It was a strange feeling posing for a picture with one of the world's most notorious criminals. A vacant stare on Roberto Escobar's face, his arm draped over my shoulder, inspired conflicting feelings, equal parts excitement and disgust. Then again, the entire tour revolving around Pablo Escobar’s life in Colombia — from its beginning at the drug lord's grave, to the rooftop where he was shot to death by Colombian police, through the conclusion at his brother Roberto's house — generated ambivalence, just like Pablo himself.
Our guide seemed more conflicted about giving the tour
then we were about taking it. It is an important part of his country's history,
but the wounds inflicted by Pablo Escobar, the world's most ruthless drug lord,
are still fresh in the collective mind of Medellín, a city that would rather
its rapidly increasing tourism industry focus on transitioning from murder
capital of the world to cultural centre of Colombia. Our guide lies to his
family about his job, preferring they were not aware of this part of his life.
Despite this country-wide disapproval, tour companies
have begun capitalising on the allure of Colombia's most notorious son. One
enterprising company — creatively named Pablo Escobar
Tour (like many of its competitors) — has helped transform
the home of Roberto Escobar into a live-in museum that focuses on the life and
criminal career of his brother, commonly known as Don Pablo or El Patrón.
Nearly everything about Roberto’s home is
disconcerting: the bullet hole hidden behind a framed photograph at the
entrance, the barbwire fence obscuring a view of the surrounding mountains, the
oversized picture offering a $10 million reward for Pablo and himself. Living
in a shrine to Pablo’s violent rise to the top of the criminal underworld might
be more bizarre if he had to look at his surroundings, but Roberto is nearly
blind — the result of a letter bomb blowing up in his face during his 14-year
Tourists from all over the world, many of whom seem to
romanticise the life of a man who made his way to No 7 on the Forbes world's
richest list, come to ask Roberto about the "true" story regarding
his brother, who lived from 1949 to 1993. Roberto shrugs off the atrocious
bombings Pablo orchestrated and the thousands of civilians, politicians,
journalists and police officers he maliciously sent to an early grave. He
prefers to focus on the homes, soccer pitches and schools his brother built for
The curiosity for most people ends after the tour
ends, but the more dedicated Pablo Escobar historian can find a handful of
equally bizarre places just outside of Medellin.
It was named La Catedral but the
former five-star prison had nothing to do with religion when Pablo lived there;
its name was more of a nod to the grandiosity of the prison and Don Pablo's
power. Throughout his reign, he had cost the Colombian government so much time,
money and frustration that they agreed to let him construct his own prison in
the hills of Envigado, in exchange for his surrender. So he built himself a
luxurious fortress, complete with waterbeds, entertainment systems and a
spectacular view of Medellín, all protected by his personally selected prison
guards. From his enclave he hosted wild, drug-and-booze fuelled parties and ran
his drug empire. He even conducted murders inside its walls.
Now home to a monastery, La Catedral serves a purpose
more representative of its name. Most of the original structure has been
demolished, looted by people coming in search of treasure he left behind during
his escape in 1992.
By looking at La Catedral’s biblical statues, the
chapel with its stained-glass windows and the giant metal crosses overlooking
the city, it is hard to believe this place was ever a prison. The guard towers
and sections of crumbling exterior are the only real signs that La Catedral was
ever anything other than peaceful. New living quarters surround the former soccer
pitch, where Pablo once played with star players from the Colombia national
team. The main chapel and library sit next to the guards’ former sleeping
Open to visitors from 6 am to noon on Saturday and
Sunday, La Catedral remains one of the more constructive projects of all
Pablo’s former homes. Take the metro to Envigado and tell a taxi driver to take
you to La Catedral or the monastery in Reserva Ecologica la Miel. It is a
relatively long and difficult drive up, so do not be surprised if the driver
asks you for more money than the metre reads.
Guatapé and La
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
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
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.
His mansion remains virtually untouched, save for a
cursory cleaning of the algae-ridden pool and the addition of enlarged photos
of his exotic pets, his family and his funeral that now decorate the former
bedroom walls. Any attempt at restoration would probably result in the house’s
collapse. Still, you can walk through the
skeleton of the mansion, which now serves as a museum dedicated to the
thousands of victims of Pablo’s drug wars.
If the images of flaming cars, bloody corpses and
murdered police officers become too mentally trying, grab an inner tube and
float around the lazy river a few metres away before gearing up for an
eco-tour, by bike or horseback, through the verdant pastures along one of Pablo’s
six escape routes.
Exiting the park — after witnessing the recreated
version of Pablo’s personal version of Noah's ark, the remains of his mansion
and the automobile graveyard that houses the torched remains of his classic car
collection — you might notice the 2,000-inmate prison that lies on the
outskirts of the property, a reminder from the Colombian government that crime
does not pay.