Netflix’s Narcos is an ambitious and popular series about Pablo Escobar and the cocaine trade in Colombia but it has a number of problems. But there are some good alternatives to Narcos and we look at 13 of the best Colombian movies and series.
I personally am not a very big fan of the Narcos series. And I have talked to a number of Colombians over the past few years that dislike the series as they have a number of problems with Narcos, which I understand. There are several problems with Narcos that have been widely reported. And here are four of the top problems I have heard from Colombians that I agree with.
- Narcos perpetuates Colombian stereotypes. The Colombians in Narcos all seem to be criminals, corrupt police officers or sexy women trying to get ahead. The show doesn’t have everyday Colombians or depict how they were impacted by the drug violence. Narcos obviously did this to create interest and drama. But several Colombians I have talked to feel that foreigners take these stereotypes literally.
- Some of the accents in Narcos are terrible. For example, Escobar is played by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura with a thick Brazilian accent. And Escobar’s wife is played by Mexican actress Paulina Gaitán with a thick Mexican accent. This is a big deal for Colombians. Colombia has some good actors, so why weren’t Colombians cast for key roles in this production?
- Medellín and Colombia have moved on. It’s over two decades since Pablo Escobar’s death and Medellín is a completely transformed city and Colombia is a different country. In 2013, Medellín was even named the most innovative city in the world by a competition organized by non-profit Urban Land Institute and sponsored by Citi and the Wall Street Journal. All that progress was simply ignored in Narcos and not even mentioned. When Narcos came out, many people around the world were led to believe the Medellín on the show was still an accurate image. But Medellín has changed completely.
- Narcos is the United States’ viewpoint of another country’s history. Narcos is told from the point of view of Steve Murphy, a DEA agent on a mission to find and take down Escobar. And Narcos presents an image that Escobar and his cartel were seemingly running Colombia, which was simply not true. Colombia was also dealing with paramilitaries, guerrillas, the Cali cartel and much more. And the Americanized Narcos version mixes truth with fiction to keep viewers hooked.
Note the above photo is a Netflix Narcos billboard in Mexico, photo by Johanna.
It turns out that Colombia has a number of good movies, documentaries and series that in my opinion are better than Narcos. In addition, one of the best ways to learn about a new country is to watch locally made films and series. I started to do this when I first started to live in Medellín.
So, over the past seven years while living in Medellín, I have seen many Colombian movies, documentaries and series. And the following list is 13 of the best Colombian movies, series and documentaries I have seen (based on my opinion and with input from some friends).
Note this list is in no particular order and starts with three series and then several movies and finally a couple of documentaries. Also many of these movies can be found on Amazon and on Netflix.
1. Best Colombian Series: Pablo Escobar: Boss of Evil (Pablo Escobar: El Patron Del Mar) – 2012
From May 28 to November 1, 2012, Caracol TV aired Escobar: El Patron del Mal on weeknights at 9:30 pm. This series is a superb accounting of the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, who is most likely the most lethal criminal ever to live.
This is a long series with 74 episodes. But it’s difficult to stop watching once you start. One Medellin Guru reader even said “This version of Escobar’s infamy is the gold standard.” And I completely agree with this. Andrés Parra, the Colombian actor who is cast as Escobar is much better and believable than the Brazilian actor Wagner Moura in Narcos.
The El Patron del Mal series follows Escobar’s rise to power, as well as his downfall. Furthermore, this series was even created by two people whose families were directly affected by his violence: Camilo Cano and Juana Uribe.
Camilo Cano is a journalist and son of Guillermo Cano, the editor and publisher of the El Espectador newspaper based in Bogota. Guillermo was murdered by Escobar’s men due to his editorials against Escobar and the cartel. And Juana Uribe, was Vice President of Caracol TV and is the daughter of Maruja Pachon. Maruja was kidnapped on Escobar’s orders, and held hostage for six months as Escobar fought to have Colombia’s Constitution amended to disallow Colombians from being extradited to the U.S.
I found the first part of El Patron del Mal to be the most interesting, when you see Escobar in his early years. The later parts are filled with so much violence and death, it becomes depressing. I reluctantly visited Pablo Escobar’s grave earlier this year for the first time in over seven years.
You can find El Patron del Mal on Caracoltv and Netflix. And on Amazon are found Pablo Escobar: El Patron Del Mal – Part 1, Pablo Escobar: El Patron Del Mal – Part 2 and Pablo Escobar: El Patron Del Mal Parte 3.
2. Best Colombian Series: The Cartel of Snitches (El Cartel de los Sapos) – 2008
Cartel de los Sapos: Primera Parte and Cartel-Season 2 Pt 2: Guerra Total is a popular Colombian television series that first aired in 2008 and is also known as El Cartel. The series is based on the 2008 novel by the same name by Andrés López López, alias Florecita (“Little Flower”). López was a former drug dealer who wrote the fictionalized account of his experiences in the Cali Cartel.
The book upon which the TV series is based also inspired the film El Cartel de los Sapos released in 2011. Note there are two seasons to the El Cartel series with a total of 107 episodes. But this lengthy series about the Cali Cartel can be addicting once you start watching it.
3. Best Colombian Series: Rosario Tijeras – 2010
Rosario Tijeras : Coleccion de 10DVDs BOXSET Imported is a Colombian story about a young girl from a poor barrio in Medellín who turns into a hired killer.
The original novel this was based on was made into both a movie (in 2005) and a more popular and addictive telenovela series on television. This series also sparked a debate in Colombia about just how much of the dark reality of shady drug bosses and women assassins should be broadcast into living rooms night after night. The big complaint is that such narco-soaps glamorize the life of criminals and incite young people to emulate that lifestyle. But Rosario ultimately dies the way she lived: by the gun.
The show’s initial slogan, “It’s harder to love than to kill”, even sparked protests in Medellín, where the story is set. So, that advertising posters were taken down. Murder, betrayal, fast money and beautiful women may be vulgar. But it makes for a riveting television series and Rosario was one of the top-rated program in Colombia when it started airing.
You may need Spanish for the telenovela series as I haven’t seen it with English subtitles.
4. Best Colombian Movies: Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de la Serpiente) – 2015
Embrace Of The Serpent was Colombia’s first-ever Oscar-nominated film for Colombia (for Best Foreign Language Film). The movie is in black and white with a very interesting plot.
This is a story of the relationship between an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his people, and two scientist explorers. The movie combines the accounts of two explorers over the course of 40 years searching the Amazon in Colombia for yakuna, a sacred healing plant.
The movie manages to tell a story of a world changing. And some forgotten indigenous people take center stage in this movie. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous throughout the movie.
In my opinion, this is a Colombian movie that absolutely deserves to be seen by many more people than it has been seen by.
5. Best Colombian Movies: The Wind Journeys (Los Viejes del Viento) – 2009
The Wind Journeys (English Subtitled) is a Colombian-German-Argentine-Dutch written and directed by Ciro Guerra (who also directed Embrace of the Serpent). The film was selected as the Colombian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 82nd Academy Awards but it wasn’t nominated. However the film won the awards of Best Colombian Film and Best Director at the 2009 Bogotá Film Festival and the 2010 Cartagena Film Festival.
This movie was filmed in 80 locations in Northern Colombia, capturing a sweeping array of locations. The film follows the travels of a Colombian vallenato musician Ignacio Carrillo who is portrayed by real-life musician Marciano Martínez. Carrillo traveled to the villages of northern Colombia, playing traditional songs on his accordion, which is a legendary instrument said to have been cursed by the Devil. He eventually stopped his nomadic life and was married and settled in a small town.
But after the traumatic death of his wife, Carrillo vows to never play the accursed accordion again. And he starts on one last trip to return the Devil-cursed accordion to its rightful owner. Carrillo is joined by Fermín, a young boy who wants to be his apprentice. And together they traverse the vast Colombian terrain and discover the musical diversity of Caribbean culture.
6. Best Colombian Movies: The Colors of the Mountain (Los Colores de la Montana) – 2010
The Colors of the Mountain is a Colombian-Panamanian film directed by Carlos César Arbeláez. It was selected as the Colombian entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the 84th Academy Awards in 2011 but didn’t make the shortlist. But Arbeláez won the keenly-contested $120,000 Kutxa New Directors Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival, where this movie world-premiered to warm audience reactions.
This film is about a young boy, Manuel, who lives with his farmer parents in a remote village in the Andean region of Colombia. The adults try to avoid the armed military and the guerrilla rebels fighting each other in the area. However, one by one, local families are fleeing to safer locations, resulting in a shrinking attendance at the local village school.
But Manuel and his friend Julian are completely obsessed with playing soccer any chance they get. Shortly after his birthday, a new soccer ball Manuel received as a gift gets kicked into a minefield. And Manuel, Julian and their albino friend Poca Luz will do everything in their power to rescue their prized possession, an essential part of their everyday lives and dreams. But graver dangers are lurking just around the corner.
7. Best Colombian Movies: Maria Full of Grace (María, Llena Eres de Gracia) – 2004
Maria Full of Grace is a film written and directed by Joshua Marston that was produced in Colombia and the United States. In addition, lead Colombian actress Catalina Sndiono Moreno was nominated for Best Actress in the 77th Academy Awards.
In a small pueblo in Colombia, the 17-year old Maria supports her family with her salary working at a flower plantation. However, after unjust treatment from her boss, she quits her job de-thorning roses. Maria then discovers she is pregnant by her boyfriend. And he suggests marriage, but she declines because she doesn’t love him and he doesn’t love her.
On her way to find a new job in Bogotá, she accepts an offer to work as a drug mule. And she flies to U.S. with sixty-two pellets of cocaine in her stomach. And after more troubles with the traffickers and the death of a more experienced mule that Maria had befriended, she ultimately decides to stay in the U.S.
8. Best Colombian Movies: Land and Shade (La Tierra y la Sombra) – 2015
Land and Shade was directed by César Augusto Acevedo. The film was screened at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Caméra d’Or Award, France 4 Visionary Award and SACD Award.
This film is about Alfonso, who is an old Colombian farmer who has returned home to tend to his son, who is seriously ill. This is a man whose past and present easily fit inside the small suitcase he has owned for decades.
Alfonso rediscovers his old home, where the woman who was once his wife still lives, with his daughter-in-law and grandson. But the landscape around his old home resembles a wasteland. The sugar cane plantations that surround his house have a constant burning of the cane, which results in a nightly rain of ash upon the family’s home. And this most likely was the cause of his son’s illness.
So, 17 years after abandoning his family, Alfonso tries to fit back in and save his family. The film presents a pretty helpless situation and focuses on some tiny, fleeting moments of hope, loyalty and love as well as regret, resentment and reconciliation.
9. Best Colombian Movies: The Strategy of the Snail (La Estrategia del Caracol) – 1993
The Snail’s Strategy is a Colombian comedy-drama directed and produced by Sergio Cabrera. The film was selected as the Colombian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 67th Academy Awards. But it was not accepted as a nominee.
The film focuses on the hardship endured by poor families in Bogota and the the divisions between rich and poor in the city. The film deals with a group of people evicted from their shared home after many years, and their desperate attempts to remain.
The tenants are told to leave the house because its owner, a obnoxious, rich man from an exclusive Bogotá area, has new plans for it. The tenants are given more time so everyone in the house has enough time to find a new place to live. And Jacinto, an intellectual and rebellious Spaniard, comes up with a way to remove everything inside the house (bathtubs, kitchens,toilets, roofs, walls, windows, etc.) and have all of it moved to a piece of land located on the hills of western Bogotá.
10. Best Colombian Movies: The Rose Seller (La Vendedora de Rosas) – 1998
La Vendedora De Rosas is a Colombian film directed by Victor Gaviria. It was selected as the Colombian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 71st Academy Awards. But it wasn’t accepted as a nominee. In addition, this film received a Golden Palm nomination at the Cannes Film Festival.
This story is considered a modernization of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. The movie focuses on 13-year-old Monica who sells roses to couples in nightspots in Medellín. Monica hangs out with other runaways and her dealer boyfriend while smoking pot and sniffing glue. After ten-year-old Andrea runs away from home, she joins Monica and several other children living on the streets. And these kids lead anything but normal lives.
Tragically many of the non-professional actors in the movie either died or ended up in jail, including the star Lady Tabares. Tabares enjoyed a short period of stardom after the movie was released, but returned to a life on the streets. And she later was convicted of assisting in the murder of a taxi driver. She reportedly served 12 years in prison and was released in 2013.
This movie was reportedly filmed in Barrio Triste (Sad neighborhood) in Medellín, where Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús is located.
11. Best Colombian Movies: Lessons for a Kiss (Leccions Para un Beso) – 2011
Lessons for a Kiss is a lighter side Colombian movie that is directed by Juan Pablo Bustamante. This romantic comedy has some stunning cinematography of Cartagena and is a nice change from all the Colombian movies about drugs and violence.
A teenage boy from Bogotá is forced to live in Cartagena where his mother opened a restaurant. He falls for a stunning girl, who ignores him. However, three different clients in the restaurant with different strategies in the arts of love: romance, lies and money, come to his rescue and try to guide the young boy to his dream: a kiss on the lips.
12. Best Colombian Documentaries: Colombia: Wild Magic (Colombia: Magia Salvaje) – 2015
This very popular Colombian documentary was directed by Mike Slee. This beautiful documentary shows some of the enormous biodiversity of Colombia and its stunning views, wildlife and beautiful but fragile ecosystems. Most noteworthy, Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world after Brazil.
As of October 2015, Colombia: Magia Slvaje was reportedly the highest grossing and most watched film in Colombian cinema history with over 1.6 million people in Colombia watching this documentary.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find this documentary on Amazon but Colombia: Magia Slavaje is available on Netflix.
13. Best Colombian Documentaries: La Sierra (2005)
La Sierra (English Subtitled) is a documentary directed by Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez who spent a year following the lives of three marginalized youth in the La Sierra barrio, within Villa Hermosa (Comuna 8) in Medellín. The documentary was shot between January to December 2003.
The goal of the film was to demonstrate the cycle of violence in Colombia, specifically among Colombia’s urban youth. From one generation to the next, marginalized youth in Colombia get caught up in drugs and violence, all of which is ultimately connected to a wider national conflict.
Once you start watching, the emotionally charged documentary showcases a woman screaming and crying due to the loss of her baby’s father through gunfire. It’s nothing short of heart wrenching. Warning, the storyline is emotionally volatile and heavy with violence.
However, also keep in mind this documentary was filmed over 10 years ago and this neighborhood has come to a peaceful resolution and there are now even La Sierra tours.
Buying on Amazon
Many of these movies are available on Amazon. If you want to buy movies or other products on Amazon, note this is possible in Colombia. I live in Medellín and buy from Amazon all the time and I use the Mail Boxes Etc. ebox service.
This service provides a mailbox in Medellín that is linked to a mailing service in Miami. And any mail received at this mailing service in Miami is forwarded to Medellín.
So, I buy products on Amazon and ship using Amazon Prime for free to Miami and the items reliably show up in Medellín. In addition, Mail Boxes Etc. has offices in Barranquilla, Bogotá and Bucaramanga.
Amazon does ship some products to Colombia from the U.S. but not everything sold on Amazon ships to Colombia. But if you use the Mail Boxes Etc. service with Amazon Prime you get unlimited free 2-day shipping to Florida for products Amazon sells and the items show up reliably in Medellín with relatively low shipping costs.
Amazon Prime costs $119 per year but you can try Amazon Prime with a free 30-day trial.
Also, Amazon is reportedly entering the Colombian market in July 2018 with a market place in Colombia starting with selling only electronic products, such as smartphones, tablets and televisions, as well as decorations and kitchen items.
The Bottom Line: Alternatives to Narcos: 13 Best Colombian Movies and Series
The bottom line is there are a number of good Colombia movies, series and documentaries that are viable alternatives to Narcos and permit you to learn much more about Colombia. In addition, Colombia has a burgeoning movie industry with a number of new Colombian movies being released each year.
Several of the Colombian movies, series and documentaries released over the past 20 years have been very good and worth seeing, as seen in our above list of 13 of the best Colombian movies, series and documentaries.
If we missed any really good Colombian movies or series, please let us know in the comments below. We are happy to review additional movies or series and add to this list.
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Editors note: on July 23, 2018 added information about Amazon entering Colombia and ability for a free 30-day trial of Amazon Prime.