Why people whisper Pablo Escobar’s name in Medellin

4th May 2020 11:30 AM
UPDATED 10:04 PM
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DON'T dare even whisper Pablo Escobar's name in Medellin.

Owing to the Neflix series Narcos, he might now be even more infamous worldwide than his drug cartel notoriety was between 1976 and 1993 when he died.

But his name is generally mud in a country where many once revered him for his 'Robin Hood' generosity and leadership.

Of course, there are some still capitalising on his infamy - including Escobar family members and cops involved in his capture - with tours taking in the luxury prison where he self-surrendered in what many considered a farcical arrangement, the neighbourhood where he grew up and the sites of key cartel events.

But many people are horrified the rest of the world most frequently associates their beautiful country with a drug lord and cartels.

 

The barrio (neighbourhood) transformation tours are a fascinating insight into the struggle of the Medellin people and how they have achieved so much in turning previously barely inhabitable parts of the Colombian city into something they are proud of.
The barrio (neighbourhood) transformation tours are a fascinating insight into the struggle of the Medellin people and how they have achieved so much in turning previously barely inhabitable parts of the Colombian city into something they are proud of.

Even during a walking tour in Medellin city, the tour guide whispered when he told stories about the Escobar cartel and warned avid listeners to be careful speaking about him in the street as many people were personally touched by cartel actions and remain angry to this day.

Medellin locals are now proud of their city, which now has some of the country's finest museums, parks and architecture.

 

A flower farm in Santa Elena, about 2500m above sea level near Medellin in Colombia, enters a Medellin flower festival every year with their unique flower art.
A flower farm in Santa Elena, about 2500m above sea level near Medellin in Colombia, enters a Medellin flower festival every year with their unique flower art.

Its restaurants and night life are wonderful too, especially in the La Florida area and downtown. The degustation at Carmen is among the many gastronomical delights and the chicharrones - bite-sized pieces of pork with crackle - at Hacienda Junin in La Candelaria are beyond incredible.

 

Visit the Plaza Minorista Market in Medellin, Colombia to try some exotic fruits.
Visit the Plaza Minorista Market in Medellin, Colombia to try some exotic fruits.

Don't miss a chance to hit Plaza Minorista Market too (easily accessible near a metro stop) and try some of the exotic fruits. Guanabana is my Latin America favourite, especially when it's made into a drink (agua de guanabana) or ice cream (helado con guanabana).

But pitahaya (yellow dragonfruit) blew me away as a new fruit - so much more flavour than the pink dragonfruit we have in Australia.

You'll also spot my other fruit delight - a mangosteen, which I first tried in Thailand.

 

 

By far one of the most popular areas is Plaza Botero where Colombian-born figurative artist Fernando Botero's impressive bronze sculptures command the precinct.

His world-renowned paintings and sculptures all exhibit exaggerated volume, usually depicting chubby, voluptuous or fat people and animals but not always in proportion.

A LATIN AFFAIR: More stories from travel writer Rae Wilson

Downtown Medellin is a spectacular place to meander around for days. There are so many beautiful buildings and loads of art. By far one of the most popular areas is Plaza Botero where Colombian-born figurative artist Fernando Botero's impressive bronze sculptures command the precinct.
Downtown Medellin is a spectacular place to meander around for days. There are so many beautiful buildings and loads of art. By far one of the most popular areas is Plaza Botero where Colombian-born figurative artist Fernando Botero's impressive bronze sculptures command the precinct.

The Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture, an impressive architectural display itself, and the Museo de Antioquia full of Botero's works, dwarf the plaza statues that in turn dwarf those admiring them.

Unusually, though, Medellin's transport system is one of the city's other major highlights.

The gondola-style cable car soaring high above the favelas (slums) is widely credited for reducing crime and violence while having a positive impact on inequality.

Why Medellin's transport system is among the city's highlights: The gondola-style cable car soaring high above the favelas (slums) is widely credited for reducing crime and violence while having a positive impact on inequality. Eight years ago, it was named one of the world’s top transport systems but, for tourists, it also offers a spectacular photographic tour of the city while offering an insight into the inequities on the outskirts. And for not much more than $1.
Why Medellin's transport system is among the city's highlights: The gondola-style cable car soaring high above the favelas (slums) is widely credited for reducing crime and violence while having a positive impact on inequality. Eight years ago, it was named one of the world’s top transport systems but, for tourists, it also offers a spectacular photographic tour of the city while offering an insight into the inequities on the outskirts. And for not much more than $1.

Eight years ago, it was named one of the world's top transport systems but, for tourists, it also offers a spectacular photographic tour of the city while offering an insight into the inequities on the outskirts. And for not much more than $1.

 

The barrio (neighbourhood) transformation tours are a fascinating insight into the struggle of the Medellin people and how they have achieved so much in turning previously barely inhabitable parts of the Colombian city into something they are proud of.
The barrio (neighbourhood) transformation tours are a fascinating insight into the struggle of the Medellin people and how they have achieved so much in turning previously barely inhabitable parts of the Colombian city into something they are proud of.

In a similar vein, the barrio (neighbourhood) transformation tours (try Real City Tours) are also a fascinating insight into the struggle of the Medellin people and how they have achieved so much in turning previously barely inhabitable parts of the city into something they can be proud of.

 

The barrio (neighbourhood) transformation tours are a fascinating insight into the struggle of the Medellin people and how they have achieved so much in turning previously barely inhabitable parts of the Colombian city into something they are proud of.
The barrio (neighbourhood) transformation tours are a fascinating insight into the struggle of the Medellin people and how they have achieved so much in turning previously barely inhabitable parts of the Colombian city into something they are proud of.

If you get the chance, see if you can head out to the flower farms in the Medellin hinterland.

I visited a silletero (chair maker) and his family in Santa Elena, about 2500m above sea level. He competes every year in Medellin's Fiesta de las flores and talks about the incredible history of the art form.

 

A flower chair maker shares his art and history from his flower farm in Santa Elena, about 2500m above sea level near Medellin in Colombia.
A flower chair maker shares his art and history from his flower farm in Santa Elena, about 2500m above sea level near Medellin in Colombia.

Manizales

Directly south of Medellin, you'll find some of Colombia's coffee plantations - the other commodity the country is known for worldwide.

With sweeping valleys, tropical altitude and fertile volcanic soil, the area is great for getting to know more about those addictive little beans.

Surrounded by paddocks upon paddocks of coffee, Coffee Estancia teaches visitors how the beans are grown and harvested, processed, dried, roasted and ground before they try different types of coffee grains.

But if, like me, you're not into the brown bean (I know - shock horror), it's also the perfect place to lay back in a hammock or take a dip in the pool while your friends and family indulge.

Surrounded by paddocks upon paddocks of coffee, Coffee Estancia teaches visitors how the beans are grown and harvested, processed, dried, roasted and ground before they try different types of coffee grains.
Surrounded by paddocks upon paddocks of coffee, Coffee Estancia teaches visitors how the beans are grown and harvested, processed, dried, roasted and ground before they try different types of coffee grains.

Sadly, though, for you coffee lovers, Colombians say you're more likely to get a good cup of coffee in Australia because they export the good stuff abroad.

If you're after a good brew, ask a local in the know.

 

A six-hour hike through the stunning scenery of the Cocora Valley in Colombia is unforgettable. The tall wax palms are so high, you need to use panorama setting vertically to capture them fully in photographs.
A six-hour hike through the stunning scenery of the Cocora Valley in Colombia is unforgettable. The tall wax palms are so high, you need to use panorama setting vertically to capture them fully in photographs.

Cocora Valley

After travelling by jeep into the Cocora Valley, a six-hour hike through the stunning scenery is unforgettable.

Multiple water crossings on makeshift log and swing bridges ease in the rise from 2400m to 2860m altitude with gorgeous hummingbirds along the way and stunning flowers at the top.

But it's the trek down the mountain through the tall wax palms, so high you need to use panorama setting vertically to capture them in photographs, that is most captivating.

 

A six-hour hike through the stunning scenery of the Cocora Valley in Colombia is unforgettable. The tall wax palms are so high, you need to use panorama setting vertically to capture them fully in photographs.
A six-hour hike through the stunning scenery of the Cocora Valley in Colombia is unforgettable. The tall wax palms are so high, you need to use panorama setting vertically to capture them fully in photographs.

But the hushed voices continue across the country, with our guides opening up on the hike about the impacts of the drug cartel.

The past seven years had been such a relief, one guide said, as he talked about finally exploring more of Colombia outside his village.

"I grew up with the drugs and the fear. You had to be careful even leaving the house," he told me.

 

A six-hour hike through the stunning scenery of the Cocora Valley in Colombia is unforgettable. The tall wax palms are so high, you need to use panorama setting vertically to capture them fully in photographs.
A six-hour hike through the stunning scenery of the Cocora Valley in Colombia is unforgettable. The tall wax palms are so high, you need to use panorama setting vertically to capture them fully in photographs.

"But the change over the past 12 years is palpable.

"Now we feel safe, we have our country back, we are not scared to leave home and we can see more of our beautiful country."

 

From hombres playing pool to families shooting at a games board to win prizes, Salento in Colombia is one of those colourful country towns with infinite charm. And delicious food.
From hombres playing pool to families shooting at a games board to win prizes, Salento in Colombia is one of those colourful country towns with infinite charm. And delicious food.

Salento

From hombres playing pool to families shooting at a games board to win prizes, Salento is one of those colourful country towns with infinite charm. And delicious food.

 

From hombres playing pool to families shooting at a games board to win prizes, Salento in Colombia is one of those colourful country towns with infinite charm. And delicious food.
From hombres playing pool to families shooting at a games board to win prizes, Salento in Colombia is one of those colourful country towns with infinite charm. And delicious food.

Try the trout, most often served with a rich, garlicky cheese sauce. There are also loads of cute souvenirs to take home. Take a walk up the steps to watch the sun set.

 

Seaside Cartagena has an old town with charming architecture and a fun buzz. It is stunning during the day but really come to life at night.
Seaside Cartagena has an old town with charming architecture and a fun buzz. It is stunning during the day but really come to life at night.

Cartagena

The sweltering heat of Cartagena means it's hard to spend more than a few hours at a time away from airconditioning or a pool, and that's from someone now living in tropical North Queensland.

But it's worth every sweat bead.

 

Seaside Cartagena has an old town with charming architecture and a fun buzz. It is stunning during the day but really come to life at night.
Seaside Cartagena has an old town with charming architecture and a fun buzz. It is stunning during the day but really come to life at night.

The old town and its charming architecture are stunning during the day but really come to life at night - especially the sea views from Cafe del Mar on the former guard wall and when dance parties break out on the street.

One of the true highlights, though, is wandering through Parque Centenario, and spotting sloths and monkeys. In the middle of the city. What an unexpected delight.

 

One of the true highlights, in Cartagena, Colombia, is wandering through Parque Centenario, and spotting sloths and monkeys.
One of the true highlights, in Cartagena, Colombia, is wandering through Parque Centenario, and spotting sloths and monkeys.

As a history lover, the fortress and its frequent role in battling for control of Cartagena was fascinating and its position high atop a hill offered wonderful views canvassing the old and the new city.

 

Cartagena's fortress and its frequent role in battling for control of the Colombian city is fascinating and its position high atop a hill offered wonderful views canvassing the old and the new city.
Cartagena's fortress and its frequent role in battling for control of the Colombian city is fascinating and its position high atop a hill offered wonderful views canvassing the old and the new city.

Be sure to choose a hotel with a pool, the Getsemani area's pastels are stunning, but take your pick of the many restaurants and bars - all stellar experiences.

And stop by Portal de los Dulces in Plaza de la Aduana to buy local, homemade candy.

Swimming off Cartagena beaches is not super common but there are islands off the coast that are popular for a day in the tropics.

Many are not sustainable for tourists yet so ask the right questions before booking a day trip.

 

The streets of Bogota, Colombia are filled with street art telling stories of history and politics, as well as street carts of food, incredible architecture and art.
The streets of Bogota, Colombia are filled with street art telling stories of history and politics, as well as street carts of food, incredible architecture and art.

Bogota

Pasted on a wall on the edge of a Bogata park dedicated to journalists is a series of posters depicting former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe using puppet strings to control one of his successors.

Under the words 'we remember', it details how more than 3.3 billion people died during Colombia's 'war' on drugs and Marxist FARC guerrillas using United States funding.

It also acknowledges the 4282 'false positives' civilians made to dress up as guerrillas to collect a bounty from their execution.

 

The streets of Bogota, Colombia are filled with street art telling stories of history and politics, as well as street carts of food, incredible architecture and art.
The streets of Bogota, Colombia are filled with street art telling stories of history and politics, as well as street carts of food, incredible architecture and art.

It's the beginning of a street art tour in Colombia's capital city and it's a powerful reminder the country is still reeling from a 60-year civil war many feared would never end.

"The United States government gave Colombia $8 billion for us to fight the war against drugs and against guerrilla groups," we were told.

"80 per cent of that money was for military aid, weapons, bombs, vehicles, training for the army.

"80 per cent of that money went right back to the United States because they were the one who provided it all.

"Only 20 per cent of the money arrived in Colombia and that money was supposed to be for social investment but Colombia politicians were some of the most corrupt that exist around the world.

"So they used that money not only to do social investment but to give benefits to army soldiers for killing guerrilla rebels.

"So between 2001 and 2012, a lot of soldiers were very happy about all this money coming from the United States.

"Soldiers were getting paid as much as US$1200 for each guerrilla rebel killed during combat; high-ranking officers were getting paid per month based on the amount of casualties they were reporting.

"During these times, some people in the army, they were going through a body count fever, happy killing people and getting money from it.

"Eventually when they run out of guerrilla rebels to kill, they started killing civilians."

That was between 2001 and 2012, which means that practice stopped just eight years ago.

And it only stopped because the United States government was not seeing results from its investment and cut off the money supply.

"One of the main goals they had in mind was to decrease the production of cocaine here in Colombia so the price would rise in the United States, none of that happened," our tour leader told us.

"Now we're still the number one producer of the coca leaf around the world."

 

The streets of Bogota, Colombia are filled with street art telling stories of history and politics, as well as street carts of food, incredible architecture and art.
The streets of Bogota, Colombia are filled with street art telling stories of history and politics, as well as street carts of food, incredible architecture and art.

Street art has long been a form of political expression, from sending a message to a critique or satire.

Throughout the streets of Bogota, there are many forms of urban art from graffiti writing (often known as tagging) to posters and paste-ups to freestyle aerosol works and murals with paintbrushes.

 

The streets of Bogota, Colombia are filled with street art telling stories of history and politics, as well as street carts of food, incredible architecture and art.
The streets of Bogota, Colombia are filled with street art telling stories of history and politics, as well as street carts of food, incredible architecture and art.

They tell stories of oppression on the streets, the country's drug history, child labour but also use brilliant colours to catch people's attention from cartoon-like scenes and characters to kaleidoscopes.

Colombia's capital is a huge sprawling city, but its old town is small enough to meander about and take in the hustle and bustle in a day.

 

The streets of Bogota, Colombia are filled with street art telling stories of history and politics, as well as street carts of food, incredible architecture and art.
The streets of Bogota, Colombia are filled with street art telling stories of history and politics, as well as street carts of food, incredible architecture and art.

If you're there for a few days, take advantage of the street art tour as well as a food tour that will take you to places you never would have walked into off the street.

Colombian empanadas are to die for, especially when you have an abuela calling you 'mi amor'.

A lot of these tours are free (except for the food itself) but you tip what you think the tour guide is worth at the end.

Take the funicular up to Monserrate at sunset for spectacular views over the city.

 

Take the funicular up to Monserrate at sunset for spectacular views over Bogota, Colombia.
Take the funicular up to Monserrate at sunset for spectacular views over Bogota, Colombia.

Colombia travel tips

• Get a Colombian phone chip while you're in the country. It's cheap and saves you a fortune while you post your trip all over social media. Go to Claro, a few blocks from the Gold Museum in the old town, at Centro de Atencion y Ventas Carrera 8, 19-41, in Bogota. I did my business in Spanish but if you ask for someone who speaks English, you should be OK though the wait might be longer.

• One of Cartagena's trendiest restaurants comes with authentic Colombian cuisine while also supporting a worthy cause. Housed in a women's prison, Restaurante Interno aims to strengthen inmate skills and generate the necessary tools for them to "reintegrate into society in dignity once they regain their freedom".

 

Seaside Cartagena has an old town with charming architecture and a fun buzz. It is stunning during the day but really come to life at night.
Seaside Cartagena has an old town with charming architecture and a fun buzz. It is stunning during the day but really come to life at night.

• The chicharrones at Hacienda in Junin Street in downtown Medellin is to die for. Order a range from the menu tapas style and walk away a happy customer.

• Be sure to try the arepas, empanadas and the obleas from the street carts in Bogota. Watch out for the oblea street cart that once served Mick Jagger and has the photo to prove it. The cheese cubes in hot chocolate are worth a go, too.

 

The streets of Bogota, Colombia are filled with street art telling stories of history and politics, as well as street carts of food, incredible architecture and art. These obleas are delicious.
The streets of Bogota, Colombia are filled with street art telling stories of history and politics, as well as street carts of food, incredible architecture and art. These obleas are delicious.

• For a fun night out in Bogota, you can't miss Andres DC. It's funky, quirky, has a great snack menu and awesome music.

• Be sure to walk through Parque Centenario just outside the old town in Cartagena and look for the family of sloths, and some cheeky monkeys.

One of the true highlights, in Cartagena, Colombia, is wandering through Parque Centenario, and spotting sloths and monkeys.
One of the true highlights, in Cartagena, Colombia, is wandering through Parque Centenario, and spotting sloths and monkeys.