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.
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.
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.
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.
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.