Colombian Narcotourism - Where & How
The Best Cocaine Tourism in Colombia
The Colombian cocaine industry is notorious across the world. From vicious sicarios working for enormous criminal enterprises, to ruthless guerrilla armies funding themselves through drug production in the depths of the jungle. The history of the Colombian narcotics trade is dark, and has been terrible for the country and its people.
I have written a whole big spiel about whether or not partaking in narcotourism is ethical. Whether it can even be condoned. It is up to you to draw your own conclusions about this topic. Should you decide that you still want to go ahead and get involved, here’s a collection of the best places to visit for the darkly curious tourist in Colombia.
Pablo Escobar Tour
The most comprehensive of the narco tours available in Colombia is the official Pablo Escobar tour in Medellín. New narco tours run by various random operators seem to pop up every day in the former cocaine capital, mostly manned by guides with little personal experience with the cartel and with Escobar himself. When you take the official tour, advertised little beyond local word of mouth, you’ll be escorted around various significant spots by the Escobar’s personal driver and close friend, and by another friend of the family. You’ll have the opportunity to question said driver about his experiences with Escobar, various members of the Medellín cartel, and about the history he saw unfold in the back seat of the same car you’ll be driving around in. Stopping first at the house Escobar spent his last few days in, now converted into a museum, you will meet Roberto Escobar Gaviria. Head accountant and second in command of the Medellín cartel, as well as brother to Pablo, Roberto Escobar can offer unique insights into the period and about the role he had to play. Old, small and partially blind, Roberto no longer strikes an imposing figure. It’s easy to forget he facilitated some of the most deadly events in Colombian history.
After this, the tour used to go to the Monaco building, before the mayor of Medellín destroyed the building in early 2019. Carrying on to Barrio Pablo Escobar you get the chance to mingle with locals in an area of Medellín that I would strongly advise you not to visit alone. Once you’re visiting with former cartel members and friends, you’re welcomed into a barrio that would otherwise be openly hostile to rich gringos wandering through. After, the tour take you to Cemetario Jardins Montesacro, the site of Escobar’s grave. The spot has become sensationalised in western media, a ‘pilgrimage’ for cocaine users, where tourists snort lines of cocaine straight off the headstones. You can do that if you want, I’m hardly going to stop you, but I would urge you to remember that you’re in a graveyard and there’s more than one man buried there. The guides will take you around these other graves, telling thrilling stories of the lives of the men and women buried there, many of whom are directly related to the Escobars or played significant roles in Colombia’s narco history. Most of the stories were ones we had never heard, in fiction or otherwise. The guides also go into great detail about the errors pervasive throughout shows like Netflix’s ‘Narcos’ or ‘El Patron de Mal’.
You can take one of the other Narco tours if you aren’t interested in funding friends and family of the Escobars, but if you want the most authentic tour in Medellín send a message to this number expressing your interest in the tour: +573128898781
The tour is given in English, but if you want to communicate fully with Escobar or their driver you will need to speak some Spanish or prepare some questions in Spanish.
‘Make your own cocaine’ tour – San Augustin
Another tour infamous amongst travellers in Colombia is coined the ‘make your own cocaine’ tour. I didn’t participate in this one myself, but made many friends along my journey that had. The first step is to make your way to San Augustin, a town deep in the jungle in southern Colombia. It is accessible from Bogotá or Cali by bus. Despite being small and remote, the town attracts many tourists, some for the rich and interesting history in the area, others for this tour. It isn’t too hard to make the distinction.
Hostels will help you to organise a ‘special tour’, wherein you’ll be piled into the back of a car with your head covered and driven into the jungle. Once let out, you’ll find yourself in a fully operational cocaine laboratory, where you’ll be provided with a DIY class in cocaine production. Once you’re done chopping coca leaves with machetes and pouring the petrol, you can walk away with a gram of cocaine that you produced all yourself.
This information is based on the accounts of my friends that took the tour, but some are less imposing and actually take place in local’s back gardens. Check out this Vice article on a similar excursion.
When entering Escobar’s luxurious private estate you walk through an entryway topped with a small plane, a replica of the first one used by the Medellín cartel to ship cocaine to the United States. Today, rather than a narco palace that saw the plans for countless smuggling schemes, Hacienda Napoles has become a family-friendly theme park. At the peak of the cartel’s power in Colombia, the sprawling complex included a Spanish-style mansion, a zoo, a sculpture garden, an airport, a private bull pit, a go kart racetrack and enough space to store his lavish collection of vintage and luxury cars. His private zoo included the famous ‘cocaine hippos’, too big to re-home after the death of the drug lord, which now have become feral and roam the rivers of rural Colombia. Having a number of local fishermen, the hippos are considered a serious threat to the Antioquian environment. The descendants of other animals imported by Escobar now make up the inhabitants of the zoo that is part of the theme park that sits in the place of the old playboy palace.
Though the family-friendly day out at a theme park may not be every dark tourist’s idea of fun, the original gate with Pablo’s crowning plane is worth seeing. It is emblematic of Escobar’s power over Colombia and her people, and a taunting reminder of how he conquered the cocaine industry under the noses of US officials.
Near the neighbouring town of Envigado, a building is shrouded in the rich forests that fill the Antioquen countryside. Where you can peer through thick foliage to find fresh views over Medellín and relax, enjoying the clean mountain air and the biodiversity of Colombia’s forests. While Pablo Escobar was ‘incarcerated’ in the early 90s, this was the home that he built for himself and for his cartel comrades. He was slowly succumbing to the mounting pressure that he faced. The vicious vigilante group ‘Los Pepes’ were hunting the cartel leader, and went on to murder 300 of his friends, families, employees and people vaguely associated with the organisation in the name of justice for the ‘people persecuted by Pablo Escobar’. He was at war with the Cali cartel. Other drug lords had be killed, captured, extradited, or had turned themselves in. This period was the beginning of the end for Escobar, and in an effort to protect himself and his family, he struck a deal with the Colombian government. They allowed him to build his own prison, with his own guards, populated by his friends and associates.
La Catedral, unofficially referred to as ‘Club Medellín’, was a far cry from a real prison. It was closer to a private resort. It included a full-sized football field, a bar, discotheque, and private waterfall. They had cell phones and radios, which could be used to dictate the times that Escobar wanted his friends, family, colleagues or prostitutes visiting. The ‘prison’ was home to famous parties and orgies, drink and drug fuelled fiestas that went uninterrupted by the ‘guards’ employed by Escobar. A place to enjoy fantastic views, and fantastical stories about a BBQ thrown by Escobar, you can see a new perspective on the city and try not to think about rival hit-men chowing down on the flesh of their former bosses.
Escobar remained in the sanctuary until it became known to the police that he had been committing murders on prison property, which apparently was a step too far. He was only in La Catedral for 13 months before he was ousted by the Colombian army. Having taken two high ranking government officials captive in his private prison, the army arrived from Bogotá to rescue them, and Escobar disappeared into the mountains with most of his men. It is assumed that he received help from the army, or the guards, or the government officials, or any number of the high-level authorities to whom he paid bribes that reached the millions.
Nowadays, the site is fairly derelict. It has become a home for the elderly and the sick, who are less than pleased by the wandering crowds of tourists that approach the site every day. You don’t need a tour to visit the site, it is easy to go independently from Medellín, but if you feel intimidated by the locals you may want to visit with others. They are unlikely to approach tourists, but are openly hostile to visitors and hang signs condemning those that would partake in narcotourism.
The Site of Escobar’s death
In 1992, the kingpin was killed by members of the Colombian police force, after being chased across the rooftops around his final hideout. The famous image of his bloody body splayed out unceremoniously on the tiles has been paraded as a triumph for the police ever since. Whether or not you believe the rumours prevalent in Medellín that it was Escobar that shot his final bullet, the location of his death is undisputed.
Easily found in the residential neighbourhood of Estadio-Laurales, close to the city’s football stadium, the site today is not particularly interesting or eye-catching. Having spent a month living in this neighbourhood, I hadn’t even realised that I’d been past the spot before looking up the address online. While interesting to see the spot the story ended, it’s best not to linger. Residents of the street are quickly irritated by tourists hanging around on their street, particularly when many of them loath Escobar, his memory, and everything he stands for.
It is important to remember, while visiting spots on the narcotourism trail in Colombia, that many Colombians today have incredibly strong opinions about the narcos. Countless families were ripped apart, innocent people murdered or tortured, and there are many who still think of Escobar as the ‘Paisa Robin Hood’. A degree of respect should be shown when visiting these sites in Colombia. None of this is a joke or a jaunt into ‘dark tourism’ for the people of the country, and while it is important to understand this element of Colombian history, it shouldn’t be made light of. I have covered more on the moral dilemma of engaging in narcotourism, and why I think it’s worth doing, here.
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