My Coke-Free Visit to Escobar Territory

“Don’t go there!” Valentina, a 27-year-old designer living in Medellín, screamed when I told her I had planned to visit Casa Museo Pablo Escobar, a museum dedicated to the Colombian drug lord.

A quick Google search made me change my mind. The museum entrance fee is $30 – a hefty sum in a country where a full meal will usually cost you less than $5, and most museums are donation-based or free. On top of that, online reviews made this place a rip-off, a collection of meaningless personal property, shoddy reproductions, and revisionist history.

But that wasn’t why Valentina told me not to go. Originally from Colombia, she felt it was disrespectful for tourists like me to go and waste their time, energy and money on an individual who mercilessly killed and intimidated so many of their countrymen.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what tourists do. For many – but certainly not all – this is one of the main reasons for coming to Medellín. Colombia has been attracting travelers with a perverse admiration for Pablo Escobar for decades, but the number of narco-tourists has increased dramatically after the release of Netflix Narcoswho transformed the linchpin from a fading memory into a living pop culture icon.

While the Netflix series boosted the Colombian tourism industry and, by extension, the Colombian economy as a whole, Colombians are – understandably – unhappy that one of the most hated figures in their history books has become the de facto international ambassador from the country.

“For many of us, Pablo is our Hitler,” one person from Medellín told me. “For some he was a hero, but most of all he brought a lot of harm to our city, and we’ll probably never get rid of the stigma, just like the Germans will never get rid of their history. I really despise the people buying or selling Pablo T-shirts, mugs, etc. It’s like going to Berlin to sell Hitler T-shirts, I’d be arrested before I sold the first one.

“I have an uncle I never met who died in one of his famous bombings,” another added. “I completely despise any reference to this man.”

Personally, I’m tempted to hold Narcos partly responsible for creating or at the very least reinvigorating this benchmark for Escobar. In classic Hollywood fashion, Netflix made him look slimmer, handsomer, and more charismatic than he was in real life. (They also cast a Brazilian actor instead of a Colombian actor, but that’s another story). On top of all that, the show focuses on its success, on its power. Viewers walk away Narcos ruminating how, at his peak, he was on the 7e the richest man in the world and controlled 80% of all cocaine. What they don’t realize is that, during the time it was active, it held just about the entire country hostage through a campaign of domestic terrorism, blowing up apartment buildings and commercial aircraft just to kill a single person over its miles long. result list.

Instead of Casa Museo Pablo Escobar, Valentina urged me to visit Ward 13. A huge slum built on the hills overlooking Medellín, Barrio 13 was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in all of South America, until the arrival of the Colombian army in the early 2000s. improved since then – quite a bit. It’s still a total mess; there’s no town planning and no roads for cars, but instead of public executions there’s music, graffiti and, sometimes, those Red Bull BMX challenges you may have seen on Youtube. More importantly, however, residents seem to earn a decent living from tourism.

Graffiti artist in Barrio 13 / Photo by Tim Brinkhof

Ordering an IPA I later learned it contained high amounts of THC, I asked the guy who brought me there – a local called Jason – what the people of Barrio 13 thought of it. a show like Narcos. The answer: not well. If I wanted to “see the real Escobar,” Jason told me, I should watch a Colombian show called El Patron del Mal, or “The Boss of Evil”. It’s a Latin soap opera, not a blockbuster, but once I ignored the overly dramatic plot and music, I could see where he was coming from. First, Escobar, played by a Colombian actor, looked from the role – overweight and less attractive. Boss of Evil also struck me as more authentic in its depiction of Colombia. The Medellín the characters lived in was the same Medellín I saw when I looked out the window of my little Airbnb – full of energy and color. They drank aguardiente and full of country, a typical Antioquian dish of rice, beans, avocado, ground beef and fried pork, served with hot arepas. More importantly, however, the life of crime didn’t seem as glamorous on this show as it did on Narcos. We see Escobar for what he really was – a crook with no conscience; it wasn’t his intelligence that allowed him to go as far as he had, but the fact that he was willing to do things that others couldn’t live with.

Navigating the maze of Barrio 13 is hard enough when you’re sober, let alone when you’ve unwittingly drunk craft beer. While queuing for the country’s only outdoor escalator, I began to notice how Colombian society was dealing with the scars of narco-terrorism. Buildings that were once painted in blood and bullet holes have since been covered in beautiful graffiti that serves to remind people of something other than drug-related violence. One of the more recent murals in the barrio, which Jason showed me, depicts Pachamama, an Andean goddess representing the Earth itself, and a much older and more powerful symbol of Colombian cultural heritage than Escobar.

Although I have never been to the Casa Museo Pablo Escobar, I visited Hacienda Napoles, one of the many houses he acquired with his fortune. Located near the town of Puerto Triunfo, halfway between Medellín and Bogotá, the Hacienda originally included a modest swimming pool, a landing strip for small planes, and a zoo filled with animals bought on the black market. After Escobar’s death, the estate itself fell into disarray. The villa was ransacked and finally razed. The animals, left to their fate, either died or – in the case of the hippos – escaped to the surrounding wetlands, where they thrived and became invasive species.

Hippos at Hacienda Napoles Zoo / Photo by Tim Brinkhof

For years, the Colombian state fought to confiscate the lands of Escobar’s relatives. When they succeeded, they turned Hacienda Napoles into a theme park. At first I thought it was done in order to take advantage of narco-tourism trends. Fortunately, that was not the case. By falling into public hands, the Hacienda – like Barrio 13 – has been transformed in order to erase all traces of its criminal past. To that end, today’s Hacienda Napoles is related to Escobar’s Hacienda Napoles only in name. The hilly terrain that once served to hide the kingpin’s dealings from the outside world now includes roller coasters and swimming pools. The theme of the theme park is Africa, due to the bigger and better zoo replacing the old one. Visitors – mostly Colombians vacationing in their own country – come to admire elephants, lions, tigers, flamingos and a pair of absolutely monstrous boa constrictors. Unlike Escobar’s own zoo, where zebras were ridden by his minions and ostriches hand-fed, the Hacienda’s current animals live in spacious enclosures, enjoying a climate that – at least in terms of temperature – is not far from their native savannas.

Cartel member riding one of Escobar’s zebras / Photo by Tim Brinkhof

The only reference to Pablo Escobar inside the Hacienda Napoles is a small museum nestled at the bottom of the park. The museum, a partial reconstruction of the original villa, is dedicated to the victims of narco-terrorism. Inside, you’ll learn about the history of the Hacienda, Escobar’s inevitable downfall, and the barbaric efforts he went to try to prevent that downfall. The white walls are covered with portraits of politicians and policemen he killed, as well as images of blood-stained children being dragged from the rubble of collapsed buildings.

What shocked me more than these images was that most of the visitors around me had just come out of the pool and walked through the museum half-naked, drenched in drops, drinking beers and eating slices of pizza. At the time, their demeanor and appearance couldn’t help but seem inappropriate to me, and even made me think they were a little hypocritical to complain about gringos smoking joints at Escobar’s grave in Medellin. A few days later, I realized how wrong I was. While I, a foreigner, had traveled to Puerto Triunfo specifically to see what had become of Escobar’s former home, the average Colombian – it seems – comes here to swim in the pools, ride the roller coaster and watch the animals. For them, Pablo Escobar is not the main event of their trip, but just an afterthought. This, as far as I’m concerned, is as good a sign as any that the country – after decades of suffering – is well on its way to breaking free from the baron’s increasingly tight grip. dope.

Tourists visiting the Narco-Terrorism Museum / Photo by Tim Brinkhof

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