Wandering through a decaying doorless archway, I encounter a young boy crouching on a floor of broken tiles and rubble, beneath a framed newspaper front page from May 1984. “Lara B Assassinated,” the headline blares. “State of Siege.”
As we make eye contact, the boy smiles and puts a finger to his lips. I peer back out onto the moss-laden porch to see a young girl running from room to room, searching for her friend. Reciprocating the boy’s gesture, I accept my role as accomplice in their children’s game of hide-and-seek.
The dilapidated mansion where they are playing once belonged to the ruthless drug lord Pablo Escobar. The newspaper on the wall reports the assassination of Colombian politician Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, one of many public figures killed trying to prosecute Escobar and his cocaine cartel during its reign of terror in Colombia in the 1980s and early ’90s.
Today, however, two decades after his death in a firefight with authorities, the drug lord’s onetime mansion is the Museo Memorial (Memorial Museum), an anti-crime museum that’s one of many tourist attractions on the grounds of Escobar’s former estate, Hacienda Napoles.
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Located in the town of Puerto Triunfo, 100 miles from Medellin, Hacienda Napoles is a shining example of Colombia’s successful image change, from drug capital of the world to one of the most attractive countries to visit in South America. Once a lavish playground for Escobar and his cronies, the vast estate is now a family theme park, opened in 2007, complete with hotels and exotic animals.
After giving the boy the all-clear to make a run for it, I continue on my tour of the house, which due to its poor construction has been deemed unfit for restoration and has therefore remained untouched. I know enough Spanish to understand most of the tributes to countless murdered politicians, journalists and policemen displayed in numerous glass cases and hanging from the stained white walls.
In one room, I find a hole in the floor where locals searched in vain for hidden booty after the house was deserted. In others, empty trash bags, broken tiles and small pools of water add to the sense of neglect. Outside, though, it’s a bright October day. The sun is shining and joyful children are running around. The contrast is disorienting.
The park is huge, so I pay about $5.60 to rent a bike for three hours. I pedal past Escobar’s lavish collection of classic cars (most of them burned out), past his private airstrip and into the rest of the park.
My first stop is the tiger pen, newly constructed over the past year. Though it’s impressive in its grandeur, the Jurassic Park-like enclosure is deserted, overwhelmed by stray wires, bent poles and thirsting grass. (According to news reports, the pen has been completed since my visit.) As I begin to navigate over a small wooden plank, I’m halted by a piercing whistle and an angry-looking uniformed woman standing about 15 feet down the gravel path. I cycle gingerly over to inquire where the animals are.
“The tigers are not available to see here; you can only see them through there,” she says, pointing to a modest red-brick enclosure with tiny holes in the side.
“And the elephants?” I ask.
“The elephant died,” she replies. “We are waiting to get a new one.”
“What about the lions?”
“The lion is over there.” She points to a speck in the distance.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to find an animal that I can actually see without a telescope. Hacienda Napoles is unlike any theme park I’ve visited before, and nothing encapsulates its surreal vibe more than a 30-foot-high, tiara-wearing pink hippopotamus, whose flirtatious pose and fluttering eyelashes make me skid to a stop and stare.
This attention-seeking statue stands outside an area called Rio Salvaje, where for $6.40 you can hurtle yourself down a winding water slide on a rubber dinghy. It’s also home to the park’s real hippopotamus, Vanesa, plus an island of monkeys and, according to various guides and the park’s website, some horses. It seems, however, that I’ve missed out once again, as the stables, which date from Escobar’s time, are occupied merely by straw and hardened horse dung.
But real creatures do lurk in the crocodile swamp. I walk onto a bridge, from which I spot two partly submerged beasts, their beady eyes scouring the land for prey. The surrounding vegetation and the tropical climate help create a natural setting that you seldom find in a commercial zoo or an artificial safari park.
It also makes my T-shirt soggy. To cool off, I head to the Acuasaurus water park. Paved with rock that’s designed to look prehistoric, this water spot gives you a taste of what it would be like to swim with the Flintstones. In fact, Fred’s iconic foot-powered car is marooned at one end of the pool, while brightly colored dinosaurs stand along the edges. In the middle, a giant octopus captures your immediate attention, with hollowed-out tentacles that form fairly steep slides. Except for the hidden $3 charge for a locker and the lack of food in the cafe, it’s quite a pleasant area.
My last stop is the African Museum. Once again, the entrance alludes to an enthralling experience. Three statues of native Africans, about 18 feet tall, stand guard at the entrance, two wielding spears, the other balancing a pot on her head.
Inside the amphitheater, built as another extravagant toy for Escobar, pictures of notable Africans, from Nelson Mandela to Charlize Theron, line one wall. A modest array of African masks hangs on another. But that, I’m afraid, is it.
The other side of the museum is caged off and clearly still under construction. Still, like the rest of the park, it has promise. The impressive 1,000-seat bullring is well designed, and the African theme has the potential to integrate the park’s animals with an in-depth history of that continent.
Still, it’s an odd place, this theme park. Before my visit, one of my closest Colombian friends asked me not to talk about Escobar if I wrote about it. “We’ve made huge efforts to try and change Colombia’s image,” she said. Escobar “is someone who brought only misery and violence to our country.”
But it’s hard to separate the two. Everywhere you look, the drug lord’s mark remains, from the oversize dinosaurs built for his amusement to the plane he used to transport cocaine to the United States, which still hangs above the park entrance.
Like it or not, until the park fulfills its potential, Pablo Escobar will remain Hacienda Napoles’ biggest draw.