The irony of this welcome increase in visitors, however, is that there is a corresponding rise in the kind of tourism that Medellin officials really wish you would avoid: Escobar tours. The visitor’s bureau refuses to promote them—a top administrator said she “feared” reinforcing the Colombia-cocaine stereotype and even some tour companies like Colombian Getaways decline to offer them, calling the idea “hurtful.”
And yet the drug lord’s legacy is unavoidable. At the height of his power in the 1980s and early 1990s, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria controlled 80 percent of the cocaine traffic to the United States. He had enough money to offer to pay Colombia’s national debt. He briefly held a seat in Colombia’s Congress. His crimes included assassinations, car bombings, extortion, and the bombing of an Avianca commercial flight. Escobar’s brother, who was the cartel’s accountant, claims that the group spent $2,500 on rubber bands each month for wrapping the bundles of cash. In 1987, Escobar appeared on the inaugural Forbes magazine list of billionaires, and he remained on that list until the day he died.
Now there are at least 10 companies offering Escobar tours of Medellin—including his grave, the site where he was killed, and other grisly landmarks. My guide on the $45 Escobar Tour offered by Medellin City Tours, John Echeverry, says he had to think long and hard before agreeing to take the job. As we turn our backs on Escobar’s (surprisingly restrained) grave, Echeverry John tells a story about the time that he and 44 of his classmates (including the son of Escobar’s cousin and Medellin Cartel business manager Gustavo Gaviria) were invited to Escobar’s private retreat, Hacienda Napoles, for the weekend.
The memory of that experience has him caught between Escobar excitement and Escobar shame.
“There were mini motorcycles for all of us,” Echeverry remembers. “We sat at a long table and we could have whatever we wanted.” He shakes his head. The memory has him caught, like the rest of the country, between Escobar excitement and Escobar shame. “There were no limits. It was like Disneyland.”
It is perhaps fitting, then, that the Colombian government handed the 3,000-acre estate, located about four hours from Medellin, over to a management company that turned it into the largest theme park in South America. It is called Parque Tematico Hacienda Napoles (Hacienda Napoles Theme Park), and advertises itself as a destination “for family tourism, environmental protection and the protection of animal species in danger of extinction.” Since it opened in 2008, managers say it has attracted about one million visitors, overwhelmingly Colombian, who pay up to $30 to get a peek.