Watching Narcos on Netflix seriously intensified my curiosity and intrigue about Colombia. I felt a little guilty about this. Most Colombians hate the show and feel it has given them the wrong attention. It’s understandable – life under notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar was a dark one for Colombians. They have tried hard to transform the image the outside world has of them, to be known for something other than drugs, cartels, violence and Escobar. But 27 years after his death, people outside of South America are still intrigued about this part of Colombia’s history. Including me.
Inevitably, narco tourism has become a thing here and visitors can’t help be curious about a city that was once a forbidden place. I wanted to do a Pablo Escobar tour in Medellin but taking a tour about this infamous man is controversial.
Should you take a Pablo Escobar Tour?
In Medellin, Escobar is a controversial figure and bringing up his name is a sensitive topic. Most Paisa people see him as a murderer who was responsible for killing 4,000 people, assassinating politicians and journalists, even bombing a commercial Avianca flight. Memories of these bombings, assassinations, and violence from the Escobar years are still raw for Colombians. There are tour operators offering Pablo Escobar tours, but some locals see this as profiteering from the bloodshed and glorifying his existence.
Then there are those in Colombia who highly respect Escobar. Although he bombed and tortured his enemies, he also donated millions to the poor. Escobar was the seventh richest man in the world. He used a lot of his wealth to build hospitals, soccer fields, and housing for the homeless. Even if it was all paid for with dirty drug money, there are still people today who want to make him a saint.
Taking a Pablo Escobar tour is a contentious issue and Colombians don’t like foreigners flocking to their country to follow his tracks but it’s hard to avoid the curiosity. As dark and illicit this history is, in my opinion, it’s no different than the time I visited Ground Zero in New York City, the Berlin Wall in Germany, or Auschwitz in Poland. They are all places where some of the world’s worst atrocities took place unfortunately.
I don’t, for one second, commend the atrocities that happened in any of these places, and by taking a tour, my actions are not saying that I support the criminals involved. Instead, I am saying that I feel for the victims and that I don’t want history to repeat itself. I am saying that I want to be better educated and a better global citizen. When I toured the extermination camp in which a lot of the money goes back to the museum, I remember our tour guide there telling us how strongly she encourages the world to visit because by visiting the camp you give power back to the victims and help keep their memory alive.
Yes, we could read about the history, but physically visiting difficult places advocates compassion and understanding, evokes empathy for the victims and helps us see, feel, and hear the mistakes of our past in a way that reading about it doesn’t do.
We did decide to do a Pablo Escobar tour in Medellin after all, but rather than pay a tour operator, we chose to do our own self-guided tour while still being respectful to the local sentiment.
DIY Pablo Escobar Tour
With a little planning, you can easily visit most of these locations on your own. We started by making a checklist and mapping out our route.
1. La Catedral
La Catedral was the prison Escobar built for himself. When the Cartel boss agreed to go to jail, he convinced officials to let him build his own prison and surrender on his own terms. He lived in La Catedral from 1991 until the time of his escape and death in 1993. The prison (which is more like an estate) is built on a hill of three hectares, surrounded by lots of greenery, extremely secluded from the rest of Medellin. Inside, it used to house a gaming room, disco bar, and casino but the property is now crumbling and many of the rooms have been teared down. Outside, you can still visit Escobar’s helicopter landing pad which he used to smuggle anything he wanted into his prison (from family visits to strippers).
Today, a part of the property has been turned into a monastery and nursing home for the elderly. I’m glad such a negative space is now being used for something more positive.
Need to Know: We thought that visiting La Cathedral on a self-guided tour would be easy but this location is the most difficult to access without a guide or driver. At the time we visited, Google didn’t have a location pin for it. There are some road signs as you get closer, directing you to La Catedral but the area is very remote. There are no main roads and no street lights.
During our taxi ride to the prison, our driver told us he had never been to La Catedral before so we invited him to visit the site with us – well before we knew how remote it would be. If we hadn’t gotten lucky with our amazing taxi driver and if he hadn’t taken us up our invitation to tour the prison together, I’m not sure how we would have made it back to the city. We found no taxis roaming around that we could easily hail back when we wanted to leave. All the visitors at the prison were there as part of an organized tour and we realize now that we wouldn’t recommend doing this part on your own without a guide or dedicated driver.
La Catedral is closed on Mondays.
How to Get There: Take the metro to Envigado. At the station, you can buy a ticket for 2,400 Colombian pesos ($0.60 USD). Once you exit, turn right and walk along the overpass. Take the stairs down at the end of the overpass to street-level. There are lots of yellow taxis here. The fare is about 30,000 COP (about $8 USD) one-way. It’s worth asking the driver to take you back.
We later negotiated with our driver, a flat rate of 200,000 Colombian pesos for the day (about $50 USD for both of us) so we could visit a few other sites.
Avoid the metro during rush hour.
2. Mónaco Building
Escobar was so damn rich. He made so much money that he once started a fire by burning $2 million cash because his daughter was feeling cold. He was known to bury excess money in his backyard and all around Medellin. He bought a lot of properties and owned a lot of mansions but the most notable one (and easy-to-reach) was in El Poblado – a concrete, 8-storey building where he lived with his family called the Mónaco.
Finally, after years of planning, the government had commissioned to implode the building and get rid of one of the final remaining symbols of Escobar. We visited the site just two days before the implosion, so we were one of the last people to see it in its original form. People on the streets gathered to watch and celebrate as the building came crashing down. It’s an empty land now but the plan is to turn it into a public memorial and park to remember the 46,612 victims of Colombia’s drug war. There will be a wall of messages and a sound walk to narrate their stories.
3. Escobar’s Grave
We hadn’t planned on visiting Escobar’s burial site. Personally, I didn’t care to. I have zero respect for what this person did, but our taxi driver suggested going as it was on our way back to the city and mainly because the cemetery offers a fantastic lookout point over the city. He was right, the views are incredible and I recommend going, if only for the stunning panorama.
Escobar is six feet under at Cemetario Jardines Montesacro in Itagüí, situated high up on a hill. It felt eerie standing over the gravesite – there is a chill factor here and an uncomfortable aura in the air.
If you do decide to visit the grave, don’t be an bad tourist and take a selfie by the tombstone. The man is still a murderer and deserves no respect. In fact, it’s disrespectful to the thousands of victims he killed and in very poor taste. If you’re American, it’s like visiting the grave of Osama bin Laden (I am not sure why anyone would want to).
How to Get There: You can access the cemetery from Sabaneta metro (Line A). It’s a 10 minute walk from the station or you can take a taxi (most taxi drivers will know where Escobar’s headstone lies and the panoramic view).
4. Hacienda Napoles
The Hacienda Napoles is a large zoo & amusement park (complete with waterslides and a lazy river) in the countryside that is open to the public. The land once served as the HQ for the Medellin Cartel and where Escobar owned four hippopotamus. I guess when you’re so rich you buy yourself a bunch of hippos. After his death, the hippos were too big to move so the government kept them there. They became known as “cocaine hippos” and have since multiplied to at least 40. It’s the only place in the world with a herd of hippos outside of Africa. We didn’t visit the zoo because I think it would require a whole other day.
5. Barrio Pablo Escobar
Escobar used his drug money to build infrastructure for the poor in this neighbourhood. It became unofficially known as Barrio Pablo Escobar by his people. Loyalists to Escobar still celebrate his life which can be seen through the murals and street art dedicated to him. We opted out of visiting this neighbourhood for the more inspiring and storyful Comuna 13.
Taking a Pablo Escobar Tour
You can easily visit most of these locations on your own without going on an organized tour. If you decide on a DIY tour, I highly recommend reading up on the history of Colombia before your trip, or even watching Narcos for an overview of the story as it will really add to your experience.
If you’re not familiar with Colombia’s recent history and are looking for an organized option The Real Pablo Escobar Tour includes stops at the prison, cemetery, former Mónaco site, as well as a soccer field that Escobar built where he gave his political speeches and ran for President. I find the tour leaders at Get Your Guide always give good detail and are very knowledgable about history at each location.
This Pablo Escobar private tour stops at Los Olivos, where Escobar hid in a small house with his bodyguard Limon in his last days before he was captured and killed on the rooftop.
I highly recommend these four tours and alternative tours to take in Medellin instead of the Pablo Escobar Tour. Rather than focus on Escobar, these tours give you a hyperlocal perspective about the violence (as the locals call it) and you can actually see how the drug war directly impacted communities.
Colombia is a completely different place since the time of Escobar but you can’t deny the draw of history here (or the Netflix show). Even after 27 years, the story of Colombia and Pablo Escobar are still intriguing.