The prayer site at Pablo Escobar’s gravesite in Medellin, Colombia has an interesting history. // © 2013 Terra Judge
Ten years ago, if you told someone you were headed to Medellin, Colombia, the reaction would have been one of fear and confusion. It was the height of the cocaine trade, and Colombia only made the news in the U.S. for the shocking stories of lawlessness and danger. Now, the former cocaine capital is speeding to the top of everyone’s must-go lists. From young adventurers looking to step off Latin America’s gringo trail to luxury travelers looking for a glamorous getaway and baby-boomers eager to try their salsa moves and retire in “the city of eternal spring,” Medellin is winning over the corazon of every traveler that comes across it.
This didn’t use to be the case. Only 30 years ago, Colombia’s cocaine cartels ruled Medellin. One local I spoke with told me that when she was a little girl, the streets of Medellin were barren. No one was willing to set foot outside for fear of becoming a victim of a territorial drug-trade shooting. Hired assassins on motorbikes dominated the neighborhoods, where one step into the wrong barrio could lead to murder. Today, things couldn’t be more different. The streets that were once too dangerous to set foot in for fear of ricocheting bullets and bomb scares are now filled with upbeat music and local parties that welcome visitors with open arms. Paisas — the name for Medellin locals — collect in front of storefronts and restaurants to hold enormous block parties, with roasted pigs, salsa dancing and a smile for everyone.
But visitors to Medellin can still get a taste of what made the city infamous in the 1980s — Pablo Escobar and his cocaine trade — by taking a Pablo Escobar tour. The most popular and informational operator is Paisa Road. Stops include Escobar’s former mansions, some scarred from explosions caused by opposing drug cartels; Escobar’s gravesite; and his former cartel headquarters. There’s even a stop at a beautiful prayer area, where would-be assassins asked the Virgin Mary for protection for themselves and destruction for members of the opposing cartels. Legend has it that as one woman was praying there for enough money to buy her children food, an assassin overheard her pleas and delivered her prayers — as a price to stay silent about his own prayers.
Although he caused much destruction and death in the city, Escobar also left a positive mark on Medellin, having built many of the city’s barrios and their neighborhood soccer fields for the poorer of its citizens. Soccer during the reign of Escobar was the height of excitement, and a life-threatening pursuit: Win and you will be showered with riches, fame and glory, but one wrong step could lead to quite the opposite. It is widely said that Escobar threatened the players of his Medellin team with death for on-the-field errors. Although it may seem that Medellin soccer fans still take soccer as seriously as life and death, today’s soccer games are widely attended and extremely safe for locals and tourists alike. All tourists should don their green or red jerseys and venture into a stadium to hook arms with happy families of paisas and scream and shout for a win. As they now say in Colombia, “the only risk is wanting to stay.”