When staying at a travelers hostel, the person behind the desk is often volunteering in exchange for free room which is a common hostel practice. While nice guys, I wouldn’t recommend asking them where to find local cuisine. There’s usually a free spirited guy from Colorado who’s working on his Vlog behind the desk and has been eating at the same food cart for a week. If you want to find good restaurants, look no further than your taxi driver. They are locals, they know the city and some of my best travel plans have come from them.
When I asked a driver for one dish I had to try during my stay in Colombia, he immediately told me it had to be Bandeja Paisa. When he listed what it contained, I thought it might have been easier for him to list what wasn’t in it. The dish consists of red beans cooked with pork, white rice, carne molida (ground meat), chicharrón, fried egg, plantain (plátano maduro), chorizo, arepa, hogao sauce, black pudding (morcilla), avocado and lemon. I hope I’m not leaving anything out. Some consider it the national dish of the country, and unless you’re a vegetarian you’ll find at least one part of it you love.
As we were driving down the hill taking us into the city, the driver mentioned we were going past a viewpoint that Pablo Escobar would frequent to smoke and enjoy the city. (Marijuana was his drug of choice, he stayed away from alcohol and cocaine.) I knew Pablo had a complicated relationship with the city of Medellin. The city is considered one of the best places to live in the world now, but around 30 years ago it had a reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. When I asked the driver for his thoughts on Escobar, he explained why so many people have conflicting views. He brought a lot of money into Medellin and cared for his city, but with that came violence and drug use.
So on my second day, my friend Peter, who I met on the previous tour, and I went on a Pablo Escobar tour in the morning. Our tour guide was a really interesting man who grew up in the city during Pablo’s reign. He started off by telling us that shows like Narcos and the critically acclaimed Billy Walsh directed Medellin were great for his tour business but didn’t have a large amount of truth to them. The guide emphasized that while he has several friends that worked for Pablo, he stayed out of the business. He told many stories that he heard directly from people who knew Pablo. The tour felt even more authentic when we visited Pablo’s grave and were met by one of Pablo’s former bodyguards. The former bodyguard runs his own tours for work now, and works to maintain a very different lifestyle than before, where he says he was spending upwards of $10,000 dollars a night to party. After speaking with him for a while (he allowed me to take a picture with him, but said I couldn’t post it online) we then went to visit the prison Pablo built.
Long story short, at one point Pablo had issues with the law. This required him to go to prison, so he built his own and lived in it. It was a paradise where he could do as he pleased and run his business. He had his own soccer field where he would bring in Colombian players over for games. Pablo always won. Legend has it that he once had the ball stolen from him by a new player who didn’t know the ‘never steal the ball from Pablo rule’ ….fortunately, the player was allowed to live but never played soccer again. Pablo also had his own club, workout room, and rooms for other partners and family members.
The prison was built on high ground, and you have to drive through jungle roads to reach it. This was on purpose, as Pablo wanted to be able to see the city without others being able to see or have easy access to him. He had his own private helicopter in case he needed to visit the city. Even though he was un-banked, Forbes estimated him as the 2nd richest person in the world while he was alive. While not all stories are pleasant, his impact on Medellin is undeniable. I’m planning on reading and learning more about him, so there could be more writing in the future.
Once we finished the tour, I wanted to make the most of the rest of my day here. Unfortunately, my flight the next day was at 5am so I jammed in as much as I could. (Damn you Avianca airlines, you will hear from me again). In the afternoon, we checked out the city center and museum where the art and sculptures of Fernando Botero are featured. Botero is ‘most Colombian of Colombian artists’ (according to himself anyway) and has a very unique style to his paintings and sculptures. The sculptures are all over the city center and definitely stand out. You may even recognize the style below.
After that we took a trip on the metrocable, which is not just a tourist attraction but also a method of public transportation. The large ski-lift is in the middle of the city and may have been an easier method of transporting people vertically than the subway system in town. I’d highly recommend taking it all the way to the top, as it gives you one of the best aerial views of the entire city. I’m told paragliding is the best way to get a view, so maybe I can do that next time. Eventually the metrocable takes you to a national park. It was getting late so we didn’t stay long. On the plus side, we did get to see the city both before and after the sun went down for two uniquely breathtaking views.
Once we finished a long day of site-seeing, Peter and I relaxed with another large plate of Bandeja Paisa and a couple beers. It may not surprise anyone to know I made a quick stop in a Medellin Casino to play a couple hands of Blackjack. (Note: “quick stop in a Medellin Casino to play a couple hands of Blackjack” is also the Mad Lib answer for ‘Last time we heard from Victor’) Like basketball, blackjack is an international language. I understood the dealer without any issue, that didn’t help me win though….and I left down $70,000 Colombian pesos. This ends up at around $27 USD. Thank god for exchange rates? #Vida La Vic