When I decided to pack-up my bags and spend 9 months travelling around South America, exploring Colombia and more specifically Medellín was my no.1 priority.
Medellín was of course home to the most legendary cartel kingpin of all time – Pablo Escobar.
Thanks to the hit Netflix series Narcos, we’re all aware of his excessive & indulgent life but here are my top 10 truths; facts I learnt about him whilst in his hometown:
- In his hey-day he was earning a staggering $60M per day
- Forbes once ranked him the 7th Richest Man In The World
- All his properties were painted white to represent his product
- He never dabbled in cocaine but often smoked cannabis
- He had a Colombian footballer killed because he scored an own goal
- His cartel would spend +$2,000 every month on rubber bands to hold the money
- Whilst on the run from the CIA, he once burnt $1M to make a fire to keep his daughter warm
- His Medellín cartel was responsible for over 80% of the cocaine trade to the US
- In an attempt not to get extradited, Escobar offered to pay off Colombia’s national debt – a cool $10 billion.
- He built a zoo on his Hacienda Napoles estate complete with elephants, hippos and giraffes. One hippo once escaped!
There’s an abundance of articles online about Escobar’s crazy world but if you really want to understand the impact of his legacy on the community today, you need to visit Medellín in person.
Aside from being an incredibly vibrant and safe city nestled in a quaint mountainous valley, it’s fascinating to see that his legacy is still well and truly alive despite being killed over 23 years ago.
A polarized character
To this day there is still a real love/hate divide for Escobar from the ‘paisas’ (locals from Medellín ). For many he was an egotistical maniac who littered streets across the world with cocaine. A guy who terrorised Medellín throughout the 80’s and sole-handily tarnished Colombia’s reputation to the outside world. A reputation they are still desperately seeking to shake. I remember taking a photo of where he was born and a local paisa lady in her early 50s’ yelled at me “He’s not a hero, he was an evil man!” Emotions are still riding high over 20 years on.What striked me the most however was that for others, Escobar was and still is a modern day Robin Hood; a guy who looked after the lower-class by taking from the rich and feeding the poor.In this case, the rich were the US who, at the time, were the biggest consumers of his ‘product’. Whilst I don’t condone what he did, I saw this satirical poster in a local bar which did raise a valid point:
Uncle Sam: ‘Here is the a list of our most wanted Colombian drug lords’
Colombian government: ‘Well here’s a list of your 22M cocaine users’
Opulent facilities around Medellin
Signs of Escobar’s Robin Hood-esque status are still everywhere in the city. From fresh flowers and notes still being left at his grave to lavish out-of-place sports facilities in the poor parts of town. After a few days exploring the city you’ll soon be-able to recognise what was funded by Escobar! I’ll never forget getting the cable car up to picturesque Parque Arvi. It rides over a huge barrio then out of nowhere appear this enormous black marble building right in the thick of a shanty town. It’s of course a luxurious library that Escobar built for the local community. That guy never did things in half measures!
Colombians are often known as the most beautiful women in South America. However plastic surgery does play its part. The level of silicon hit me as soon as I flew into Colombia – they were advertising plastic surgeons in the in-flight magazine! Enhancements were noticeable in Bogota and Cartegena but it’s on another scale in Medellín. I was once told that most girls will receive a new pair of breasts for her 16th birthday. I thought it was a joke but it is indeed true. Plastic surgery is rife and a very normal part of life over there. Why? The legacy of Escobar’s cartel culture. We’ve all seen the hip-hop videos – gangsters with guns surrounded by a bevy of beauties. Well Escobar’s cartels were the OGs (original gangsters). Back in the 80’s, cartel members wanted the most beautiful girls on their arms and with money being no object, they were able to buy their ladies silicon enhancements. It’s been coined ‘Narco Beauty’ and the legacy continues today.
Why visit Colombia?
Having explored 9/12 countries, people often ask me where they should visit first. My answer is always the same – Colombia. It was easily my favourite country on the continent for a multitude of reasons but here are the main 3. Firstly, Colombia is still haunted by its cartel reputation which on a positive note means it’s not crawling with tourists therefore you have the opportunity to get off the ‘gringo trail’ and really explore the country. Secondly, you have everything you’d want in one country – Caribbean beaches, vast coffee regions, adventure towns & cultured cities. Finally and most importantly, Colombia is home to the sweetest people you’ll encounter in South America. They’re extremely welcoming and will go out of their way to show you their country in a bid to eradicate their unfortunate and unfounded bad rep. If you’re planning a trip to Latin America, please head here first!
About the author: Laura is a Tucan Travel customer that is pursuing a career in travel photography. In August she’ll be off to Africa – camping & photographing her way down from Nairobi to Cape Town then working on a Great White Shark project in Gansbaai. Keep up with her adventures here
Visit Medellín on one of Tucan Travel’s many tours through Colombia