We leave Medellín this morning heading east, climb winding roads up into the Andes, and finally arrive in the town of Guatapé, a small town situated alongside a huge hydroelectric reservoir. (The reservoir was created by flooding a huge area, and the low-lying town of El Peñon was relocated in the process.) The cooler climate (due to altitude) and the enormous opportunity for water sports make Guatapé a popular get-away for residents of Medellín. The town is also trying to attract foreign tourists. (Though less than ten years ago the region was considered a ‘no-go’ zone.)
Guatapé has a unique look, with every building in town containing a row of brightly-painted tiles along the lower facade. The images on these tiles are incredibly varied, with many showing images from the family business, or religious images, cartoon characters, and even dragons.
The entire area is dominated by El Peñón de Guatapé, a rock that rides 200 meters straight up from the ground. (And like an iceberg, it goes down another 400 meters below the surface.)
On one side of the rock are two huge letters, “GI”, each 40′ tall. The towns of Guatapé and El Peñol both claimed ownership of the rock, and one night (perhaps after drinking a few bottles of Aguardiente) the residents of Guatapé decided to settle the matter by painting the town’s name on the rock in huge white letters facing towards El Peñon. Only the ‘G’ and the first party of the ‘U’ were completed. Some believe that they ran out of paint after painting the ‘GI’, and others believe that the residents of El Peñol simply shot the painter off of the rock.
In the 1960’s, the two entwined staircases were built up a crack in the rock (apparently by some insane genius hermit). Dan, Sorin, and I climb the 644 steps to the top. I keep wondering how the whole structure stands on its own. Then I decide that since I’m 100 meters up the rock, it’s better just to trust that he was a genius. At the top of the rock is a four-story observation tower filled with souvenir shops.
From the top we can see the lake spreading out in all directions, a maze of waterways that brings tourists to Guatapé, and which ensures an endless amount of waterfront property.
That afternoon the three of us rent horses and ride them up into the hills to a Benedictine Monastery. The location is near the top of a valley, peaceful and quiet. A sign on the lawn says in Spanish “This is a place for devotion, not a recreational park.” The monks make chocolates that are well-regarded, so Dan buys 12, one to give every woman on the bus. Dan tastes one, and then decides to follow a less charitable path of eating them all himself. (The large chocolates are filled with caramel and figs, and are amazingly delicious.)
La Casa de Escobar
The next day we get up early to take a boat across the reservoir. The boat will be visiting several locations along the way, but everyone is really there to see the vacation home of the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar.
We all climb into the small hostel boat at 9am and and the small engine strains to push us through the water. The captain keeps shaking his head, staring sadly at me, and saying “Muchos pesos” and making gestures of hopelessness. The boat pushes forward.
About an hour later we come to a small peninsula extending into the lake. Unlike the mansions we’ve been seeing along the shore, the home here is a ruin, and is being taken back by the jungle.
The boat pushes against the shore, and we all get off. The group is strangely hushed, and I am feeling a little spooked.
In 1975, a Pablo Escobar was a petty thief, a 25-year-old stealing cars and selling fake lottery tickets. Then he decided to enter the drug trade, and he did so with maximum brutality, killing any opposition to the growth of his business. He purchased judges and police and even was elected to the Colombian Congress. At the peak of his violence, he was at war with the FARC (a Marxist–Leninist revolutionary guerrilla organization), the police, the Colombian Army, the U.S. government, and Los Pepes, a shadowy group that formed solely to destroy Escobar.
Escobar lived in Medellín, and naturally had a vacation home in Guatapé. At one point, the Colombian army bombed Excobar’s Guatapé home, and he was shot to death in Medellín in 1993. Since then his vacation home has been looted of anything that could be hauled away, and the remnant is slowly falling apart.
We walk by his pool, filled with green water. During a party, Escobar discovered a waiter stealing silverware. Escobar had the waiter bound hand and foot and tossed into the pool, where his guests watched the man drown. He remained there in the pool for the remainder of the party.
The main house is fairly small, not much larger than the typical California mini-mansion, perhaps 3-4,000 sq.ft. (280-370 m2). I imagine that the place was furnished with the standard acoutrements of the nouveau-riche, like gold-plated faucets and marble floors, but all of that was gone, and the only furnishings were mud and vines.
Not far from the main house is Escobar’s private futból field. The goal posts are still there. To one side of the field the bones of a cow are scattered across the grass. I pick up the head and decide it would be very arty to photograph it on the field. (“Oh, this would be symbolic!” I’m thinking to myself.) I spend about 30 minutes positioning the skull, laying on my stomach to take the photo from a dramatic angle. All of my companions are amused and start taking pictures of me taking pictures of the skull, and then they start copying my low-angle arty photo, which really annoys me.
I pick up the skull and start talking to it, Hamlet-style, which in the end makes a much more entertaining photo.
At the top of the hill over the house is a staff house and some stables. Behind the stables is a trellis. I notice some movement at the top of the trellis, and realize that there is a line of leaf-cutting ants hauling chunks of foliage across the top of the trellis. I know that they have to come down to earth somewhere, so I follow the line to where they are marching down a fallen branch. Where they walk along the ground, a 6-inch wide path has been cleared off to the distant nest. The line is filled with ants hauling chunks of leaf, a constant movement back and forth of thousands of ants.
And then it’s time to go. I walk back to the boat, past walls marked with graffiti and mysterious grave-sized freshly-dug holes. I’m glad Pablo is dead, and I’m glad that, at least symbolically, I’ve been able to do a little dance on his grave.