water park at hacienda napoles

Pablo Escobar was known for many things in his lifetime – his powerful cartel, his many escapes from the law, the way his life and narco history influenced Medellin and impacted many victims, and his eventual death after years of cheating justice. He’s also remembered for his expensive tastes; after all, he was one of the richest men alive at one point. His favorite property, Hacienda Napoles, was outfitted with every luxury he could dream of, from an airport to a private zoo. It’s still a destination for tourists, as it’s been turned into a family-friendly theme park. So what’s the story behind this historical property, and how did it get turned into a theme park? Let’s explore the details below.

How Hacienda Napoles got its start

While Pablo Escobar had many properties, Hacienda Napoles was clearly his favorite. During the 80s, when his cartel operations were making him millions of dollars each day, he had more money than he knew what to do with. That being said, he did figure out how to spend quite a bit of it while outfitting Hacienda Napoles with everything his heart desired. Here’s an overview of the most luxurious, outrageous, and surprising features of this property:

  • A sculpture garden (including life-sized sculptures of dinosaurs)
  • An airport
  • Multiple swimming pools
  • Manicured lawns
  • Artificial lakes
  • A private zoo (containing rhinos, elephants, horses, exotic birds, and of course, the famous hippos)
  • Collections of classic bikes and cars
  • A go-kart racetrack
  • A bullring
  • An arch at the entrance of the property, topped with a full-sized replica of the first plane to fly a shipment of Escobar’s cocaine to the U.S. (which is still in place to this day).

The property measures about 7.7 square miles, and was purchased by Escobar in 1978. Before long, the Spanish Colonial-style house was turned into a cross between a cocaine palace and the Playboy Mansion. Escobar had no idea that he wouldn’t be around to enjoy his dream house for the next several decades, but he certainly poured his time and money into the property like he was living his last year on earth.

What happened to the hippos?

There’s little trace of what Hacienda Napoles used to be. The Colombian government officially took charge of the property in 2006, despite the objections of his family members. Of course, the exotic animals couldn’t remain there, since there was no longer anyone to care for them. They were all relocated to zoos, except for the four hippos. They ended up eluding capture, and then escaping from their enclosure. In the years since then, the hippos have gone from four to approximately 100, and are nicknamed the “cocaine hippos”, since they were bought with the proceeds of Escobar’s cocaine trafficking. There was even a documentary made about them by the National Geographic Channel, covering their journey from drug lord’s pets to invasive species. They still mostly live on or near the same property as the original four hippos, but some of them have found their way to the Magdelena River basin; hippos have even been sighted almost 100 miles away from Hacienda Napoles.

There’s actually some controversy around finding the best solution for the fate of the hippos. Since they aren’t native to Colombia, some experts say that they’re an invasive species. Regardless, they’re definitely changing the balance of local ecosystems. Some people think that they should be culled, while others recommend sterilizing them so they’ll simply stop reproducing, and die natural deaths. In some places, locals have actually become attached to the animals, and don’t want to see them go. For the time being, the hippos are safe in their habitats; the main precaution being taken are signs that warn people to avoid close contact with the aggressive animals.

How Hacienda Napoles became a theme park

Not much was done with Hacienda Napoles until the 2010s, when a private company took over the property. This was when it was transformed into Parque Tematico Hacienda Napoles, a theme park that somehow appealed to both families who wanted a fun day in the sun, and fans of the world’s most infamous drug lord.

The theme park side of the property has plenty to offer. Visitors can swim in the Victory Waterfalls, and splash around next to gigantic sculptures. There’s also a collection of exotic animals, such as monkeys, meerkats, zebras, and ostriches – ironic, since this is the second zoo to be installed on the property. There are many aquatic attractions to explore, which draws local, national, and international visitors to the park. 

It’s been described as a “Jurassic Park-style” setup, with installations that are meant to immerse visitors in each attraction. In addition to the water park and zoo, there are also aquariums, a guided safari attraction, and even a replica of some of the caves in the Cueva de los Gaucharos National Park.

Of course, that’s only half the story; the legacy of Pablo Escobar still looms large over the theme park. This being the case, it’s appropriate that his influence hasn’t entirely been erased. There’s a Memorial Museum, where visitors can learn more about Escobar’s history and impact. The original Hacienda is still standing too, although it’s in ruins. It isn’t open for touring, but visitors can still view the exterior, and imagine how magnificent it must have been in its heyday.

Even though nothing about the theme park is meant to glorify Pablo Escobar, this hasn’t stopped enthusiasts from visiting in the hopes of feeling closer to him. There have even been instances of amateur treasure hunters sneaking in to dig holes in the lawn, hoping to find a forgotten pile of cash that Escobar hid decades ago.

For now, the main legacy of Escobar’s presence on the property is the herd of hippos that still roam freely. It’s been pointed out that, just like the drug lord, the hippos are seemingly immune to the people who want them gone, extremely dangerous, and prone to damaging their surroundings. Even though the hippos are likely to be around well into the future, Escobar’s legacy on this property is now determined by a family-oriented theme park.