I learned very quickly on arriving in Medellín – day two, in fact – that Paisas generally do not like the name Pablo Escobar to be spoken. And many of them get angry when they hear foreigners want to go on a Pablo Escobar Tour.

Many don’t like the idea of tour companies offering Pablo Escobar Tours glorifying Escobar. This is a local perspective that I tried to appreciate and understand.

Yet, when my friends decided to book a Pablo Escobar Tour and wanted to know if I wanted to come along, I was torn.

Out of respect for the locals I didn’t feel it was right to go. I understood that this part of Medellín’s history was still too recent to be explored and gawked at by foreigners.

Yet, my morbid curiosity about this man, whose name for so long was synonymous with Medellín, was compelling me to do it anyway.

And I did.

And here’s why I took a Pablo Escobar Tour, and why I think you shouldn’t, and some alternative excursions you can go on to learn about Escobar’s part in Medellín’s history instead.

Note the above photo a view of Medellín from La Catedral, Pablo Escobar’s prison during the early 1990’s.

A view of El Centro today from Medellín’s celebrated metro system

A view of El Centro today from Medellín’s celebrated metro system

For a Better Understanding

I’ll admit to sometimes being a typical ignorant American from the U.S. Well at least where world affairs are concerned.  I wasn’t interested in foreign news growing up.  I was only concerned with my little corner of the world.  World history bored me.

So, what I knew of Colombia and Medellín, before arriving in the country, was minimal.  All I could say for certain was that Colombia was – and to some degree still is – considered by many Americans one of the most dangerous countries in the world to visit.

I also knew that Colombia has an extensive history of cocaine trafficking.  And that Medellín used to be the murder capital of the world. Not really great headlines for the tourist board.

However, I also knew that some close friends had recently travelled through the country and thought it was a beautiful place with kind people.  And my favorite adventure travel company – G Adventures – recently started offering tours through the country.

Pretty limited, right?

Then when I arrived, I started watching the infamous ‘Narcos’ series.  To be honest, I hadn’t even heard about the series until eight months prior, when I guy I was dating mentioned I must watch it if I was considering traveling through Colombia.

He was a Captain in the U.S. Army Special Forces, and he literally begged me not to visit as from his intel knowledge it was too dangerous.

So, this all I knew about Medellín and Colombia. A very skewed view portrayed by a hyped/paranoid American media, a sensationalized television series, and a paranoid U.S. Army Special Forces Captain boyfriend.

I wanted to understand the history. I wanted to hear about this unfortunate period of Colombia and Medellín’s past from a local perspective well-immersed in the city.

A watchtower at Escobar’s prison La Catedral

A watchtower at Escobar’s prison La Catedral

Pablo Escobar Tours Exist Because of a Morbid Curiosity

I won’t lie. The popular Narcos series heightened my intrigue even more about Pablo Escobar.  How could one man wield such control over a city, the country, the world even and cause such destruction?

I wanted to see the prison he built – La Catedral.  I wanted to look at his grave.  I wanted to see the roof where he was shot and killed. I wanted to see his residence near Envigado.

I was like a sponge to spilled water, effortlessly intrigued to soak up more knowledge about this man and this period of Colombia’s history.

But don’t take that as a negative thing.  It was a morbid curiosity born out of a desire to learn the real history of what happened and not just some exaggerated, half-truth of a TV drama I’d been watching.

I also needed to experience these places so I could feel what happened.  I’m a visual person, so I need to see things to truly understand and begin to empathize.

For me, seeing these places was no different than visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia or Auschwitz in Poland.

You can read all the history books, but you can’t really comprehend the magnitude of the atrocity unless you physically see the places where the incidents took place. Standing on the same ground.  Touching the same walls.  Only then do you get a sense of realness.

A Botero sculpture that was destroyed by a bomb in the center of Medellín during the crisis remains to remind us of the past

A Botero sculpture that was destroyed by a bomb in the center of Medellín during the crisis remains to remind us of the past

Sharing the History and Explaining the Now

An important duty of any traveler is to gather knowledge about the places they visit and to distill any stereotypes once they return home.

But you can’t understand a culture and its people unless you understand its history.

When you understand that nearly every person living in Medellín was affected in some way during the painful period of the 80s and 90s, you get a better understanding for the current level of friendliness and happiness and celebration of life that the people of this beautiful city exhibit.

Like any of us, our past shapes who we are today.  And knowing this past helps us understand.

But more than that you need to know that history so that you can argue intelligently about it.  As I said at the start, many Americans still perceive Colombia as a dangerous place that shouldn’t be visited.

As a traveler part of our responsibility is to go back home and distill these myths.  We need to be able to explain that yes, Colombia had a dark period, not unlike many countries.  We need to be able to discuss in detail that history.

But we also can tell people about the Colombia of today. How the city of Medellín boasts a world-class public transportation system that includes both a metro and cable cars.

How some of the most previously dangerous parts of the city now are adorned with vibrant street-art and locals that greet you with a smile when you visit.

So, I understand that many foreigners probably will want to go on this tour for the same reasons as me.  So, what do you actually see on a tour?  What will you learn?

Called the Monaco Building, this is Pablo Escobar’s former residence near Envigado

Called the Monaco Building, this is Pablo Escobar’s former residence near Envigado

Pablo Escobar Tour: Escobar’s Residence near Envigado

Due to the popularity of the Narcos series, demand from foreign tourists has resulted in several Pablo Escobar tours being offered in Medellín:

All of these Pablo Escobar tours stop at one of Pablo Escobar’s residences and other sites.

Our group of four hired a private Escobar Tour driver that showed us several key locations related to Pablo Escobar’s life in and around Medellín.

The first stop that we made was at one of Pablo Escobar’s residences in Medellín near Envigado.  The building today is just a derelict, seven-story, concrete facade. We were not allowed to go inside.

Outside on the security fence was a notice from the Ministry of Defense and the National Police stating that as of 23 December 2008, the building – called the Monaco Building – was owned by the National Police.

This cement fortress really isn’t much to look at today, but our guide told us that during its use by Escobar, it including a swimming pool, tennis court, and an extensive car collection in the garage.

The tour included additional commentary about how the Monaco Building was lavishly decorated inside and about how it was looted after Escobar went into hiding.

One of the buildings at La Catedral, the prison where Escobar lived for one and a half years

One of the buildings at La Catedral, the prison where Escobar lived for one and a half years

Pablo Escobar Tour: La Catedral (Escobar’s Prison)

Next, we took a long drive out of town and found ourselves winding up a switchback, road pretty much in the countryside, to reach La Catedral.

La Catedral is the prison that housed Escobar between 1991 and his escape a year and half later in 1992.  Escobar was allowed to design the prison, which in fact was more like a private resort that including such amenities as a football pitch, bar, and Jacuzzi all in sumptuous design.

Much like the Monaco Building, ‘Hotel Escobar’ (as it was often called), has been met with decay.  Part of the facilities are now used as a retirement home, but the other areas are literally crumbling to the ground.

In addition, the site includes a helicopter landing pad with breathtaking views over the city of Medellín.

Our guide told us about how Escobar escaped from the prison and some of the salacious actives that happened whilst he was living there.

Escobar’s Grave adorned with flowers during a visit in August 2017

Escobar’s Grave adorned with flowers during a visit in August 2017

Pablo Escobar Tour: Escobar’s Grave

The third stop on the tour was to see Pablo Escobar’s grave.  His grave is a very nondescript, quite low-key headstone in Cemetario Jardines Montesacro.

He is buried alongside his parents and a few children. On the day I went in August last year, it was adorned with flowers, but I know that at other times it has been left bare.

Escobar’s Grave showing wear with no flowers during a visit in January 2018

Escobar’s Grave showing wear with no flowers during a visit in January 2018

In January 2018, there were no flowers and the site is showing some wear. Escobar’s headstone is worn on the lower part. Also, there was a tile missing below the head stone, which may have been taken by a tourist. 

Pablo Escobar Tour: Where He Was Shot

The final stop on the tour was to see the roof of the building where he was shot dead.  He died on 2 December 1993 after his hiding place was discovered and members of Search Bloc forced him out into the open.

There is much debate on whose gun fired the shot that killed Escobar, but picture evidence proves that the roof we visited on the tour was indeed where he took his last breath.

The location is in a residential area of Medellín and now is owned by a business.  You can find the location on the Internet relatively easily.

However, out of respect of the people who live in this area and the current business that resides there, I have chosen not to reveal its location or provide a picture.

Would I Recommend the Pablo Escobar Tour?

I found the tour fascinating and the facts that I learned on the tour helped me both understand how sensationalized the Narcos series was and also the magnitude of the operation that Escobar ran.

But on the flip side, during the whole tour I felt awkward. Like I was doing something that I shouldn’t.

It didn’t feel right to me to be ogling at the roof where he was shot or taking photos of his grave. Even as a small group, I somehow felt uncomfortable every time we got out of the car.

Although the tour provided me with a lot of knowledge and helped me understand the history of Medellín better, if felt I had tiptoed over a line I shouldn’t have crossed. So, whilst, I understand why individuals would want to go on the tour.  I’m not sure I would recommend it. Not yet anyway.

I believe if you come back in 10 or 15 years’ time, maybe then enough time will have then passed to make a tour acceptable, but for now I feel that the history is still too recent and to raw in many individuals’ minds.

Seven Alternatives to a Pablo Escobar Tour

1. Hike to La Catedral 

Escobar’s former prison – La Catedral – is perched high on hill in tropical rainforest. It is actually a beautiful spot in the Colombian countryside. And the views of Medellín from the helicopter pad are incredible.

However, instead of driving up there as part of a tour, I’d recommend joining a hike through the countryside that leads up to La Catedral.  With this option, the main purpose of your time is hiking and enjoying Colombia’s nature and not just Instagramming the building.

Companies like La Ruta often offer hikes up to La Catedral, in fact their next hike is today.

2. Visit the Cemetario Jardines Montesacro

As for Escobar’s grave, you could just take the Medellín metro or a taxi out to the cemetery where he is buried on your own instead of going as a group tour.

Personally, I’ve always had an odd enjoyment of visiting cemeteries.  I’ve always been intrigued at looking at a gravestone and wondering who that person was and what legacy they left behind.

One grave I saw in the grounds when I was there particularly garnered my attention and intrigue even more than Escobar’s. It was lovingly carpeted with fresh blue and white flowers, including a blue cross, but didn’t look like a new grave.

On reading the headstone I learned that it was of a boy, who died at the age of 21.  Two days before I was there was the first anniversary of his death. This display was uncommon to what I’d find in American and the culture of it intrigued me.

If you too, decide to visit Escobar’s grave. Be sensitive. You may encounter a funeral.  So, be respectful. Dress appropriately.

Remember that for you, these might just be graves, but for someone, the people buried there are being mourned and lost by someone, somewhere.  Additionally, don’t just go to snap a photo of the graves of Escobar’s family. Wander around and appreciate the beauty.

Torn flags in Parque San Antonio still fly at half mast in Medellín to honor and remember those who lost their lives in a bomb attack on 10 June 1995

Torn flags in Parque San Antonio still fly at half mast in Medellín to honor and remember those who lost their lives in a bomb attack on 10 June 1995

3. Take a Free City Walking Tour

To get a less sensational perspective of the city’s history, then I would recommend taking the Real Free City Walking Tour. Not only is this tour free, but it gives you a broader history of the city of Medellín, without focusing solely on Escobar’s reign.

During this four-hour tour, you get to discover the (El Centro) of Medellín and explore its streets. The local guide brings the city to life through stories and explains many aspects of the tumultuous period during Escobar’s rule over the city.

Our article on the best walking tours in Medellín provides a more detailed description of what you can learn on this tour.

This street art image by Chota 13 located in Comuna 13 is said to represent hope

This street art image by Chota 13 located in Comuna 13 is said to represent hope

4. Take a Tour of Comuna 13

The barrio of Comuna 13 in Medellín used to be one of the most dangerous places in the world.  A place where shootings were so common, that our tour guide told us that he used to have to step over dead bodies every morning on his way to school.

Today, this part of Medellín is thriving with graffiti art and even boasts a public escalator system in the middle of the barrio.

The local guides in this area, can tell you a broader history of Medellín, which can also answer some of your questions about Escobar and period of guerrilla warfare associated around narco trafficking.

Read our article about Comuna 13 and graffiti tours to find out more about the history of Medellín you can learn on this tour.

5. Visit the Museo Casa de la Memoria

And if you really want to feel the history, then the best place to go is Musuo Casa de la Memoria (Memory House Museum).

Here you can watch interviews of living individuals effected by the atrocities during the 80s and 90s.

And the room with all the photos of some of the individuals who were killed during this horrific period, really, more than anything I have visited in Medellín, brought the reality of this history to life to me.

Seeing those faces and hearing the stories of those still living affected me more than staring at the roof where Escobar was shot.

Painting by Fernando Botero depicts the moment when Escobar was shot dead on a roof in Medellín. Painting by Fernando Botero, Pablo Escobar Dead, 2006, photo by Jenny Bojinova

Painting by Fernando Botero depicts the moment when Escobar was shot dead on a roof in Medellín. Painting by Fernando Botero, Pablo Escobar Dead, 2006, photo by Jenny Bojinova

6. See Botero’s Escobar Paintings at the Museo de Antioquia

As for the residence where Escobar was shot, in my opinion, it’s really not worth going to.

To be honest, I felt incredibly self-conscious being there as if I was standing over a recent crime scene taking photos of a place that had nothing to do with me. It just felt odd. It seemed to cross the line into sensationalism for me.

Instead, go to the Museo de Antioquia in El Centro, where on the third floor there is a small room of paintings by Medellín artist Fernando Botero, which depicts various scenes of Escobar’s life.

These paintings are still considered controversial by some. However, I believe viewing an art piece of the scene is not a macabre act.

7. Take an Online NarcoTour

A group of journalistic students from EAFIT University have started an ambitious project to tell the story of Pablo Escobar from the victim’s point of view.

Their online NarcoTour talks about many places on the foreigner’s Pablo Escobar tour – like Escobar’s grave and La Catedral – but the story is told through the voices of the victims and the witnesses during that time period.

The extensive website includes photos, interviews and video footage to help you explore the history without leaving your home.

Tours in Medellín

We have covered five different tours in Medellín:

We also provided a recommended tourist itinerary for a day in Medellín.

The Bottom Line: Taking a Pablo Escobar Tour

Pablo Escobar fascinates many tourists who visit Medellín. The Narcos series has heightened that intrigue even more. I get it. I really do.

But as guests in this country, I feel that we must be respectful of the locals wishes, of whose city we are visiting, and refrain from engaging in activities that appear to glorify Escobar.

Many people are still healing from this painful past. We must understand that for some Escobar was a hero and for some he was a villain. And no matter what an individual felt about this man, they were affected by him. The history is still too recent.

If still, your curiosity gets the better of you, and you MUST still go on a Pablo Escobar Tour then be considerate. Find a reputable guide that will tell you the facts and not just a sensationalized story.

Try to do a Pablo Escobar Tour in a small group of only two or three people. And please, avoid the selfies in front of the landmarks.

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Editors note: updated on September 30, 2018 to add additional Pablo Escobar tours available.