Cocaturismo: How Cocaine in Colombia Became a Tourist Attraction

After Pablo Escobar's death, Medellín became even more steeped in the drug trade. Now, cocaine in Colombia has infiltrated every aspect of the culture, even to the point of attracting rich tourists seeking a thrill.

Cocaine heap

Cocaine is both a curse and a salvation for Colombians: farmers grow coca for cash but fear discovery, families must cooperate with guerrillas or become refugees and destitute teens become hitmen for a quick buck—although few survive long in the ruthless underworld.

Photo by Fotolia/metrue

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Magnus Linton originally intended to write a book about Colombia that didn’t include the words “cocaine” or “violence,” but the presence of cocaine in Colombia was too pervasive to ignore, and so Cocaína (Soft Skull Press, 2014) was born. Based on three years of research and more than 100 interviews with growers, traffickers, assassins, refugees, police, politicians and drug tourists, Cocaína is a brilliant work of investigative journalism, and an insight into one of the world’s most troubling industries. The following excerpt is from “Cocaturismo: Medellín as Heaven.”

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The International Colombian Drug Trade

Among a sea of dancers Håkan, a young Swedish guy, towers over everyone else. After sticking his key in the three-gram bag he is holding and digging around a bit, he pulls up a small mound of snow-white powder that he holds up to his girlfriend, who snorts it with a quick nschh.

“Clubbing here is just a liiiiiiittle bit better than at home.” He licks off the powder that is stuck in the steel grooves of the key, paying no mind to the policemen, who have taken bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to the goings-on inside the club. It is 4.00 a.m., and before the cocaine has even had time to kick in Håkan places a pill on his middle finger and shoves it into his girlfriend’s mouth, his arm outstretched. She swallows it with a gulp, licking his hand playfully in the process.

“I love Colombian women. They’re real women. So fucking female.”

She is barely half his height and tries clinging to his neck, but he keeps pushing her off; he isn’t in the mood to make out. Eventually he grabs her behind, lifts her up off the floor, and sticks his tongue in her ear.

The club is in a hexagonal building in an industrial district. The pounding bass fills the room, where hundreds of dancers wearing sunglasses stomp away in the dark. “Alexi Delano deejayed here a while ago,” Håkan says. “It was the best party I’ve been to. It was absolutely incredible. He’s Swedish, too.”

Swedish. He could just as well have been German, American, British, or Spanish. In fact, he could have been from almost any wealthy Western nation, for Håkan is just one of thousands in the latest crop of young globetrotters making their way to Medellín, the new mecca of drug tourism. The city that in the 1990s was known as “the murder capital of the world” has since been transformed into an urban paradise where the sky’s the limit—at least, for those who have the money.

Flashpackers in El Poblado

In El Poblado, an area of Medellín filled with tranquil shopping malls, sushi bars, and internet cafes, a new hostel has opened every other month for the last year. Economic globalization has transformed the traditional backpacker into the flashpacker: a well-to-do traveler seeking a combination of comfort and adventure, reflecting the trend in tourism whereby travelers are more interested in themselves than in tourist attractions. For today’s young travelers, seeing the Amazon or Patagonia is nowhere near as thrilling as doing Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, or Medellín. Publishing powerhouses such as Lonely Planet now have more city guides than travel guides, as most traditional destinations have become so mainstream and consumerized that the so-called undiscovered places have to be sold in order to keep the money carousel going. Hanging out in, as opposed to visiting, the Third World is the new thing to do.

All this factors into the appeal and sudden success of Medellín. The city not only has superficial attributes and attractions—a perfect climate, good shopping, wild clubs, and hip people, all conveniently kept separate from violent gangs—but what makes Medellín truly special, and so attractive to the new traveling avant-garde, is something best described as an electrical charge in the air. A myth. In contrast to the tired old nostalgic stories of tango in Buenos Aires, of beaches in Rio de Janeiro, or of the revolution in Havana, Medellín has a more titillating product that, carefully packaged, can be sold with a great deal of success: cocaine. But cocaine packaged in such a way that the actual powder is just one aspect of the experience.

Today, “flashpacker” is an established term within the travel industry and an important demographic for hostel operators in many of the world’s poorest nations. Those who run the hostels are often former backpackers themselves, mainly from the United States or Europe, and they know perfectly well that what today’s travelers are seeking is not just high-caliber drugs at bargain prices, but also something that can add a bit of cultural cred to the experience. Consequently, experiences such as the Pablo Escobar tour—a guided excursion offering travelers a peek into the life of “the world’s greatest outlaw”—have become successful, and it is easy to see why: the violent story of the rise and fall of the Medellín Cartel is indeed an incredible and, of course, highly marketable chronicle.

Close to Medellín are the remains of Hacienda Nápoles, Escobar’s 3000-hectare ranch, complete with an airstrip, a bullring, and a private zoo. In its heyday in the 1980s, four planes a day took off from the property, bound for Miami and loaded with cocaine, and returned just as full with money. In Medellín there is also Barrio Pablo Escobar, a neighborhood of 400 houses that Escobar had built and donated to homeless families in the city. There are also the remains of La Catedral, the legendary prison Escobar designed himself and from which he fled effortlessly in 1992—an incident that brought shame to the White House and the Colombian government as the entire world watched. In another part of the city people can visit the roof where the man known as El Patrón, who in 1989 made Forbes’ list of the top-ten richest men in the world, finally met his death in 1993. The killing of Escobar was the result of a controversial joint effort in which the US Central Intelligence Agency, the National Police of Colombia, and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (the DEA) conspired with hired assassins and the drug mafia—a cooperative operation that caused great political rifts and had an impact on both nations for many years to come.

But Medellín’s attraction as a destination for cutting-edge travelers also reflects an ever-increasing interest in visiting, albeit at a safe distance, the site from which one of the biggest criminal complexes in the world originates. The illegal drug trade today generates an estimated 300 billion USD globally—far more than the gross domestic product of most countries—and the world’s two main hard drugs, heroin and cocaine, are linked to two nations: Afghanistan, where 90 per cent of the world’s heroin is produced; and this country, Colombia, where 60 per cent of the cocaine consumed globally comes from.

If heroin breeds misery, cocaine has successfully held on to its image as the narcotic for those wishing to disassociate themselves from junkies. It is the undisputed drug of choice for the wealthy in the world’s richest nations, and it has been growing in popularity, with no sign of slowing, since German chemists first isolated the alkaloid in 1860. Cocaine continues to find its way into new parts of the world—Eastern Europe and certain parts of Asia are booming markets—and, perhaps to an even greater extent, into social milieus previously untouched by the white powder. While the trend for “clean living” is growing within the elite classes of the United States and Europe, environments often socially safeguarded from drug abuse, cocaine use among middle- and working-class Americans and Europeans is on the rise.

Paradise on Earth in Medellín

Håkan pushes his girlfriend away and vanishes into a swarm of dancers. He has stains from a red lollipop around his mouth, visible as he approaches another blond young man, who has a plastic bottle in his back pocket.

“Nice parties here, eh? Acid? Ecstasy? Cocaine?”

Their eyes meet and they exchange the goods.

Suddenly an army of smiling former fashion models bursts onto the scene, dispersing over the dance floor, moving like green projectiles into the crowd. They’re promoting a new brand of cigarettes and are all wearing identical form-fitting tops that coordinate with the colors on the cigarette packets. They scurry about, handing out free smokes to anyone who wants one. And everyone does. Håkan and his new friend are in paradise; they throw their arms in the air, flapping their hands around in a way that’s reminiscent of the 1990s rave scene.

Globalization and increased travel have brought together all sorts of subcultures, which have gelled in a relatively short period of time. Behavior that is banned or discouraged in one country may not only be possible but encouraged in another, and many of the poor nations in the Southern Hemisphere have developed into recreational regions for an entire gamut of activities stigmatized and criminalized elsewhere in the world. These safe havens are not so much a consequence of different laws in these countries but of mass corruption, and specifically the fact that the poorer members of the police force can be bought easily. This club is called Carnival, a name that unintentionally, yet amicably enough, finds itself at the intersection of Catholicism, hedonism, and commercialism, all three of which manifest here on a nightly basis: in a nation where corrupt policemen can obtain instant absolution, young Europeans can obtain immediate sensual gratification—and both can come together in a diabolical dancing circus where cash is the indisputable king.

The cigarette girls exit the area together. The names of upcoming deejays are projected on the walls in futuristic fonts as the place becomes even more packed with people. The odor, a mix of sweat and smoke, fills the air, while clubbers use their fingernails and the corners of credit cards to transport little mounds of white powder to their noses. Håkan’s own baggie of cocaine was bought in a poor neighborhood he calls “the shopping center.” “It’s fucking awesome. It only cost 7000 pesos a gram. Four US dollars.”


Reprinted with permission from Cocaína by Magnus Linton, translated by John Eason and published by Soft Skull Press, 2014.