The Controversy of the Pablo Escobar Tour in Medellin

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Are you a tourist traveling to Colombia? Then there is no doubt that the Medellin Pablo Escobar Tour is something that’s on your radar, maybe it is even something near the top of your list of things to do in Medellin. If you’ve only ever seen the show Narcos, then it might seem like something kinda cool to do in Medellin. Like, maybe it will help you better understand the real history and see a small bit of the actual places where it all took place.

The Controversy of the Pablo Escobar Tour in Medellin travel, medellin, colombia

But if for some reason you aren’t aware, despite the Netflix show, let’s make it clear that Pablo Escobar was a terrorist who ravaged Colombia and was responsible for the deaths of thousands, including randomly murdering police officers, along with plenty of innocent bystanders.

Also, in case you didn’t know, many Colombians today are sick and tired of the whole Pablo Escobar thing and are a bit insulted that foreign tourists come flocking to the city and seem to venerate him in the process.

These tours and tour operators are romanticizing the narco days and the mythical figure that is Pablo Escobar.

The Controversy of the Pablo Escobar Tour in Medellin travel, medellin, colombia

Should You Take the Pablo Escobar Tour?

So, the question really comes down to whether or not you *should* take a Pablo Escobar tour while you are in town…

I’ve spoken to many different Colombians and tourists about this matter while living in Colombia for a few years, and honestly, the answer should be a resounding NO.

These Pablo Escobar tours and related sites (like the shady Pablo Escobar Museum) are designed in a way that celebrates the life of this criminal mastermind. They barely acknowledge the thousands of victims and invariably paint Pablo in a positive light, and are just trying to capitalize on his notoriety from popular media like the show Narcos.

You as a foreign tourist should NOT come to this country and take a Medellin Pablo Escobar tour.

Here’s why:

The whole terrorist thing. Many Colombians still live with memories of the bloodshed, bombs, and violence. This history is still very recent and there are still many open wounds.

Tourists coming here to take the Medellin Pablo Escobar tour and celebrate the man are only rubbing salt in that wound. He bombed airplanes, and assassinated politicians, journalists, police, and anyone who opposed him — good people who wanted a better future for their country.

The Controversy of the Pablo Escobar Tour in Medellin travel, medellin, colombia

You’re enriching his accomplices and/or people trying to make money off his infamy. The most popular Medellin Pablo Escobar tour includes a visit with Roberto Escobar (Pablo’s brother) someone who was complicit and wanted for his role in the criminal activities.

He had a bounty of $10,000,000 (dollars, not pesos) on his head, and he served time in prison. At the end of this tour, tourists get the chance to have coffee with him, take big smiley selfies and ask inane questions in broken Spanish about life back in the day with Pablo and all their criminal misadventures.

Look at how happy these tourists are to be hanging out with the criminal Roberto Escobar. They are even happier than Roberto, and he’s the one making money off their visit!
Look at how happy these tourists are to be hanging out with the criminal Roberto Escobar. They are even happier than Roberto, and he’s the one making money off their visit!

Don’t Ignore Bad History

I’ve had people retort that the tour is worthwhile to learn the history and visit all the sites related to Pablo, because it is part of Colombia’s history, even if it’s bad history.

Psst… You don’t have to go on a tour that romanticizes and celebrates an evil man to “learn the history” — indeed, you’re not even getting the real story. You’d be better off opening a book if you’re trying to do what you say you want to do.

One person once said: “Do you think people should stop visiting Auschwitz too because people try to make money on bad things that happened there?”

Look, I’m a BIG fan of studying history, and visiting Auschwitz is something you should do… But a Pablo Escobar Tour is not like visiting Auschwitz at all.

And there’s a HUGE difference between learning about history’s tragedies and celebrating the people that perpetrated them…

medellin pablo escobar tour

A close (hypothetical) equivalent would be going to Germany and taking an Adolph Hitler Tour, where you get to visit his grave and take selfies, see the locations he hid out, the place where he died, and then go and have coffee and kuchen with his brother where you take big smiley photos and ask him questions in broken German about their crazy war criminal adventures back in the day. Then afterward you can even go buy a cool t-shirt with Hitler’s face on it, just like the El Patron shirts, to wear around town and insult the locals some more.

Doesn’t sound quite so Instagram or VLOG-ready, does it?

Even if that tour was possible and we ignore the decades that have passed, it would be very different because most of the victims of Hitler immediately left Germany for the U.S., Israel, or elsewhere, and would not have been confronted on a daily basis with shorts and flip-flop wearing foreigners who come to the country thanks to the popularity of the hit Netflix series War Crimes about the wacky hi-jinx of Hitler and the rag-tag crew of Americans who eventually brought him down.

While it is true that there are some Colombians who do idolize him, mainly the poor and uneducated (and their offspring) who directly benefited thanks to him buying their loyalty with houses or other material goods, the majority of Colombians hate the man and everything he (still) represents.

He left so much destruction in his wake and almost single-handedly destroyed the reputation of an entire country, even today, some 30 years after his death.

Think about your city, state, or country and try to recall the worst and most negative memory that has occurred there in recent years, and having that be the ONLY thing it is internationally known for (like Colombia), and then having tourists come from far away to pay money to celebrate the man that perpetrated that painful tragedy. Yeah, again, not so cool.

The Controversy of the Pablo Escobar Tour in Medellin travel, medellin, colombia

For Americans, the closest sort of equivalent I can think of would be organized, for-profit tours for bringing in hundreds of rich Saudis or other Arabs to come to New York City to learn all about the 9/11 attacks, visit the sites, and celebrate the mastermind behind them. I don’t mean somber, sad reflections, but Arabs wearing Osama t-shirts and high-fiving at Ground Zero with big smiling selfies. After all, Pablo is believed to be responsible for the deaths of at least 5,000 people, about the same as 9/11.

I mean, you’ve got people militantly opposed to doing elephant tours in Thailand, the very existence of Seaworld, or swimming with dolphins, yet have no qualms about doing a Medellin Pablo Escobar tour which involves real human suffering that is felt to this day… Bizarre.

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Self-Guided Pablo Escobar Tour

Look, you don’t need to pay some tour operator or fatten the pockets of his accomplices in order to learn about the real history of Pablo Escobar or visit the sites. It’s okay to admit that Narcos is a fine place to start for an overview of the story, even though they took some artistic liberty with details… That’s why you should learn more about the real story, which isn’t going to be accomplished on a quick Pablo tour either…

Rather than take a Medellin Pablo Escobar tour, I’d recommend a few other things:

Read the Real Story

You’ll be better off reading a book about the history of Pablo Escobar either before visiting Medellin or while you are in town. I’d recommend Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden, which is what the bulk of the storyline for Narcos is based on.

Here are a few other books about Pablo by his family (but again, do you really want to enrich those people cashing in on Pablo’s infamy?) which could provide a rounded perspective of the good and bad.

I mean, he obviously cared for his family (good) but he also had a blanket bounty on the murder of any police officer for $1,000 which resulted in the murder of more than 500 (bad).

You never want to judge people, but I think it is safe to say that the bad definitely outweighs the good in Pablo’s case.

Talk to Local Colombians

This is recent history, so you can actually talk to many, many people in Medellin who were directly or indirectly affected by Pablo. People who heard the bombs going off, who remember the fear when loved ones went to work and wondered whether they would come back, people who actually lost loved ones, friends, or family.

The Controversy of the Pablo Escobar Tour in Medellin travel, medellin, colombia

Those with the most direct memories would be those who are 40+ years old, though you can also talk to younger generations who are more likely to have a glorified image of him (they don’t remember the bad times, just the often glorified media narrative), so you can get a different perspective.

Your Spanish will need to be decent though, here are my favorite resources to teach yourself Spanish, and my personal recommendations for where to learn Spanish in Medellin.

Again, there’s a big difference between inquisitively asking people about how times have changed here in the past few decades versus jumping straight into how much you love Pablo and wanted to visit Medellin because of him…

Visit the Pablo Escobar Sites in Medellin

Most Medellin Pablo Escobar Tours will tell the history in general strokes, but the main focus is obviously visiting the sites related to Pablo and telling anecdotal things. You can easily visit most of these locations on your own, with no need to go on an organized tour, if you think doing so will somehow enrich your knowledge and understanding. The DIY version is the best Pablo Escobar tour, in my opinion, if you really want to do it.

The main locations visited on a tour include the house where Pablo Escobar was killed, his gravesite, and the Monaco Building (now demolished), but they may also include La Catedral which is outside of Medellin. Most tours do not include a visit to Barrio Pablo Escobar, which is the one place in the city where Pablo is openly celebrated… It’s important to know that that neighborhood name is unofficial.

Pablo Escobar Grave

The grave of Pablo Escobar is located in Itagui, which is south of Medellin. It has become a tourist attraction, unfortunately, where it is not uncommon to see flowers left behind or even other more absurd things by people, like when the rapper Wiz Khalifa came to town.

These actions are precisely what lead local people to believe that foreign tourists are idolizing this man that caused so much pain.

Some gringo posing all happy at the grave of Pablo Escobar
Some gringo posing all happy at the grave of Pablo Escobar

The grave is in Cemetario Jardines Montesacro and can be reached from the Sabaneta Metro Station and a short 10-minute walk.

I’ve never been, and don’t really see the point. But if you do go, show respect for the victims and for Colombians. Pablo was not like Michael Corleone, Al Capone, or Tony Montana, and what he did was on a scale far beyond anything during the Prohibition years or in the minds of Hollywood.

If you go, go there to spit on his grave… Who cares? The guy was a monster. He deserves zero respect.

The House Where Pablo Escobar was Killed

In Los Olivos near the neighborhood of Laureles, you can find the house where Pablo spent his last days hiding out from the police, and where he was ultimately gunned down on a rooftop as he fled.

The address where Pablo Escobar was killed is Carrera 79B #45D-94 and is easily accessible if you go to the Estadio or Santa Lucia metro station.

Fernando Botero’s painting of the death of Pablo Escobar
Fernando Botero’s painting of the death of Pablo Escobar

I lived a few blocks from here actually, and one day I finally did pass by the house after living in Colombia for nearly a year.

There is nothing special about it, but you can pass by and see for yourself if you like.

Monaco Building

The Monaco Building was located in El Poblado, just south of the Santafe Mall. Fico Gutiérrez, the mayor of Medellin at the time, was vehemently against the growing Pablo Escobar tourism sector and he championed the demolition of the Monaco Building which happened in February 2019 since it had become a symbol of illegal activities built off of pain and violence.

Escobar owned many properties throughout Colombia, among them was the relatively non-descript Monaco Building. Most famously, it was here in 1988 when Pablo’s enemies set off two bombs, one of which injured his young daughter’s ear, and the second of which destroyed Pablo’s cars.

Barrio Pablo Escobar

This poor barrio is pretty much like every other poor barrio in Medellin, except for the fact that they have dubbed themselves “Barrio Pablo Escobar” an unofficial name for the area. Here they actually openly celebrate Pablo with street art of his likeness or his name plastered on various places.

It was places like this where Pablo Escobar bought the loyalty of poor locals by investing small portions of his drug money into these areas with housing, schools, and other material goods. This was how he cultivated the Robin Hood image, but let’s not pretend it was altruistic… He was buying the loyalty of these poor residents who became foot soldiers for Pablo and took up arms when he did things like placing a blanket bounty on the murder of any police officer.

This neighborhood is located on the hills above Buenos Aires (directly south) just behind the San Diego shopping mall, basically.

La Catedral

The Cathedral or La Catedral is the prison Pablo constructed for himself with his own guards, in other words, his private mountainside escape to serve out his prison sentence.

Yes, he was that wealthy and thus that influential.

Since 2007, the location has been in the hands of Benedectine monks due to its location away from the city of Medellin which makes it ideal for meditation and religious reflection.

This is the one location on a Pablo tour that is difficult to access without a guide or driver, simply due to its remote location, rather than being in the city. But if you’re going out of the city, there’s a better place related to Pablo that is worth visiting…

Hacienda Napoles

Hacienda Napoles was one of Pablo’s main ranches, a place where he imported animals from Africa in order to turn it into a giant African safari, essentially.

Most notably, he imported hippopotamuses, which escaped the property following his death and were able to adapt to the local river, not only surviving but thriving, with numbers in the hundreds now. These so-called cocaine hippos are a strange legacy today of the wealth of Pablo, surviving half a world away from their natural habitat.

The entry to Hacienda Napoles and one of Pablo's first drug smuggling planes.

In the remains of Pablo’s old house, there is also a museum that tells of the atrocities committed by the cartel.

This location is not on the normal Medellin Pablo Escobar Tour circuit, simply because it is so far away from Medellin, but it is a place that I believe best tells the story and does so in a way that does not celebrate the man, nor enrich people involved in the horrors.

You can also couple this visit with a stop at the lovely Rio Claro Nature Reserve.

Check out a few of the 10 best Medellin tours that I recommend, rather than the Pablo tour, such as:

The Medellin Pablo Escobar Tour: Bottom Line

The history and story of Pablo Escobar are undeniably fascinating… How he was able to come from nothing, dominate an entire country, and become the seventh richest man in the world, before running into hiding and being gunned down on a rooftop.

But honestly, you should skip the Medellin Pablo Escobar tour for all the reasons we discussed. Colombia is a special place and it deserves your respect as a tourist.

I’d recommend just heading up to Hacienda Napoles if you’re really interested, and then maybe visit a few of the sites within Medellin, if you remain curious. Be warned that there really isn’t anything to actually see at those places in Medellin, but there are a ton of other awesome things to see and do in Medellin.

Traveling to Medellin soon?

Book your lodging on now to save, or if you plan to stay longer, I highly recommend looking for a place on Airbnb. And don’t forget to purchase travel insurance for Colombia that will help protect you against illness, injury, and theft. I recommend World Nomads or SafetyWing which are both made for backpackers or digital nomads, and provide great coverage at an affordable price.

Read Next: Guide to Traveling to Colombia

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Head Writer and Adventurer at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West, and then across all of Central America and South America. When he isn't on the move, you can find him living as an expat in Colombia. He is also the author of the best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget that will help you travel more for less. Follow the adventures on social media or read more.

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Comments 13

  1. I doubt people taking the tours are glorifying Pablo and his murders. It seems like the tours themselves and what they present are more to blame. I can see the article’s point but it was written with a simple/arrogant point of view. Viewing tourists badly because of shorts and flipflops and assuming they all say “I love drugs” is uncultured. I have never looked down on anyone in my country that dressed differently and judged them by it. If you are offended by shorts there is something wrong with your head. It sounds like the only people glorifying Pablo are the ones naming their barrio after him and to mention that Colombia itself being named after Christopher Columbus could be offensive in itself to people but I doubt the country glorifies his murders by it. Poorly written article.

    1. Post

      Sadly, there are lots of foreigners that celebrate and glorify Pablo going on these tours — I included but a few of the many photos online of people celebrating Pablo. The tourists don’t celebrate the murders, of course, but the Hollywood bad boy version. The tours, tour operators, and merchants catering to travelers are to blame too. But like the drug trade, who is at fault, the consumers or the producers? Locals are catering to a demand and market forces in a poor country with lots of economic inequality and informal employment.

      I wear shorts and flip-flops here. The attire wasn’t really the point, but it is a stereotype that locals hold toward foreigners that is sometimes interpreted as a sign of cultural disrespect, not unlike the disrespect shown by going on tours glorifying Colombia’s greatest villain.

      Colombia was named after Columbus more than 200 years ago. It is safe to say that they weren’t really concerned about the feelings of indigenous groups at that time.

      1. I visited Medellin in 2018 and after hearing how Colombian people were affected by people speaking of him I decided not to visit the Pablo ranch. I’m returning in 2 week’s to spend the month. I don’t celebrate Pablo but I will visit the ranch this time. When comparing 9/11 to this I would like to also point out that people visit the memorial site in New York where I’m from. I respect the feelings of people at all times which is why I wouldn’t celebrate the atrocities caued by this man. The ranch is an interest of mine because of the animals as well as the historical significance of Pablo and the people of Medellin.

        1. Post

          Hacienda Napoles does a good job showing how truly evil the man was, it does not celebrate Pablo at all, and it does not require guides trying to get rich off of Pablo’s name.

          I just want to emphasize: yes, the 9/11 site is a shrine honoring the victims — very different from 99% of the Pablo Narco tourism we see in Medellin that celebrates the man. The 9/11 analogy would be foreign Saudis coming to 9/11 to *celebrate* Osama bin Laden at Ground Zero.

  2. So we should not talk about Escobar because the history has scarred Colombians yet you recommend speaking to locals about it? Surely a guided tour that talks about the history is the better option as you will avoid offending a local person? Very weird article…

    1. Post

      You seem to have misunderstood. Foreigners coming to celebrate how cool Pablo was is what offends Colombians. Talking with locals is always recommended… Ask them about those times and how drastically things have changed (so, indirectly, not just “PABLO, COOL!”), hear what they have to say, don’t fanboy over him, and don’t start your conversation by saying “I love Pablo Escobar! He’s my hero and the only reason why I’m visiting Colombia! I love drugs!”

      All these idiot tourists coming here to celebrate Pablo Escobar would have never come anywhere close to Medellin during the reign of Pablo Escobar. The beauty of the story of Medellin is how quickly they were able to put those dark days behind them and has nothing to do with Pablo.

  3. I began reading this article in the hope that the author would present credible arguments for not taking these tours. Instead you go ahead and give an outline of the tour along with addresses and how to get there, You even provide a map! I agree with your reasons for not taking the tours but the way you present it is ambiguous at best. Even your links to books are setup so that you make money off anyone purchasing them; one is even written by the guy you so self-righteously describe as a criminal and mock those taking a photo with him. Again, I don’t disagree with your arguments for not taking the tours. I don’t disagree that a greater respect is due any citizen of a country being visited, and I don’t disagree that compassion is lacking from any tourist who seeks out this when the wounds are so fresh. But your article is part of the problem; nowhere near part of the solution.

    1. Post

      I’m not sure what could be ambiguous about me saying DON’T take a Pablo Escobar tour… I talk about the tour to deconstruct this idea that people need to take the tour to better understand the real history, which most definitely isn’t true. And I provide the information about the locations so that if someone is still, somehow, so unbelievably interested in seeing the sites to “better understand” the history, that they can do so on their own without the need for any tour. I’m not sure what the solution is to reduce the “Narco Tourism” in Colombia by foreigners but I’m certainly not part of the problem, indeed I’m actively trying to discourage it which is more than what most do. It is far more respectful to go see these places quietly and on your own than to show up in some big tour group. Some people are going to be drawn to it regardless, I just hope people will do it in a more respectful way than the tour groups.

  4. This is an absolutely idiotic article. You should absolutely take Pablo Escobar tour when in Medellin to learn the history from the locals rather than stupid shows like “Narco”. I’m from Poland and people take Holocaust tours and WW2 tours to learn about the atrocities and how it affects people until today even many years later. Medellin is building a new future but it should not forget nor ignore it’s past. There is plenty of dumb tourists but there’s more of those who want to know and learn. Every tour the people will take in the city will touch on Escobar.

    1. Post

      You didn’t even read the article, yet you’re leaving a comment… Yes, people take Holocaust tours, but nobody takes Hitler tours like those going on Escobar tours here in Medellin. You should absolutely NOT take a Pablo Escobar tour when in Medellin for all the detailed reasons I gave in the article — you can learn about the history from locals without a tour trying to profit off his name. But maybe you’re the type of person that would go on a Hitler tour…?

    2. Anna, as a Colombian I must say that I entirely agree with the author, and you calling his article idiotic sadly shows that you really have not understood the industry that is behind these tours, and how they perpetuate a romantic view of the narcos in 90% of the cases. I hope in your heart you find the compassion to respect the Colombian people’s pain and refrain from recommending these tours and participating in them. I wish you all the best in your life. Nicolás

      1. Nicolas, if not escobar no one would really hear about Columbia, you want it or not country is well known just by him and tourists are coming to find out more history ,history you can’t change so Pablo’s tour should be shown as devil in a man’s skin

  5. Great article, I’m really happy about it, because most of the article I read were evasive about this controversy.
    There one tour about this topic and more worth doing: Heroes Tour – Colombia vs Escobar, it’s in Bogota though. Why? Because this tour is no apology of him, hasn’t being created by ex narcos, doesn’t walk to controversial places…The tour is about recent history, about his impact on the destiny of the country, it walks by famous national institutions in Bogota, and their approach seemsobjective,based on facts by amazing guides who studied political sciences, they debunked lots of clichés or common ideas.
    It’s the most informative tour I did in Colombia, the favourite of my travel in South America, because I learned so much!

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