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My Coke-Free Visit to Escobar’s Home Turf

“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. Online reviews portrayed the museum as a fraud, with a lot of useless personal possessions and poor reproductions. 

Valentina didn’t tell me that I should not go. As a native Colombian she believed it disrespectful to spend time and energy on someone who had so brutally killed and intimidated many of her fellow Colombians.   

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 NarcosThis has made the legend a living, breathing pop culture icon.

Netflix’s series are available on Netflix. 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. People who sell Pablo T-shirts and mugs are something I detest. 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.” 

For me, it is tempting to be a hold. Narcos Escobar is partially responsible for creating, or at least reinvigorating, this image. Netflix changed Escobar’s appearance in Hollywood tradition. He was slimmer, more handsome, and charismatic than he actually was. The show also cast a Brazilian actor rather than a Colombian. But that is another story. All of this is just the beginning. The focus of the show, and the success of his character, is his power. The show is viewed by viewers who walk out. NarcosWe ponder on the fact that he was at 7ThHe was the richest man on earth and controlled over 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.  

Valentina encouraged me to go to Barrio 13 instead of Casa Museo Pablo Escobar. 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. The most important thing is that the locals seem to make a living from tourism. 

Barrio 13 Graffiti Artist / Photo: 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. 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. Escobar (played by a) was the first. Colombian actor, looked the part – overweight and less attractive. Patron del Mal I found the representation of Colombia in this film more real. 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 had a lot of fun. aguardienteAnd gorged paísaHot arepas and rice with beans, avocado, meat, ground beef, ground pork, and rice is a common Antioquian dish. Most important, though, was the fact that this series did not portray crime as as glamorous as its predecessor. 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. While waiting in line at the outdoor escalator of Colombia, I was struck by the way Colombian society deals with the aftermath of narcoterrorism. Beautiful graffiti has covered buildings that were once painted with bullet holes and blood, but now they are very different from the 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. 

I have never been to Casa Museo Pablo Escobar but I did visit Hacienda Napoles one of his many houses. 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 razed and finally burned. 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.

The Hacienda Napoles Zoo: Hippos / Photo Tim Brinkhof

For years, the Colombian state fought to confiscate the land from Escobar’s relatives. The Hacienda Napoles was turned into a tourist attraction after they won. My initial thought was that it was an effort to make money from narcotourism. It turned out that this was false. Upon falling into public hands, the Hacienda – like Barrio 13 – was transformed so as to remove all traces of its criminal past. The Hacienda Napoles today are related in some way to the Hacienda Napoles from Escobar. 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

A small museum is the only place that Pablo Escobar can be found in Hacienda Napoles. It’s located at the back of the park. It is an incomplete reconstruction of Escobar’s original villa. The museum pays tribute to those who were victims of narcoterrorism. 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. White walls cover the wall with portraits of Escobar’s politicians and officers who he killed. There are also photos of children covered in blood being pulled from the wreckage of fallen buildings. 

The most shocking thing about these photos was the fact that the majority of visitors to the museum were just coming out of the water and walking around the place naked and dripping with sweat, sipping beers, and enjoying 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. It was only days later that I realized my mistake. 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. Pablo Escobar does not seem to be the most important part of their vacation, it is 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 visit the Narco-terrorism Museum / Photo: Tim Brinkhof