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.
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.
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!
Hi Allen, of course I remember. Hope you’re doing well!
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.
Is it possible to find 2/5$5-10$omaha or nl at the casinos In medellin
Best Regards Morten
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.
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.
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!!
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
Are there any poker rooms in Medellin or Bogota with low limit Hold’em? Something like $2/4 or $3/6 hold em games?
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 😉
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.
Click on my name in this comment and it should take you to my site. You can find my email there (bottom of any page).
Good stuff, Ryan.
As an old sailor living offshore since the 80s, and a fellow service academy grad, I’m also partial to CR.
Medellin sounds interesting though…
Great article! I’ve been playing in Colombia for 4 months now, mostly in Medellìn but also Cartagena and Bogotá. Unfortunately my 6 month visa is almost up and I’m flying to Panama in 1 week to start the next adventure. I was thinking of playing in Honduras – could you please elaborate on your poker experience there, including surrounding countries?
Can you write a brief description of your poker experience in Bogota and Cartegena (limits, games, etc.)? Thanks.
I have also been playing poker in Colombia for the past ~5 months, the majority of which is in Bogota. I only played at Luckia Casino in Bogota because it’s by far the best. The game starts at 2pm every day (apart from Sundays, it’s closed on Sundays) and there are always players because of some promotion they do for the players that start the game. At 2pm there is usually 2 COP1k/3k games and 1 COP2k/5k game. Most evenings will get up to 6 tables at the peak, usually consists of 3 1k/3k games then a 2k/5k game and a 5k/5k PLO game, and then either one extra 2k/5k or PLO game. The action is pretty good, the players like to splash around (more so in the 2k/5k game, the 1k/3k game isn’t the best and usually quite shallow). The PLO game is very good, the players are terrible, especially their pre flop hand selections so there is a lot of money to be made there. In terms of buy ins:
Holdem COP$1k/3k (~$0.33/$1) min COP$100k (~$33) max COP$1.5mil (~$500)
Holdem COP$2k/5k (~$0.66/$1.66) min COP$200k (~$66) max COP$2.5mil (~$833)
Holdem COP$5k/5k (~$1.66/$1.66) min COP$300k (~$100) max COP$3mil (~$1000)
Games run everyday from 2pm-6am apart from Sundays but they also keep the game going from Friday 2pm – Sunday 6am (they don’t stop on Saturday)
Only played a couple sessions in Medellin in Casino Rio where the main game is COP$5k/10k (~$1.66/$3.33) min COP$500k, not sure what the max is. They have one table of 5k/10k which is played in the VIP section and starts at 2pm, not sure when it usually breaks but it was still going at 1am yesterday. They do have a 2k/5k game that sometimes runs if they get players but it didn’t run for long when I saw it. They also have daily tournaments, from what I’ve seen there is one at about 2pm which seems to be a smaller by in, in the region of 40k rebuy plus addon and then a second tournament in the evening starting at 7pm, yesterdays one was 200k entry but I’ve heard it’s different throughout the week.
A couple things to note about casino Rio is that they will even blind you in when you are not at the table, which I think is terrible in a cash game, also you can straddle from anywhere to any amount on the table.
To summarise, poker in Colombia is great fun. From my experience so far, I definitely prefer Bogota for poker, the poker room is run much better and despite being a smaller game there is more action more of the time and the atmosphere is much better. Medellin, however, is a much nicer city.
I have not been up to the Caribbean coast yet.
Let me know if there is anything else you want to know.
Hope this helped
I am going to be spending 7 days in Santa Marta the middle of March this coming year then off to Medellin for 8 days where I will be looking up Casino Rio as I too am a Texas Hold EM player and want the experience of playing on Columbia I have heard that San Fernando casino does offer poker do you know if this is true I want to check out every place that has poker so any Casino that has poker please advise me of all of them, been told after 5 heart attacks and 5 different stints put in the old heart cant take much more so making the most of all the time I have left also heard prostitution is legal there and are there any hookers I the casinos please advise me, I am spending all my kids inheritance so just want to live it up while I am there thanks poker name scooter
Excellent article, and while the author met a few people in Medellin willing to talk nostalgically about the narco terrorism era, most Colombians both in and out of Medellín would rather talk about ANYTHING other than ‘Don Pablo.’ You’ve been warned.