“Do not go there!” Valentina, a 27-year-old designer living in Medellín, yelled when I told her that I planned on visiting the Casa Museo Pablo Escobar, a museum dedicated to the Colombian drug lord.
A quick Google search made me change my mind. The entrance fee to the museum is $30 – a hefty sum in a country where a full meal will typically cost you less than $5, and most of the museums are donation-based or free-of-charge. On top of that, online reviews were making the place out to be a rip-off, a collection of meaningless personal possessions, shoddy reproductions, and revisionist history.
But that was not why Valentina told me not to go. A native Colombian, she felt it was disrespectful for tourists like me to go and waste their time, energy, and money on an individual who callously killed and intimidated so many of her countrymen.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what tourists are doing. For many – although certainly not all – it’s one of their primary reasons for coming to Medellín in the first place. Colombia has been attracting travelers with a perverse admiration for Pablo Escobar for decades, but the number of narco-tourists increased drastically following the release of Netflix’s Narcos, which has turned the kingpin from a fading memory into an alive-and-well pop culture icon.
While the Netflix series has boosted Colombia’s tourism industry and by extension the Colombian economy as a whole, Colombians are – understandably – upset that one of the most hated characters in their history books has now become the country’s de facto international ambassador.
“To many of us, Pablo is our Hitler,” one person from Medellín told me. “To a few he was a hero, but mostly he brought a lot of evil to our city, and we will probably never get rid of the stigma, just like the Germans will never get rid of their history. I really despise people who buy or sell Pablo T-shirts, mugs, etc. It’s like me going to Berlin to sell T-shirts of Hitler. I’d get arrested before I sold the first one.”
“I have an uncle who I never met who died in one of his famous bombings,” another added. “I completely despise any reference towards that man.”
Personally, I am tempted to hold Narcos partially responsible for creating or at the very least reinvigorating this reference for Escobar. In classic Hollywood fashion, Netflix made him thinner, handsomer and more charismatic than he was in real life. (They also cast a Brazilian actor instead of a Colombian one, but that is another story). On top of all this, the focus of the show is on his success, on his power. Viewers walk away from Narcos ruminating on how, at his peak, he was the 7th richest man in the world and controlled 80% of all cocaine. What they don’t realize is that, for the time that he was active, he pretty much held the whole country hostage through a campaign of domestic terrorism, blowing up apartment buildings and commercial airplanes just to kill a single person on his miles-long hitlist.
Instead of Casa Museo Pablo Escobar, Valentina urged me to visit Barrio 13. A huge slum erected on the hills overlooking Medellín, Barrio 13 used to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in all of South America, until the Colombian army swept in during the early 2000s. Things have improved since then – somewhat. It is still a total mess; there is no urban planning and no roads for cars, but instead of public executions, there’s music, graffiti, and – occasionally – those Red Bull BMX challenges you may have seen on YouTube. Most importantly, however, the residents seem to be earning a decent living off tourism.
Graffiti artist in Barrio 13 / Photo by Tim Brinkhof
While ordering an IPA I later learned contained copious amounts of THC, I asked the guy who had brought me there – a local called Jason – how the people of Barrio 13 felt about a show like Narcos. The answer: not good. If I wanted to “see the real Escobar,” Jason told me, I should check out 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 what he was getting at. First and foremost, Escobar, who was played by a Colombian actor, looked the part – overweight and less attractive. Patron del Mal also struck me as more authentic in its representation of Colombia. The Medellín the characters lived in was the same Medellín as I saw when I looked out of the window of my little Airbnb – full of energy and color. They drank aguardiente and gorged on paísa, a typical Antioquian dish of rice, beans, avocado, ground beef and fried pork, served with hot arepas. Most importantly, however, the life of crime did not seem nearly as glamorous in this show as it did in Narcos. We see Escobar for what he really was – a crook without a conscience; it wasn’t his intelligence that allowed him to get as far as he did, but the fact that he was willing to do things that others wouldn’t have been able to live with.
Navigating the maze that’s Barrio 13 is hard enough when you’re sober, let alone when you’ve unintentionally gotten high off craft beer. Standing in line for the only outdoor escalator in the country, I began to notice how Colombian society dealt with the scars of narco-terrorism. Buildings that used to be painted with blood and bullet holes have since been covered up by gorgeous graffiti art that serves to remind people of anything other than drug-related violence. One of the barrio’s newest murals, Jason showed me, depicts Pachamama, an Andean goddess representing the Earth itself, and a much older and powerful symbol of Colombia’s cultural heritage than Escobar.
While I never went to Casa Museo Pablo Escobar, I did visit Hacienda Napoles, one of the many homes he acquired with his fortune. Located near the town of Puerto Triunfo, about halfway between Medellín and Bogotá, the Hacienda had originally included a modest swimming pool, a landing strip for small airplanes, and a zoo filled with animals purchased on the black market. After Escobar’s death, the estate itself fell into disarray. The villa was ransacked and eventually raised to the ground. The animals, left to their fate, died or – in the case of the hippos – escaped into the surrounding wetlands, where they flourished and became invasive species.
Hippos at the Hacienda Napoles zoo / Photo by Tim Brinkhof
For years, the Colombian state fought to confiscate the land from Escobar’s relatives. When they succeeded, they turned the Hacienda Napoles into a theme park. At first, I thought that this was done in an attempt to cash in on narco-tourism trends. Fortunately, this was not the case. Upon falling into public hands, the Hacienda – like Barrio 13 – was transformed so as to remove all traces of its criminal past. To that end, the Hacienda Napoles of today is related to the Hacienda Napoles of Escobar in name only. The hilly terrain that had once served to hide the kingpin’s dealings from the outside world now features rollercoasters and swimming pools. The theme park’s theme is Africa, owing to the bigger and better zoo that has taken the place of the old one. Visitors – mostly Colombians holidaying in their own country – come to gawk at elephants, lions, tigers, flamingos, and a pair of absolutely monstrous boa constrictors. In contrast to Escobar’s own zoo, where zebras were ridden by his henchmen and ostriches handfed cigarettes, the Hacienda’s current animals live in spacious enclosures, enjoying a climate that – at least in terms of temperature – isn’t far off from their native savannahs.
Cartel member riding one of Escobar’s zebras / Photo by Tim Brinkhof
The only reference to Pablo Escobar inside Hacienda Napoles is a small museum tucked away in the very back corner of the park. The museum, a partial reconstruction of the original villa, is dedicated to the victims of narco-terrorism. Inside you learn more about the history of the Hacienda, Escobar’s inevitable downfall, and the barbaric lengths that he went to trying to prevent that downfall. The white walls are covered with the portraits of politicians and police officers that he had killed, as well as pictures of blood-covered children being pulled out of 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 were walking through the museum half-naked, dripping wet, drinking beers and eating slices of pizza. At the time their behavior and appearance couldn’t help but strike me as inappropriate, and even made me think that they were a bit hypocritical to complain about gringos smoking blunts on Escobar’s grave back in Medellín. Days later, I realized how wrong I was. Whereas I, a foreigner, had traveled to Puerto Triunfo specifically to see what had become of Escobar’s former home, the average Colombian – it appears – comes here to swim in the swimming pools, ride the rollercoasters, and look at the animals. To them, Pablo Escobar is not the main event of their trip, but just an afterthought. This, as far as I am concerned, is as good a sign as any that the country – after decades of suffering – is well on its way to break free from the drug lord’s tightening grip.
Tourists checking out the narco-terrorism museum / Photo by Tim Brinkhof