Why There’s More to Medellin Than Escobar

“Whatever you do, please don’t do the Pablo Escobar tour. That would be very indignant for me,” Gina said to me. Gina was my host in El Retiro, a sleepy, crisp-weathered, mountainous town an hour outside of Medellin, Antioquia, Colombia. I had just flown into Medellin that night from Nicaragua, and Gina had been kind enough to pick me up from the airport during an important soccer game. She was helping me plan for what to see and what to avoid. When I told friends I was visiting Medellin, most of them innocently referenced Pablo Escobar, a drug lord whose ruthless chokehold on Colombia’s cocaine supply left Medellin victim to decades of violence.

We stopped at a typical paisa (a term representative of the northwest region’s people and culture) restaurant. In between glimpses of the Colombia vs. Chile world cup game, she broke down the political, economic, and cultural history of the region for me. The waiter asked if I wanted sugar in my guayaba juice, and I was surprised that I had an option. I don’t even remember what I chose.

She asked me what I knew about Medellin. “Well, I know that Escobar was a very violent man…” I trailed off, embarrassed that I didn’t do my research. Gina clarified that there was more to life in Antioquia than Escobar. I listened eagerly as I poked into some crunchy fried pork rinds with a toothpick.

Medellin, she explained, was Colombia’s center for textile production in the first half of the 20th century. The city of over three million people even boasts a skyscraper called the Coltejer Building, which is shaped like a needle. Today, Medellin’s economic legacy includes high-quality coffee production and it’s famous for beautiful leather products. Oh, and Latin America’s biggest fashion show, Colombiamoda. I should have taken advantage of the sales at the Velez leather outlet while I had the chance.

Once Escobar’s drug cartel took over, Medellin became as violent as Beirut, Gina explained, shaking her head. Car bombs went off frequently in the city. She grew up being used to the violence. Once Escobar died in 1993, the violence decreased. I felt safer in Medellin than I did in Nicaragua. Gina suggested that we go for a walk when it was dark, and I wondered if it was safe to do so. In Nicaragua, once the sun goes down, it’s usually time to head home and lock the doors. Gang violence isn’t as prevalent there as it is in Guatemala, but petty thefts and muggings in isolated areas after dark are common.

Unfortunately, it was drizzling, so we couldn’t go for a walk. Instead, we went to bed early and I slept like a rock. When I’m in a new place, my mind feels the need to rest up as much as possible in order to absorb its surroundings when it is ready to.

I decided that in order to understand the region’s history, that I would eventually go to the Museo de Antioquia. I walked to the bus stop in El Retiro, and spoke with other people waiting to confirm that my bus was the one going to Medellin. Five minutes later, a woman honked her horn and asked if I were headed to Medellin. This was the first time a woman had offered to give me a ride, but I declined. In retrospect, I wish I’d done it, but I didn’t do it, and I was safe.

I spent the day in Medellin with a fellow Wellesley alum, Vero, who graduated with me, but who I had never met. Thanks to a mutual friend, we were able to meet and to reminisce about our college days. We also bonded over how driven Wellesley women are, and about how we just cannot seem to sit still. We always need to be doing something and doing what some people call “overachieving.” To us, it’s just “achieving.” That’s what happens when you are privileged enough to go to school with some of the most driven, independent, and intelligent women in the world. It was nice to be with someone who got me. I didn’t have to really explain why I was spending three weeks traveling alone.

Eventually, I made it to the Museo de Antioquia. As a child, I dreaded museums. I thought they were the most boring, lifeless places. It wasn’t until I studied abroad in France that I began to appreciate museums, especially art museums, for being portals into a region’s history. These histories are never completely inclusive of different racial, socioeconomic, and gender identities, but that’s why I allow myself to be critical of these spaces in the first place.

In February 2013, the Urban Land Institute chose Medellín as the most innovative city in the world due to its recent advances in politics, education and social development, beating out NYC and Tel Aviv. The metro is spotless. People aren’t even allowed to eat on it! Riding the metro here reminded me of riding the spotless, quiet, efficient metro in Tokyo.

I took the metro to the museum. On the way, I sped past hundreds of red brick buildings. I’ll never forget the way these red structures cascaded down the mountains, covering each hill as far as my non-bespectacled eyes could see. Since I’m near sighted, I only wear my glasses when I’m indoors and want to see in greater detail.

It was warm and sunny in Medellin. Before arriving at the museum, I strolled through Botero Plaza. Fernando Botero’s famous, plump black human sculptures greeted me and everyone else with their round, jovial figures. Vendors sold sliced mangos while others blew bubbles in order to attract giggling, energetic toddlers.

I entered the museum and was eager to explore it. I love how quiet museums are. There are barely any distractions–not even music for you to hum away to. The most distracting thing for me is wondering how to interact with the guards in each room. Whenever they say hello to me, I always wonder things like: Are they bored? Are they expected to greet everyone? Have they ever seen someone try to steal something? What’s their favorite part of working here?

At the museum’s front desk, this sign indicated the amount of money you paid depending on your social strata. Although it doesn’t explain stratification in Medellin, this article explains how the system is implemented in Bogota.

I quickly distracted myself by evaluating each piece of art. Some pieces didn’t resonate with me at all, but now and then, there were those that inexplicably demanded my attention. 

One of my favorite paintings was Botero’s Mujer Colombiana (The Colombian Woman) because of the woman’s rawness and the color of her green dress. She wasn’t wearing a bra, and she didn’t need one. She had an uncomfortable yet nonchalant look on her face as she held onto her mink fur. The mink’s blank stare gave me the impression that this painting was a critique of mankind’s exploitation of natural resources.

This woman appeared to have had European roots, yet her puffy, natural hair gave off a hint of indigenous or African roots. I appreciated Botero’s art because his figures were round. They celebrated and normalized curvaceous bodies. 

Botero’s Mujer Colombiana. She, like most of Botero’s subjects, was white. I’ve never been so conscious of how even museums perpetuate whiteness as a norm. It was mostly in the more modern art sections that people of color were represented.

Next was a much darker Botero piece: The Car Bomb. As soon as I saw this, I thought of how Gina had compared Medellin to Beirut during Escobar’s reign of terror. Every night, the news was filled with reports of bombs and shootings. 

The Car Bomb. Gina’s partner, Adelaida, told me that just walking by old, abandoned cars in Medellin would make her feel nervous because they were so often used to blow up buildings, houses, and restaurants in order to terrorize the people. Medellin is much safer now than it was when Gina and Adelaida grew up here.

The year 2016 has seen so much mass murder and violence. I saw this painting a few weeks after the Orlando shooting and the Mexican government’s violence against teacher protesters in Oaxaca. With so much violence in the world, it comforted me to see a painting that depicted this city’s violence as something of the past. If Colombia could move past violence, then it gave me hope for other countries to move forward.   


At the end of my tour, I stopped by Cardona’s Horizontes (1913), which many paisas are proud of. This light-skinned migrant family’s search for a place to make a living contrasted with the wealthier Mujer Colombiana’s economic and physical stability.

Cardena’s Horizontes is emblematic of the paisa spirit.

Across from this painting was a more modern Horizontes. Instead of being on an isolated mountain, the couple’s  in a bustling, loud, chaotic city, contemplating their next steps. A century later, the grim reality and resiliency of migrant life is shown by the woman’s uninhibited desire to breastfeed and to nurture her baby instead of sheltering it from the world.

“But it seems like the painting’s aesthetic qualities mask the drama behind the image: that of thousands of peasant farmers who, during our history, were displaced far and wide in search of a favorable place to ‘raise their families,’ according to the beautiful expression in popular speak.” -Juan Luis Mejia Arango, on the modern Horizontes.

I left the museum with both the modern and the original images Horizontes imprinted into my mind. I was also grateful that I wouldn’t have to be on the lookout for abandoned cars anymore.

Instead I’d be taking the clean, efficient, safe metro back to my bus stop, where I’d eat several warm, freshly made corn arepas made with cuajada.

I thought about how I’m a nomad by choice, not by force. I thought of a conversation I’d had with a taxi driver about my urge to travel. “So, why do you travel so much?” he asked me. “Well, I was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico to the states, and for eleven years, I couldn’t leave and safely come back to the states. Once I gained my citizenship, I finally went back to Mexico and basically met the family I had left there. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to travel because I am able to and because I appreciate it so much, ” I explained. 

I kept thinking of the mothers in both the original and modern Horizontes. Where did they come from? Why did they leave? Would they be happier in their new homes?

Want to learn more about living as a foreigner in Colombia? Check out this article I wrote about what to expect when teaching English in Colombia. And no, I never did go on the Escobar tour. It would be very indignant, indeed.


  1. Jason Powers

    Medellin is amazing! I’m glad you got to see the fun side of the city.
    While I avoid the Narco & Pablo Escobar tours, there is somewhere you can play paintball in one of Escobar’s old houses which sounds hard to resist.

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