What I Miss About Poker in Medellín

Straight flush

Straight flush (photo: Images Money)

Over the past 10 years I have played poker in many different countries around the world.

I’ve played poker with Turks in Cyprus, Russians in Ukraine, and Europeans in the Netherlands and Germany – as well as with all sorts of different nationalities in Latin America.

Out of all of the places that I have played poker at Latina America remains my favorite.

Today I am reflecting on all of the different countries that I have played poker at in Latin America (Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Peru, the Dominican Republic, etc.).

This article identifies the Top 3 Countries to play poker at in Latin America. Then it explains what I miss about playing poker in Medellín, Colombia.

Costa Rica

Several years ago I attended INCAE Business School in Alajuela, Costa Rica for three weeks and fell in love with Costa Rica.

Back then, Costa Rica had a different look and feel. Costa Rica was like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua are today: beautiful countries that feel undiscovered.

When I visit a country like El Salvador, for example, there is a Wild West type experience that is hard to concisely explain to someone who hasn’t traveled much.

There are few tourists. There is an element of lawlessness. I feel like Marco Polo. And I find myself having to immerse myself into the culture in order to survive.

Today Costa Rica has some of most profitable places to play poker in Latin America.

And unlike much of Latin America, in Costa Rica there are quite a few solid places to play poker within close proximity of each other.

You could play poker at two to three casinos in central San Jose such as the Horseshoe that are a few blocks away from each other. But the best places to play are at the Mona Lisa, Casino Fiesta, and the casino in Irazu.

The Mona Lisa used to have both a dollars and a colones game. Depending on who was sitting at the table, the dollars game could play much bigger than the blinds would suggest.

In my opinion, though, the casino in Irazu has the best action. If you are both patient and accepting of significant variance, you could easily have an hourly rate of roughly 2X that of what you would have at a casino in the United States playing the same game.

Casino Fiesta, by contrast, is the largest and most professionally run casino. They routinely have tournaments. And unlike the other casinos you won’t find casino employees sitting down with house money in order to get a game going.

Bottom Line: Costa Rica is probably the best country in Latin America for playing profitable poker. But the ambiance doesn’t compare to Panama or Colombia.

Panama City skyline

Panama City skyline (photo: David Lee)

Panama

My first thoughts upon arriving in Panama were “there is no way that I am renting a car here because the traffic here is just awful” and “Panama City looks like Manhattan with all of these tall buildings in a small area.”

There were several casinos in Panama to play poker at such as Majestic and the Continental.

Similar to downtown San Jose, in Panama City there are several casinos that are within walking distance of each other.

Compared to every other country in Latin America, Panama has more casinos that have multi-table Texas NL Hold’em poker rooms; in fact, most casinos in Panama had 1,2 NL Hold’em games as well as weekly tournaments.

Plus many of the casinos hosted LAPT (Latin American Poker Tour) events.

As you would expect, the casinos and poker rooms were larger and much nicer than those in every other country in Latin America where I have played poker.

At the Veneto, for instance, I attended a mixed martial arts event and an after party that was located on the rooftop of the casino where there was an outside pool and breathtaking view. That event was like something out of a movie.

But the competition was also a notch above everywhere else I have played in Latin America. Which makes it more difficult to consistently play profitable poker.

That said, the quality of players were still a notch below most players that you find at most casinos in the United States.

Bottom Line: Panama has seen a lot of American and British foreign investment. That means that the standards are higher and it is more expensive. Still, it offers reasonable value and unlike much of Central America (except for Costa Rica where Texas NL Hold’em is also very popular), Texas NL Hold’em has caught on.

Gran Casino

Gran Casino (center-right) on Avenida Poblado (photo: David Lee)

Colombia

When I arrived in Medellín, it was late at night and dark.

All that I remember about the trip from the airport to my hotel, Le Parc, was that the roads were very windy and the view of the city as I was entering was amazing.

During the day I explored the city of Medellín and found many casinos. Fortunately, I took a lot of notes on those casinos.
Most of those casinos, however, only had slot machines and table games where you played against the house.

Casino Havana, located next to Rio Sur, which was a five to ten minute walk from Santa Fe, for example, had mostly slot machines and did not have Texas NL Hold’em.

And Gran Casino Medellin and Portofino Casino, which were located within walking distance of Casino Havana, also did not have Texas NL Hold’em.

Neither did San Fernando Casino.

Then I stumbled across Casino Allegre and Casino Rio. Both of those casinos were excellent places to play Texas NL Hold’em cash games and tournaments.

I played mostly at Casino Rio. Every day Casino Rio had either one or two cash tables and a 7 p.m. Texas NL Hold’em tournament.

There was an interesting mixture of characters that played in both the tournaments and cash games. The games were good but the conversations were phenomenal.

I met an individual who flew for Pablo Escobar several years ago and another who also worked for Pablo Escobar before saving enough money to own his own legitimate business.

At first I didn’t believe them. After all, we were playing poker.

But once they gave me their names to google I was able to validate many of their stories about guys that worked for them getting whacked, smuggling cases getting dismissed by Judge Hayden Head Jr., and customs confiscating millions of dollars found on their planes.

Most of these people were very open about discussing stuff that happened back in the early and mid 1980s because the statue of limitations expired many years ago.

A recurring theme was that much of the money that was gained through illegal activities has given rise to legitimate businesses in Colombia.

Their stories were amazing.

Bottom Line: Playing poker with people who worked for and met Pablo Escobar and his gang was an incredible experience. Many of those guys are now either retired or semi-retired and are more than willing to throw money around. That makes for an exciting game of poker.

What I Miss About Poker in Medellín

The atmosphere of the casinos in Medellín, Colombia is hard to replicate. I met some of the most interesting people that I have ever met playing poker in Medellín.

  • Playing poker with people who are willing to throw money around like it is nothing.
  • Meeting and hanging out with people who met Pablo Escobar.
  • Listening to stories about working for the Medellín Cartel.
  • Hearing stories about the Cali Cartel (Medellín’s rival cartel).
  • Enhancing my understanding of drug smuggling operations (hey I’m prior intel).
  • Being surrounded by beautiful dealers while playing poker.
  • Getting into the pit with people.
  • Running it twice (if you are heads up you can choose to run it twice).

Colombia is a great place to play poker and meet interesting people. I would love to spend more time not only in Medellín but also Cali, Bogotá and Cartagena.

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About Ryan Peckyno

Ryan graduated from West Point (BS) and Penn State, Main Campus (MBA). He worked for P&G, Lockheed Martin, the United States Army, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Motley Fool, Seeking Alpha, Pinnacle Consulting, and various nonprofits.

Comments

  1. Good morning & Buenos Dias, loved the article on “What I miss About Poker in Medellin”
    Tell David I said Hello…..He’ll remember me from the laptop I brought him many years ago.
    Always love reading the post.
    Keep up the great work!

    Allen

  2. Unfortunately, the poker scene in Latin America changes with incredible frequency. It’s been years since I’ve been to Costa Rica (used to live there), but even back then, most of the casinos you mentioned were long since closed, or at the very least no longer had poker (and most of the ones that had poker when I was there are either closed or no longer have poker as well). The Irazu had poker, then didn’t, then did again. I have no idea whether they currently do or not.

    Same for Panama. The Majestic & Veneto are still around (although the Majestic has fallen from the place to play to a distant 3rd), and there’s a new casino called Sortis. I recently made a poker trip there.

    I also traveled to Bogota a year ago, and from what I understand one of the casinos I visited there is no longer open.

    I’m thinking of heading to either Medellin (hence why I’m reading your article) or Lima in the next couple weeks.

    [Links removed]

  3. Hey Guys

    Is it possible to find 2/5$5-10$omaha or nl at the casinos In medellin

    Best Regards Morten

  4. Ryan Peckyno says:

    I just visited Costa Rica a few weeks ago and there were about half a dozen decent places to play poker. All of the Casinos that I mentioned were open (the only exception was the Horseshoe). Irazu is probably the best place to play in Costa Rica (usually 2-4 tables). I also traveled to Ukraine a few months ago, but much to my dismay poker was suddenly illegal. Previously, Poker was considered a sport in Ukraine (as compared to gambling, which was illegal). Kiev had one of the nicest poker rooms in Europe. Dozens of tables, free daily tournaments (at least the first buy in was free), and an unbelievable rake of ~ 2-5% (compared to the typical 10%) depending on the game.

  5. Ryan Peckyno says:

    You will also even find a poker room or two at nearly every small beach town in Costa Rica. In fact, the last time that I went to Costa Rica I spent most of my time in Manuel Antonio (breathtaking beach, cool monkeys, and awesome national park) – and much to my surprise there was even a poker room in the small town of Quepos (5-6 km away from Manuel Antonio) at the local Best Western. Which says something given that Quepos is about 5 blocks x 5 blocks.

  6. j faulk says:

    Hey thanks for the article!

    I’m currently in Aruba playing but the game isnt great since its low season..

    Going to Medellin Aug 3 2015 to do some touristy things and scout for some profitable LIVE games if I wish to return.

    Will definitely check out Rio and Allegre.. what NLH stakes do they spread nightly? Max buy in? And also important.. Rake?

    Hard for me to find solid info online so your firsthand advice would be much appreciated!! Thanks!!

  7. Liam batey says:

    Cool in go about Medellin. I’m going next May for the BMX world championships but would like to play poker while I’m there.

    What’s it like in regards to safety…. Like if you start winning huge pots off the locals and you’re white, do they get pissed? Any when you leave the casino, what is the safety like? I’ve heard horror stories about Columbia

  8. Nice article!
    Are there any poker rooms in Medellin or Bogota with low limit Hold’em? Something like $2/4 or $3/6 hold em games?

    Thanks

    • Gary,

      Do a Google search for “poker in Bogota” and you’ll find our article that gives a pretty detailed account of the poker scene there. The best room is in Luckia Casino (take the escalators up to the 3rd floor). They have 3-4 tables running every night, starting around 2pm. Unfortunately, it’s tough to find games much bigger than $1/$2. The Luckia regularly spreads 1k/2k ($0.33/$0.67), 2k/5k ($0.67/$1.67) and 5k/5k ($1.67/$1.67). There is a bigger game in one of the malls (5k/10k).

      For Medellin, I know a guy running a room there, but won’t be visiting until next April. I was there over a year ago, but I believe the Rio still has a game (again, pretty low limits though). If you’re interested, I can try to find my friend’s contact info and put you in touch (and can also put you in touch with the manager of the Luckia). I just came back from a trip to Bogota on Sunday 😉

      • HI Todd,
        i would be interested in getting in contact with the Luckia manager. I plan to be in BOG the first week of December. I would also like to reach out to you about your recent trip.

        I’m not sure if I am allowed to post my email here.

        Thanks,
        Gary

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