It’s not often that we have a day that just sort of unfolds magically, each piece falling seamlessly into place and offering up a big picture that we didn’t expect but relished because it sums up everything we love about this trip. This might sound trite because there have been so many unlovable things we’ve experienced since we began overlanding nearly one year ago.
This past Saturday was one of those perfect days.
You might have never heard of Guatape, Colombia. Or maybe you have because a boat sank there this past Sunday, leaving several people dead. Guatape lies only a short distance outside of Medellin. It sits on the shores of Peñol Reservoir which is so strikingly beautiful that it’s no wonder the residents of the city flock there on the weekends and holidays.
And one of Medellin’s most notorious residents had a fondness for Guatape as well. So much so that he built himself a grand villa perched above the lake and didn’t neglect to add staff quarters, horse stables, a helipad that doubled as a futból field, and a bar and restaurant for entertaining guests. And since all villas need a name he called it Hacienda La Manuela, after his daughter.
Of course you know who I’m talking about. It was Pablo Escobar.
If you’ve seen “Narcos” or know about the history of the man himself then you should be familiar with Los Pepes. A vigilante group with shady connections to Pablo’s rival cartels, Los Pepes managed to breach the heavy security at La Manuela and placed dynamite in one of the bathrooms, blowing the place to bits in 1993. This revealed walls that were filled with cash, guns, and drugs that were quickly confiscated.
Pablo was killed eight months later.
A week ago we visited Hacienda Napoles, Pablo’s other estate in Doradal. This is the site of the infamous hippos and their escape and subsequent rampage through local rivers, and it’s also home to many other animals and a water park. The Colombian government seized it after a lengthy battle with those members of Pablo’s family who were willing to appear in court. Things took a different route with La Manuela.
No one in the Escobar family wanted to step up and try to claim this property so, according to Colombian inheritance laws, the property would then land in the hands of the caretaker, if one existed. One did, his name is William, and he now owns La Manuela.
Today, boats from Guatape descend upon the small dock below the restaurant, people take a tour of the dilapidated mansion, and play paintball amongst the ruins of the staff quarters. Locals arrive by boat or jet ski to have a drink and a meal from the restaurant. It’s part tourist site and part local watering hole, but the ruins of the mansion are rarely far from view and the energy there is palpable.
On Friday night we camped outside of Guatape but we knew that we wanted to visit La Manuela on Saturday. The looming question was, how do we get there? Do we park Moby and take the boat or do we try to track down the dirt road that leads there. After several battles with Google Maps we found the route. I was dubious; dirt roads have that effect on me. Will, on the other hand, was determined.
“I just have this romantic notion of camping out there.”
So on a romantic notion we headed up the hill and began the seven kilometer journey on a washed out, bumpy dirt road that we hoped would culminate at La Manuela. And 45 minutes later it did as the rocks and dirt changed to smooth pave stones. We had arrived.
We parked Moby at the top of the estate, which covers more than 20 acres, and walked down the hill to find el jefe. We entered the bar and as I told the bartenders I had a very special question they directed me to the man in the corner. He introduced himself as William, the caretaker who had inherited the property, and when I asked if we could camp for the night he shrugged his shoulders and said, “¿Por qué no?”
We were in. And as we sat down to order drinks I decided I had another question to ask him. Were we the first people to come rolling down the hill in a camper asking to spend the night? Just as I assumed he said we were and Will promptly dropped a brand new pin on iOverlander. Since there was a large tour group at the site we lingered over drinks until they left then we headed over to the gutted mansion to check it out.
But there’s more to this story.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of David Choe. If you’re not sure who he is you can learn more about him here. He’s a raucous, reckless artist who is besties with Anthony Bourdain and made a few million dollars after painting the murals at Facebook headquarters and taking payment in stock shares instead of cash. We buy his T shirts, I follow him relentlessly on social media, and yet I’ve never seen his work in the wild.
We knew David Choe had visited La Manuela in 2011 because there was a Vice article about it. However, they mistakenly said the villa was in Cartagena and that he had “broken in”. Both of these are falsehoods. Cartagena is several hundred miles away from Guatape and the site has been open to visitors earlier than 2011.
Regardless, I was on a Choe hunt. We walked into the villa, carefully stepping over rubble and I tried not to bust my ass on the muddy remnants of tile. We poked and prodded our way around what was largely unidentifiable as a house, save the sinks that still stood in a bathroom and a staircase we actually weren’t supposed to climb.
As I rounded the corner toward the pool I spied it, one of Choe’s signature tags: the Chinaman. Flanking it was a hippo, and as I made my way into the room his calling cards were everywhere on the crumbling walls. Some had been painted over, some were intact, but I was impossibly giddy. I imagine this is what it feels like to find money, like they did when La Manuela’s walls came tumbling down.
We spent the rest of day hanging around at the bar, talking to a number of expats who live in the hills surrounding the reservoir, and snagged a mini boat tour from a man who lives in one of those houses. He was also one of the first responders when the tourist boat sank the very next day.
When we returned we ordered dinner from the restaurant we were surprised that the simple grilled chicken was oh so good. As darkness settled over La Manuela we moved Moby to the helipad, sat outside talking for awhile, then went to sleep under the cover of a cloudy sky and surrounded by what I’m sure are the many ghosts of this part of Colombian history.
This was our sleepover at Pablo’s place.