25. Medellin & Guatape

A week in the most talked about city on the SA backpacker trail- a place of sweet views, unadulterated fun, gritty histories and famously attractive women- Medellin. 

Medellin – 29 May

The city made famous to our parents generation by drugs and violence and to mine by a tv show…of the drugs and violence. But now it’s THE place to be, as we’d been told for the last 3 months – finally we could judge for ourselves if the hype is valid. If you want the place with the most modern, hip and affluent people / bars then the El Pablado is certainly the place. It was easily the most Western place I’d seen since Palermo in BA in March.

We stayed in two hostels, a street apart and both great in different ways. Sugar Cane was small, more basic and very homely – leading to easy and laid back soclialisng on the roof terrace. Los Patios was modern, flash and cool whilst being more like a large boutique hostel, its size makes you a bit more anonymous but the rooftop bar is beautiful. 

Pablo Escobar Tour

As Narcos addicts, we had to go on at least one Pablo Escobar tour, in the end we went on two. The first was a jeep tour with a knowledgeable guide and a driver who used to be Gustavo’s (Pablo’s cousin & second in charge of the cartel) driver. First we drove to Pablo’s main Medellin house, the one he bought before he was a wanted man. He and his family lived in this huge building and he even had his name printed vertically down the side of it. This was the place the Cali cartel tried to blow up his family, one trigger for the huge escalation in the cartel wars. 

Escobar mansion – now a police office

We then headed to La Catedral, Pablo’s self constructed ‘prison’ in the hills overlooking Medellin where he grew up. On the 40 minute drive we had the guide’s version of history- it was surprising how similar it was to the show, he admitted that they had got the vast majority of facts right. La Catedral is now an old people’s home and it’s not a bad spot to spend your final years- the views are incredible! All the stories of luxury inside were apparently true and we even saw the helipad from which Pablo is proported to have made regular visits to the city after nightfall, when the hills are shrouded in mist.

View of Medellin from La Catedral

Finally we visited his grave, a nice plot bought long before his death. He lies next to his whole family (not those who are still alive- apparently his son is an architect in Buenos Aires) and his body guard Limon. Our driver gave his story- he went to Spain for 10 years after Pablo’s death and nobody bothered him on his return. He says he realises now that money are drugs are not what’s important- he used to use cocaine several times a day for well over a decade but laughs as he tells us he now only uses it for sex. Not for him though- “I rub a little on the woman’s clitoris” he says through the broadest grin of the day.

Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria

I can’t really review the most highly rated walking tour I’ve ever heard of because we left after an hour with other disgruntled couple Simon and Adele. It seemed set up very well and smoothly run but our guide was such a knob that we simply couldn’t carry on. I wish I had some pocket crickets to properly respond to his banter. However, we carried along the route solo…. for about 10 minutes. Our own tour stopped abruptly when we came across two men fighting over a bag in the middle of the packed high street at 3.45, one brandishing an 8 inch kitchen knife. What made this particularly scary, beyond the London Borough Market attack happening the day before, was the distinct lack of panic or shock in everyone else there. Having felt very secure in this city, I instantly felt less safe than any time since my last stabbing incident- in Kathmandu in February. 

Outside of this we just enjoyed ourselves. We ate good food, we drank lots of rooftop beers, we played some football and did some more salsa. Another private lesson (4 hours this time) with much more structure to it took Tom and me to near professional level (professionally delusional that is). We shook our stuff once more that night at Club Habana (not quite as good vibes as in Cali) now with a freshly landed James West in tow- poor lad stood no chance against our on point moves.

Salsa buddies – she didn’t teach us that arm raise though

Guatape – 2 June

One of our Medellin days was spent visiting the relatively close town of Guatape, a trip which also included our second Pablo tour. A two hour bus took us to the countryside and a roapy rooftop jeep ride (strong comparisons with Salento) took us to a gorgeous lakeside restaurant. This was the lake house of one of Pablo’s many villas, the smoked out ruins of which are still standing after it was bombed by Los Pepes in the early 1990s- it would have been a beaut property in its day.

Forget seat belts – get on the roof
Pablo’s bombed out villa – photo by Jim

The real reason we came here though was painballing, set on an awesome arena including the old stables. Full on buildings and back alleys are a far cry from UK wooded arenas- thanks health and safety! We played two games of capture the flag and two games of cartel wars where a Pablo is hunted. I didn’t want to say anything but James insists I mention that I got MVP after two flag captures and murdering Pablo – I maintain it was a team effort. 🤥

Delta bravo unit

After this we actually went into Guatape and had a coffee in a gorgeous square soaking up the strong afternoon rays. The city is colourful and quaint- very similar in style to Salento; one notable difference is that it’s law to have a painted mural on your front wall- some are truly artistic, others not so. 

Larkin about in Guatape

Guatape is set amongst a huge number of man made lakes – formed as part of a hydroelectric project and nearby is a rock formation which would even look farfetched in a sci-fi. It’s many, many steps give you a 360 degree panoramic view- and it’s a pretty awesome one! 

The Guatape Rock – second biggest in the world after Gibraltar
Worth the climb!

With Medellin complete we were off to meet James’s friend Sam in Panama City for the start of the much anticipated San Blas islands tour.


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