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Colombia’s Newest Attraction Turns Drug Lord’s Mansion Into Tourist Stop

With Colombia’s most popular theme park dedicated to the coffee bean, it was only a matter of time before a park opened in recognition of the country’s other lucrative cash crop.

“Here begins a truly wild adventure,” reads the sign above the door to Hacienda Napoles, the former grounds of cocaine-trafficker Pablo Escobar’s 3,700-acre compound 100 miles southeast of Medellin. Open to tourists since December 2007, Hacienda Napoles is the latest attraction to capitalize on the notoriety of the car thief turned drug lord who was worth an estimated $3 billion in 1989.

For $8, visitors can explore the once lavish estate, now ravaged by looters and treasure hunters and reclaimed by jungle foliage during 15 years in government seizure. Rusted shells of cars, planes and amphibian vehicles litter the grounds. A herd of hippos sunning in one of the estate’s 14 lakes are all that remain from Escobar’s personal zoo.

The private operators of the park, Ayuda Tecinca y de Servicios, have restocked the grounds with exotic animals and plan to install a replica of the single engine Piper Cub Escobar used to fly his first international cocaine shipment. What was a bullring will reopen as a Coliseum to host concerts and local celebrities.

But should travelers support a monument to Escobar and the Medellin cartel responsible for three decades of violence in the region?

“We’re not trying to profit off of Escobar,” estate overseer Oberdan Martinez told the Seattle Times. “He was a criminal who did a lot of damage to the country. But we can’t wipe him off the earth. Visitors want to know where he slept and where he brought his mistresses. It’s kind of like the museums in Germany to Hitler or to Al Capone in the United States.”

Martinez emphasizes that the new operation at Napoles will provide a boon to the local economy, creating jobs to service the expected annual influx of 400,000 tourists.

That a major tourist operation is viable in rural Puerto Triunfo is testament to the vastly improved security situation in Colombia. Under the leadership President Alvaro Uribe, the government has demobilized much of paramilitary infrastructure and made advances against the left wing guerillas of the FARC. The recent liberation of Ingrid Betancourt and three American hostages is the latest in a series of government victories over the rebel armies that signify the decades-long conflict may be nearing a permanent end.

If tourist dollars can provide stability in Colombia’s return to peace, perhaps Escobar’s playground is finally being put to good use.

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