Tales for tourists in Escobar’s zoo


PUERTO TRIUNFO, Colombia — African animals bought with the spoils of one of the world’s most infamous drug traffickers are these days on show for thousands of tourists in a Colombian ecopark.

Hacienda Napoles, a 1,800-hectare (seven-square-mile) property bought in 1978 by Pablo Escobar — the then head of the Medellin drug cartel — still lay in ruin five years ago.

The small twin-engined airplane which, according to legend, carried the first load of cocaine sent by Escobar to the United States had disappeared, but luxury vehicles lay rusting around the vast property.

Neighboring villagers barely dared venture there for fear of retaliation from supporters of the drug lord, although some slipped in at night in search of wads of dollars and jewellry rumoured to be buried in the grounds.

The Colombian state seized Escobar’s private zoo after the drug trafficker — who was once listed by Forbes magazine as one of the 10 richest people in the world — was killed by police in 1993.

Many of the abandoned African animals died of hunger, while the property, including several lakes, stables and even a bullring, fell into ruin.

“The upkeep of the hacienda was expensive for the state,” said Omar Figueroa, a member of the national anti-drug squad in charge of seizing property from drug traffickers.

Local authorities later took over control of the estate, Figueroa said, and in 2005, they began renovating Puerto Triunfo, which is some 250 kilometers (155 miles) northwest of Colombian capital Bogota.

Around 50,000 tourists, one third of which are foreigners, visit each year.

With a view to attracting up to half a million tourists annually, the site’s administrators plan to build a five star hotel by 2011, and hope to make use of the long airstrip formally used to transport cocaine.

Many tourists are attracted to exciting tales about the life of the notoriously violent and successful drug trafficker.

“We’re not seeking to justify the crime. The main message is to demonstrate the damage he did to the country and the world,” insisted administrator Oberan Martinez.

One tourist, Juliana Rodriguez, underlined the paradox between the “beauty of the site” alongside thoughts of the “murders that were directed from here”.

As well as listening to tales of drug operations, visitors wandering around the vast hacienda also stumble upon the remaining exotic animals, including around 20 hippos.

Escobar bought two hippos over from Africa, and they later bred in the Latin American country where they previously did not exist.

Some tourists explore the property on horseback or wander around the ruins of Escobar’s house, in which photographs of the drug lord and the attacks he was blamed for are on display.

“You can’t help feeling admiration for Pablo because he managed to take over so many things, but there’s also a lot of pain,” said tourist Monica Velandia.

“He built it all in blood.”