Colombia: Drug lord's decaying paradise

By Amy Rosenfeld

Tourists can now wander freely around the former holiday mansion of infamous cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar, writes Amy Rosenfeld.

The swimming pool at Pablo Escobar's former holiday mansion. Photo / Amy Rosenfeld
The swimming pool at Pablo Escobar's former holiday mansion. Photo / Amy Rosenfeld

Standing on the second-storey balcony of the crumbling, charred lakeside nightclub, it's difficult to imagine this was once the playground of one of the world's most notorious drug lords.

Pablo Escobar's bar - or remnants of it - jut out onto the abandoned dance floor. What was built to be the centre of the party, where Colombia's underbelly cooked up drugs and plots, now rests under layers of dust and graffiti.

Over the hill, Escobar's holiday mansion is in even worse shape.

The swimming pool, inlaid with an elaborate mosaic pattern, is filled with rainwater and debris, the domed roof of the entranceway lies cracked on the earth, spindly trees fighting to grow through the rubble.

But the mansion's key drawcard remains virtually unchanged from when Escobar and his entourage ruled these shores: a glittering, panoramic view of the expansive Lake Guatapé.

The solitary difference is that the lake surface, once used as a landing strip for drug-laden planes, is now heavy with holidaymakers on powerboats and jet skis.

Since Escobar's getaway was bombed by his rivals, the Cali Cartel, in 1992, the site has been left to mould and decay.

But one of the world's richest and most-wanted men once called this place his paradise. And it's not hard to see why.

Known as "the town of Zócalos" after the brightly-painted square tiles that skirt each cottage, Guatapé has a quaint, small-town feel. It's only two hours away from the party-haven of Medellín, but very far removed in all other respects.

The town of 11,000 people offers the perfect spot for any traveller looking to enjoy some time on the water, while avoiding the suffocating heat and hustlers that plague Colombia's coastal towns.

Midweek, the stalls selling snacks and souvenirs are quiet, and the lake-spanning zipline is closed. But on long weekends, which seem as common as arepas and coffee in Colombia, guests spill out of the few hostels and hotels and into the welcoming arms of tour guides.

Unlike tourist hotspots like Tayrona or Taganga, however, the majority of holidaymakers come from no further than Bogota or Cartagena.

Somehow, Guatapé seems to have avoided becoming part of Colombia's 'Gringo trail', but the increasing numbers of foreign daytrippers from Medellín suggest it may not stay this way for long.

The lake, in reality a huge hydro-electric dam, encompasses dozens of islands, endless hidden coves, and one underwater town.

The story goes that the residents of Viejo Peñol, less than thrilled with the government's decision to flood their homes to build the dam, were only convinced to leave after a bomb was set off in the town church.

Now regular boat tours take travellers to visit a solitary cross peeking above the lake surface, marking the place where the church once stood.

The same tours could also have taken us to see Escobar's house, but after a few nights of aguardiente, the local aniseed-flavoured poison of choice, our budgets and bellies had seen better days and we opted to rent kayaks from our hostel and make the two-hour paddle out to his hideaway instead.

As we worked our way back through the channel with heavy limbs, Guatapé's most prominent landmark towered above the horizon. The ancient rock formation known as El Peñón de Guatapé is over 700 million years old and 200m high, with another 400m of the monolith hidden underground.

From where we floated on the lake, the nonsensical inscription of GI was clearly visible, plastered across the rockface in giant white letters.

Apparently the folks of Guatapé, in an attempt to settle the long-running debate with nearby El Peñol over ownership of the lucrative tourist attraction, attempted to spray paint the name of their town across the landmark.

An angry mob from El Peñol managed to halt the work before it was complete, but the G and unfinished U still stand clearly today.

A walk from the bustling centre of town to the base of the rock was an easy 45 minutes, and another 30 minutes and 10,000 COP (NZ$7) saw us panting our way to the top via more than 640 steps built into a crevice in the rock's side.

Once there, we were rewarded with ice cold drinks from the rock-top restaurant - and an unbeatable view.

Visible amongst the maze of inlets and peninsulas below was Escobar's old home and disco hall, poignant reminders of what this quiet town once was.

Today, Guatapé's turbulent history is starting to become a part of its future as tours fill with visitors wanting to learn of the conflict on its shores. For now it stands as one of Colombia's unsung treasures, but bets are it won't stay that way for long.

My advice: get in while you can.

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