Inside Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel
Guatapé and La Manuela
The sign on La Manuela, Pablo’s infamous estate on the shore of Guatapé's man-made lake, reads "prohibido el ingresso". It is posted next to a barbwire fence with only a small gap to let unwanted visitors through.
Pablo’s bombed-out corpse of a mansion sits on a shimmering turquoise lake, with views of extravagant estates and rolling hills almost too green for reality. The mansion is a tortured paradise more likely to be the twisted creation of Tim Burton or Francis Ford Coppola than two decades of looting and neglect.
When El Patrón built his estate along the lake, he brought chaos to this peaceful town 90 minutes from Medellín. For years Guatapé, which has once again become a popular weekend destination for nearby Colombians, was too dangerous for visitors. It has been just more than two decades since the deck of the swimming pool served as a helipad, the lakefront a landing strip for drug-running planes.
Now, the murky brown pool water is too toxic for swimming. Vegetation consumes much of the house, growing through the roof and the crumbling facade. Names of trespassers adorn the peeling walls of all three sections of the sprawling property, as do their deviant works of art: skulls, naked bat-women, pointy-eared demons.
A peninsula of decay surrounded by sheer beauty, La Manuela resembles purgatory in both appearance and purpose. Like many other of Pablo’s properties worth millions, it sits in limbo as the government tries to hack its way through the moral and logistical jungle of its future. Deciding on the proper use for drug-funded property and the profits from its sale is a touchy and legally complicated subject.
For now, visitors can wander the forbidden property with a boat tour from Lake View Hostel.
Walking through the first gateway to Hacienda Nápoles, a theme park that was formally the most famous of Pablo’s many estates, it is already possible to hear the endless loop of canned jungle drums. A blue-and-white light propeller aircraft, Pablo's first of many, sits atop the original, cracking entrance. The theme park’s second entrance, two wooden towers with a sign hanging across — a poor man's replica of the gateway to Jurassic Park — is new. It is a perfectly incompatible beginning to Parque Tematico Hacienda Nápoles, a dubious effort between government and private enterprise to turn Pablo’s dirty-money dreamland into something positive.
Dozens of animals occupy the 15-sq-km patch of land less than four hours from Medellín. Zebras, rhinos and elephants roam the fields, while big cats nervously pace back and forth in cages. The safari starts with an auto rickshaw ride, included in the price of admission, to see the stars of the park, the Cocaine Hippos. Most of the animals in the estate’s formerly private zoo — thought to be the largest private collection of pets ever — starved to death after Pablo died, but the hippos thrived. Their numbers grew from four to about 20, making them the largest herd of hippos outside of Africa and famous symbols of the cocaine industry.
The next stop on the safari is the Parque Jurásico, complete with recreated versions of the life-sized concrete dinosaurs Pablo had built when he was still entertaining movie stars and underage women at Hacienda Nápoles, his grandest estate. After getting dropped off, guests can wander to the property’s 500-seat bullring, which has been restored. It sits empty, except for a photo exposition along the outer ring that displays Pablo’s relationships with the corrupt politicians, drug kingpins and journalists who watched as matadors and bulls did battle in the private ring during their visits to Hacienda Nápoles.