When I decided visit Colombia for a spring break trip, I was asked many times if I was traveling there to see Pablo Escobar landmarks and participate in other “narco-tourism” activities, which have gained world notoriety in part because of the widely popular Netflix series “Narcos.” One of my travel companions had even expressed interest in visiting an Escobar compound. Of course, I was looking forward to relaxing and sightseeing, but I was also curious to speak to Colombians about views on this recent tourism interest.
The first stop was Medellin, also known as “The City of Eternal Spring,” because of its consistently pleasant climate. Medellin is the capital of the Antioquia region and is set in a gorgeous green valley between two Andean mountain ranges. While there, we enjoyed catching up with old friends, cable car rides with city and mountain views, and revitalized artsy neighborhoods. We took a day trip with some Colombian friends to the Piedra de Penol (Rock of Guatape). This seemingly out-of-place 7,000-foot rock towers over the lake region. Ascending requires a 740-step climb. Afterwards, we dined in Guatape, a colorful colonial lakeside town. There, we watched their traditional Easter procession.
Because of its urban rebirth, vast public transportation, and aerial cable cars connecting the previously isolated parts of the city, Medellin was named the 2013 Most Innovative City by the Urban Land Institute, a far cry from 1988, when Time magazine dubbed it the most violent city on Earth. At that time, drug lords like Pablo Escobar controlled the city with bribes, kidnappings, and murders. He was even responsible for bombing a plane and several buildings. His motto was “plata o plomo,” which translates into “silver or lead,” meaning take a bribe or be shot.
However, Escobar did use some of his wealth to build housing for poor residents, and donated to other causes. The Netflix series showcases this violent history. Another trending Netflix series, “Dark Tourist,” also gives a glimpse into narco-tourism—travelers visiting former Escobar mansions, his personal prison, an Escobar museum, etc. Tourists even do things as outlandish as meeting with former cartel hit men and playing paintball at Escobar complexes. I wondered what Medellin residents, and Colombians in general, thought of this new tourism trend, and even Escobar himself. Was he actually viewed as some sort of modern-day Robin Hood?
After visiting the mountains of Medellin, we flew to the coastal city of Cartagena, a world-renowned cruise ship port, popular for its intact colonial city and proximity to Caribbean islands. From there, we traveled four hours west to the Santa Marta/Taganga area—a mountainous desert beach region used by locals and tourists as a destination and gateway to Colombia’s famous Tayrona National Park. From Taganga, we took two-hour roller-coaster boat ride through large swells and uncomfortably close jagged cliffs until the rocky desert terrain gave way to lush green jungle and the turquoise water of El Cabo San Juan, Parque Tayrona’s most popular beach. We then returned to Cartagena and spent our last day relaxing on nearby Isla Tierra Bomba.
The Local Take
In Medellin, we toured Comuna 13, the city’s previously most violent neighborhood, which has been experiencing a government-funded rebirth in infrastructure, economy, tourism, and art. In 2002, the neighborhood had so many insurgent groups that the government violently raided the community—unfortunately killing and injuring many innocents. Since that time, the government added new roofs, houses, and community centers.
When I visited this neighborhood three years prior, I was one of the only tourists there. Now, the neighborhood is a graffiti-covered tourist hotbed, booming with rapping street performers, food stands, coffee-tasting bars, and resident guides. We chose a local high school girl named Angie, and her mother, as our guides.
The mother began the tour by stating that her community had nothing to do with Pablo Escobar. I asked her what she thought of the narco tours. She responded, “There are still tours, but they are not recommended.” She went on to say that depending on who you’re speaking with, it may be considered bad manners to talk about Pablo Escobar in Medellin because he caused so much chaos. She ended the conversation by saying that he may have built houses for the poor, but the money was from the “sangre de mucho gente”—the blood of many people.
I also spoke to my friend Jessica on the topic of narco-tourism. She is a technology worker who lives in the upper-middle class neighborhood of Laureles, where we stayed. She lived in Texas in her twenties, and moved back to Medellin as it was being revitalized. Jessica commented that narco-tourism was “… not the image we want for the city; it is bad memories,” and that the Escobar museum “… is only for gringos [American/Europeans]. I would not pay fifteen dollars to see something that destroyed my city; it doesn’t make sense, and wearing an Escobar shirt is in poor taste because of the victims.”
I then asked, “What about the increase in tourism and the people who earn their living off of these tours?” She replied that only a small amount of people were profiting, and it wasn’t worth it—and that the region has many other activities for tourists like mountain biking, the lake region, paragliding, etc.
In addition to some residents’ disdain for narco-tourism, the current mayor of Medellin wants all Escobar memories erased. Two months ago, he had the “Monaca,” Escobar’s huge Medellin home, detonated. However, some folks still hold Escobar in high regard. In Barrio Escobar, where he housed the poor and built a library, graffiti images almost deify him, and some residents feel that he provided more for them than the government ever did.
Seemingly, only a small portion of Medellin residents view Escobar positively; I encountered no one who did. If you travel to Medellin, keep in mind these overwhelming negative sentiments towards narco-tourism, and maybe think twice about walking around in that Escobar t-shirt. Jenifer, a friend from Barranquilla—a coastal city two hours west of Cartagena—felt that there is a great misconception about her country. She put it perfectly when she said: “Don’t come to Colombia for its past drug culture; come for its people, the mountains, the beaches, the progressive neighborhoods, and the culture. Colombia is so much more than its past.”