Medellin, Colombia – It’s the kind of attraction adventure-seeking backpackers love; nine Western travellers in shorts and Birkenstocks pile into a van for a tour promising tales of “drugs, excess, sex and violence”.
Based on the life of one of the world’s most notorious drug-dealers, the Pablo Escobar Tour highlights the rise and fall of “El Patron”, an ambitious gangster who climbed from petty delinquency to become the planet’s seventh richest person.
He operated a fleet of planes bringing cocaine from South America to the world, revolutionising the global drug trade, held a seat in Congress and – in an attempt to avoid extradition to the US – offered to pay Colombia’s entire foreign debt of $20bn.
“Escobar’s grave is the second most visited [tomb] in South America,” says Paula Taborda, the 28-year-old tour guide, as the group stares at the gangster’s small plaque in a lush cemetery. “Many people saw him as a type of Robinhood,” she says of a man responsible for thousands of deaths and waves of violence in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
The tour stops at the house where Escobar made his last stand before collapsing in a hail of bullets from security forces in 1993.
Today, after much legal wrangling, the small middle class dwelling is home to a regular Colombian family. “It must suck to have groups of gringos staring at your house taking photos all the time,” quipped Peter, an Australian backpacker as he snapped photos with his smartphone.
As parts of urban Colombia recover from years of internal conflict linked to the drug trade and a series of insurgencies, tourism operators such as Taborda are trying to change perceptions, while creating local jobs.
Twenty-years ago, Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city, was wracked by drug violence, car bombs and regular shootouts as drug gangs, state forces and private militias fought for supremacy. In 1991, at the height of Escobar’s conflict with authorities, Medellin faced 6,349 murders.
Today, it’s a thriving city, reasonably safe by Latin American standards, with an emerging group of young high-tech professionals and a near-perfect climate. Between 1991 and 2013, the city’s murder rate fell by 80 percent.
However, in barrios around the city, often populated by people displaced by conflict in other parts of Colombia, high levels of poverty persist along with delinquency.
“In the last 10 years, there has been a lot of transformation and social innovation happening here,” says Sandra Echeverri Duque, the tourism sub-secretary for Medellin. With help from the local government, youths in poor communities are opening small restaurants, and organising hip-hop and graffiti tours to cash in on new tourism. The businesses are part of a broader government campaign to try and improve life for some of the city’s poorest residents.
“We have public libraries, cable cars and other infrastructure for the people living in the [traditionally poor] high zones [surrounding the city],” she says. “We prefer to talk about good things happening in our city, not just Pablo Escobar.”
Escobar’s notoriety as Medellin’s most infamous local son irritates locals, who say they feel stereotyped with frequent references to cocaine and murder when they travel abroad. His legacy in Colombia’s drug market has emanated through popular culture, captured in Johnny Depp’s film Blow, Killing Pablo and Pablo Escobar: King of Cocaine.
“We hate being associated with Escobar,” says Taborda. “Part of the idea of the tour is to make things clear, to address misunderstandings on this topic.”
‘Not the end’
The tour passes some of the several hundred buildings once owned by Escobar and his associates, and the country club where Medellin’s old elite denied membership to the upstart criminal.
After visiting an outdoor shrine once popular with Escobar’s sicarios, or hit men, Taborda regales the tourists with stories of Escobar’s hidden wealth. Like the pirates of yesteryear, drug dealers were known to stash large amounts of cash under the ground and inside the walls of old houses with the goal of finding it later. People occassionally stumble upon the hidden loot when refurbishing old buildings, fixing the plumbing or digging holes.
“Did you ever find any of Pablo’s money?” asks Cameron, a tall Scottish tourist in a tank top and backward baseball cap.
20 years ago is the same thing happening in Mexico now. The killing of Escobar wasn’t the beginning – or the end.”]
“You’ll never know,” Taborda smiles. “This conversation never happened.”
“I could sure use some of that money stashed in the walls,” pipes in Luke from England. “I’d backpack forever.”
Luke is one of about two million tourists to visit Colombia annually. The industry is growing by about seven percent per year, and government officials attribute the rise to marketing campaigns, improved security and word of mouth.
“We are good ambassadors for our city,” Duque says. “People are proud of how things have changed.”
Well aware of Colombia’s reputation for violence and drug dealing, officials have confronted negative perceptions head-on in edgy marketing campaigns.
“Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay,” reads a tourism advertisement at Bogota’s airport.
Medellin’s reputation for vice, however, could be enticing a demographic of tourists more interested in brothels than the paintings of renowned local artist Fernando Boltero.
“A lot of the foreigners who come here are up to no good,” says Juan Carlos, a taxi driver. “They are always asking about girls.”
In Parque Lleras, a popular neighbourhood full of bars and cafes in the posh Poblado district, it’s not uncommon to see groups of overweight middle-aged gringos flanked by attractive 20-something local girls with augmented breasts.
But backpackers such as the ones of the Escobar tour, along with regular tourists from other parts of Colombia, Canada, the US and Latin America are mostly drawn to the relaxed atmosphere and prices, which are cheap compared to the capital Bogota or other large cities.
While Escobar is today’s tourist attraction, rather than a figure inspiring fear, his toxic legacy of popularising cocaine among the high rollers of Europe and North America lives on.
“What happened here [with drug violence] 20 years ago is the same thing happening in Mexico now,” Taborda says. “The killing of Escobar wasn’t the beginning – or the end.”
For tourism operators, however, his death was the beginning of a new opportunity. At $20 per person, it’s proving reasonably lucrative – but nothing compared with Escobar’s core business.
Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @chrisarsenaul