my encounter with him, he was affable and sociable and even shared a bunch of stories over Escobar’s grave.
He spent about 15 minutes telling us how close he was with Pablo, and about the people that buried around him (Escobar’s father, El Limon, other family members).
A photo op came, naturally. His tattoos on his arms say it all. Twenty-four years since Escobar’s death and Popeye still comes to his grave on a regular basis.
I posted this picture on Instagram, and I was immediately followed by the CNC Medellin, a local TV channel. And maybe by others too, not just on social media. Plus, it was inevitable not to have some judgemental friends sharing their thoughts on my image. Truth be said, I don’t give a f*&k. I wanted to capture the moment.
The Escobar tour that Diego gave me was priceless. If you are ever in Medellin, hit him up. Send me an email at sorin at travel by dart dot com, and I will give you his contact.
Just a reminder not to tell the locals you are doing an Escobar tour. You are just another gringo.
What To Do In Medellin
This beautiful region has a lot of attractions to visit. I want to share with you a few of them:
La Piedra in Guatape
One of the amazing places you should visit if you go to Medellin is La Piedra, located in Guatape, two hours away east from the city. It is a massive 700-feet rock that stands out, overlooking a wonderful ‘pueblo’ (village).
It has 700 steps to climb but the breathtaking (literally) scenery at the top is worth it.
At the top of the rock, there are a couple of patios where you can have a bite to eat and a couple of ‘cervezas frias’ (cold beers).
When you come down from La Piedra, you can visit Guatape, which is a town sitting by a lake, featuring a bunch of great little attractions, including a zip line ride along the water.
If going to the countryside is not your thing, visit Pueblito Paisa. It is a miniature cultural city located at the top of a Medellin hill. You can take a taxi or Uber. It features traditional Colombian shops with artifacts, souvenirs, restaurants, and…a church.
“Paisa” refers to whatever is Medellin-specific; whether is its people or things. “Pueblito” means ‘little town.’ See pic below.
Parque Lleras, the best place to party in Medellin
If you are a night owl, you cannot go to Medellin and not visit Parque Lleras. It is the neighborhood party. Tonnes of restaurants open late at night, every day of the week. It’s the place where anything can happen.
Uber cars are readily available. And be especially watchful here for the taxi tricks.
Although I didn’t have enough time to do it, in Medellin, there is also a cool cable ride that takes you in a gondola above the city. Consider taking it. Ask locals for Metrocable and directions.
As for the food, if you are ever in Medellin make sure you try a Bandeja Paisa, see below.
The Atanasio Girardot Stadium Is A Giant Park
As a big soccer fan, I was lucky enough to stay in Medellin just three minutes away from the Atanasio Girardot Stadium, where local teams Nacional and Independiente host their home games.
I went for a run every morning around the stadium, along with many other people. On Sundays, the streets are closed and hundreds of locals are jogging or walking their dogs.
It is like a huge park, with many food shops around – so you can even take your family and dog for a walk and good times.
Of course, I had to visit the stadium inside, and I asked for a tour guide. A young girl working there took me through the tunnel, locker rooms, and VIP boxes. We ended up on the freshly cut grass pitch.
Tons of history here as well, if you like soccer.
My Favorite Nightlife Spot In Medellin
If you want a real Colombian experience on a Saturday night, go to Dulce Jesus Mio. It is an amazing bar/nightclub with only Latino music; people dressed up in characters, patrons singing along all the songs, dancing like you’ve never seen before.
Overall, an unforgettable experience. And man, it was the first time in my life when I finished a bottle of tequila! I had help from friends, of course, and the next morning I felt great.
By the way, the picture above shows the sinks in the washrooms at Dulce Jesus Mio. :))
If you decide to go, visit the one located in the Las Palmas neighbourhood, as there are a few Dulce Jesus Mios across the city.
I visited many countries – usually with friends or a TV crew – but I never travelled alone. This was the first time I did it, and I was skeptical in the beginning.
But what an experience it was!
Going by yourself somewhere far away enhances your perceptions and feelings. You have no one else to influence your thoughts or dilute your perceived values. Do it.
Colombia is worth every single penny. Visit soon. Or leave me a comment below. While you’re doing that, I am going to throw a dart at the world map and travel wherever it lands.
Feel free to also read my posts about the Bermuda Triangle mystery (I am giving away a hotel room and a car to drive while there), Panama, Russia, Svalbard, India and Brazil. Many more to come, subscribe to my blog using the form provided on this page.