How Colombia's Hacienda Nápoles went from Pablo Escobar's cocaine palace to a family-friendly theme park.
If you were to drive about 93 miles east of Medellin, Colombia, you would eventually make it to a town called Puerto Triunfo. There, you’d come across a set of giant, colorful wooden doors.
A sign on the front, reading “Parque Tematico Hacienda Nápoles” in a Jurassic Park-style font, lets you know you’ve arrived at your destination: a family-friendly theme park.
But this is no Disneyland. Hacienda Nápoles has a slightly seedier history. In 1978, the lush location was built on the grounds of what was once a Playboy Mansion-like cocaine palace owned by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
The Hacienda In Its Heyday
When Pablo Escobar ruled Medellin in the 1970s and 1980s, he built an estate that was as impressive as his rule was, comprising a total area of about 7.7 square miles.
As was the case in many facets of his life, Escobar spared no expense when it came to constructing his paradise.
By the time it was finished, Hacienda Nápoles was home to a sprawling Spanish colonial mansion, a sculpture garden, a soccer field, an airport, several swimming pools, lush lawns, and even a zoo — complete with exotic birds, elephants, giraffes, ostriches, and hippopotamuses.
Along with being a luxurious retreat for the kingpin and his family and friends, Hacienda Nápoles also served as a display of Escobar’s great wealth. Here, he showed off his massive collection of classic cars and luxury bikes, and built a racetrack for go-karts.
Escobar’s Most Important Trophy
At the main entrance was Escobar’s pride and joy (besides cocaine): a replica of his Piper PA-18 Super Cub airplane. This was the small, single-engine plane that transported his first shipment of cocaine to the United States.
Resting atop the blue and white arch that welcomed guests to the estate, the plane served as a reminder to all that passed under it — that Colombia would forever be under the command of the king.
After the drug lord was shot and killed in 1993, the Escobar family found themselves at odds with the Colombian government over Hacienda Nápoles’ ownership.
The government eventually took over the land. Soon, though, they realized that they didn’t have the funds to keep its zoo in working order, so the animals were shipped to other Colombian and international zoos.
Escobar’s “Cocaine Hippos” Still Roam Free
While the government managed to ship off most of the estate’s animals, they were unable to seize four of Escobar’s most beloved pets: his hippos. By 2007, their population quadrupled to 16 and they’ve only multiplied since. Some researchers estimate that the total population could be up to 100.
Today, most of the hippos continue to reside on the property of Hacienda Nápoles, but some have made their way into the nearby Magdelena River, a major waterway that cuts through the western half of Colombia.
Hippos have even been spotted nearly 100 miles away from the estate.
Scientists and conservationists are now wondering what to do with the hippos, which many believe are an invasive species. In fact, they could be changing the ecosystem, making life hard for Colombian native plants and animals.
For now, the giant creatures remain free to roam the property and beyond. Visitors may notice signs that read “Peligro: Presencia de Hipopótamos,” warning them to watch out for the aggressive mammal.
The Hacienda As Family-Friendly Attraction
In 2006, Hacienda Nápoles was valued at 5 billion Colombian pesos (around $2.23 million at the time).
In the 2010s, a private company took control of the land and began operating the Parque Temático Hacienda Nápoles, a tourist destination for all ages including a water park, guided safari adventure, and aquariums.
You can swim under the “Victory Waterfalls” or the gigantic cobras and octopus, and see crocodiles, ostriches, zebras, meerkats, monkeys, and other exotic creatures — the majority not native to Colombia, but Africa.
Keeping Escobar’s Image Alive
While there have been some efforts to erase the drug lord’s name from the park, tourists still flock to the region because of him. The impact of Escobar still lingers, just like his influence on Colombia as a whole.
Between exploring the different habitats of the wild animals on the property or taking a dip in the park’s many aquatic attractions, people can now visit a Memorial Museum that goes over Escobar’s history. They can also see ruins from the Hacienda’s heyday.
One of the few remaining pieces from the original estate that hasn’t been demolished is the blue and white arch displaying Escobar’s prized plane.
The park owners have made one minor change, though. The plane has been painted with zebra stripes to coordinate with the overall African theme.
Still, Escobar’s image is alive and well in this part of Colombia. People have even been caught sneaking into the park — not to see the animals, but to try to dig up the lawn in and around Hacienda Nápoles in hopes of finding any treasure Escobar may have left behind.
Meanwhile, the hippos still roam the property, feral after all of these years and wreaking havoc as if in a testament to their previous owner.
Their presence — along with the plane that still stands proud at the original entrance — is just another reminder that despite the family-friendly theme park, Hacienda Nápoles only exists because of the massive power and influence of Pablo Escobar.
After touring Hacienda Nápoles, the extravagant estate of Pablo Escobar, see how the infamous drug kingpin finally met his end in this look at the death of Pablo Escobar. Then, read the story of the female Pablo Escobar, “Cocaine Godmother” Griselda Blanco.