“Tranquilo, amigos,” I said soothingly, but Bernardo and Brazos continued to circle menacingly. I’d named the two dogs- one a St. Bernard as big as my motorcycle, the other a Mastiff mutt with hugely muscled forelegs- because naming the beasts provided some feeling of control. I started the engine, Brazos barked- and I stalled out on the steep hill. Bernardo nuzzled my leg with his basketball-sized head, pushing the bike off-balance. I’d turned off-road several kilometers back looking for Pablo Escobar’s bombed out mansion, but all I’d found was a dead-end and 400 pounds of vigilant farm-dog.
Earlier that morning I’d left Medellin to visit Guatape at the urging of travelers’ tales of “a really big rock and cool lakes”. A two-hour bus ride led to a sleepy town on the shore of the innumerable lakes created by a hydroelectric reservoir in the 70s. I walked along the shore until I came to a motorcycle rental shop.
“Your clothes, your boots, your motorcycle- give them to me,” I asked.
“Sure thing! That’ll be $60,000 [$20 USD] for a half day, or $100,000 [$34 USD] for a full day. Jackets and gloves are an extra $5.”
“Cool, I’ll take ’em! Safety is important.”
“One thing, though. The clutch is really late. It might take some getting used to.”
Sure enough, I stalled the red Yamaha on my first attempt, but on the second I revved the engine and drove off. Four blocks later I parked at a restaurant and ate breakfast for an hour.
The only thing better than a hearty breakfast is a hearty breakfast for $2.50, so I left town in high spirits. The sun was bright, the roads well paved, and the other drivers no more homicidal than normal. I arrived at the base of the hill leading up to El Penol- and stalled out in second gear as the 125cc engine struggled to climb the steep road.
I attempted to start the bike again and stalled again despite releasing the clutch as gently as I could. This happened ten more times until a fellow walked over to give me a hand.
“Suave,” he said. I released the clutch smoothly, but with no success. I started the engine again, and my Colombian friend worked the clutch himself- and still the engine stalled. “Jaja, tenemos que ser *muy* suave.” He worked the clutch a second time, and we got the bike going. “Muchas gracias,” I called back, not daring to stop as I chugged up the hill in first gear with a wide open throttle.
This went well until I had to stop at a toll booth to pay $0.60 for parking. Once again I struggled to start the bike on the steep incline, and once again a sympathetic Colombian offered to help. I politely refused, explaining that I had to learn this for myself. After a dozen more tries, increasingly exaggerating the smoothness of the clutch release, I finally got the bike going again and rode up to the parking area.
The travelers’ tales of a big cool rock were quite accurate. El Penol de Guatape towered over the basin- an alien monolith amid the glittering lakes and fractal fingers of land. Such geological features are so far removed from ordinary experience that the mind reaches for fantasy- easier to imagine you’ve crossed into another world than to believe such things exist in ours.
The best way to process the absurd enormity of La Piedra is to climb it. I considered attempting all 740 steps without resting, but after 250 steps (they label them at intervals of 25, which I found alternately encouraging and discouraging) I decided I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone after all.
The final 70 steps actually ascend through a gift shop. My burning lungs and leaden legs added to my shock that someone would actually go through the trouble of hauling the same cheap kitsch this far out up Earth’s gravity well. I was extra indignant that the price of Gatorade was the same as at the base, especially since I’d just bought some and carried it up myself.
I ruminated on the economics of kitschy souvenirs so deeply that I was surprised to finally run out of steps to climb. This is what I saw:
The summit was surprisingly uncrowded, so I found a sunny spot and read for half an hour and enjoyed knowing that the view was there, even though I chose not to look at it for the moment. After successfully not plunging to my death in pursuit of good selfies I began the climb down, stopping only to purchase a homemade coconut ice cream bar with real flakes of coconut. This I licked and nibbled happily as I descended through the twisting switchbacks hewn through the megalith’s core.
My next destination was “La Manuela”- a sprawling lakeside estate Pablo Escobar had named for his daughter. The Kiwi who’d rented my motorcycle told me that it had been bombed by a rival cartel((As seen in Narcos S2E06)) and abandoned after the infamous drug lord’s death in ’93, and I could check it out if I like. “Just ride until you pass the restaurant ‘Los Deliciosos’ and turn right after the third bridge. If you reach a town you’ve gone way too far.”
The ride from La Piedra was magnificent. Every twist of the road revealed spectacular vistas of mountains, lakes, and sky with La Piedra rising majestically in the midst of it all. After twenty minutes of joyous riding I rolled into a large town and realized I had completely missed the exit.
I entered a convenience store to ask for directions to “La Manuela,” but no one knew what it was. “La casa de Pablo Escobar,” I explained sheepishly. I didn’t want to come across as another Narcos-obsessed gringo come to traipse through Colombia’s tragic past looking for hidden cocaine, hundred dollar bills, and glamorous selfies. Much better to do all that discretely and respectfully. Fortunately the manager knew where the estate was and gave me directions to the turn-off: “go left on the main road after the bridge.”
Said “main road” was actually a dirt road, half-paved with large rocks and gravel. I carefully made my way a few kilometers up until I saw a farmer walking down the road wearing a big sombrero on his head and one of the best mustaches I’ve ever seen.
“Is this the way to ‘La Manuela’?” I asked in Spanish. “Si!” he said enthusiastically, and then a bunch more words I couldn’t catch because of his accent, rapid speech, and the motorcycle helmet encasing my ears. Without any prompting on my part the farmer jumped on the bike behind me to get a lift. I just then noticed the machete on his waist clattering against the fuselage- I’d been too distracted by his mustache to notice he was armed.
This was hardly unusual, though. No one walks the rural roads in Colombia unarmed, and picking up hitchhikers is the mark of a good Samaritan. The farmer explained that his destination was three hours away by foot, so he was grateful for a ride.
We rode for fifteen minutes and I made slow progress due to caution and the 125cc motor struggling uphill under the weight of two grown men. I got the feeling that I should’ve reached the drug lord’s mansion by then, so I checked my GPS position. I was way off course. I asked how far to La Manuela, and the farmer cheerfully replied that he’d never heard of it. Maybe there’d been some miscommunication, but even if not, I couldn’t blame the fellow for wanting a ride to shorten his trek through the hot afternoon and dusty road. We said our good-byes, he blessed me and wished me safe travels, and asked if I’d be interested in buying land around here.
In fact, I was interested. Given Colombia’s recent improvements in security and progress toward lasting peace with the guerrillas, I’d been researching to see if there might be any REITs((Real Estate Investment Trusts)) I might put some petty cash into. I hadn’t been able to find any with reasonable management fees, so I’d bought some shares of a generic Colombian index fund instead. The afternoon sun was getting low, though, so I just told the farmer that I thought Guatape was beautiful, but I didn’t have the money to buy land right now.
I backtracked and stopped in the next restaurant to ask directions to “Los Deliciosos.” The bartender looked at me funny and pointed to the sign behind him: “Los Deliciosos.” There’d been no sign outside, but rather than lecture the man on proper advertising practices I thanked him and took off up the road. This road was also unpaved and undulated wildly up and down the hills. I came to a fork in the road and chose the path leading up, figuring that if I were a paranoid drug lord, I’d build my retreat on the high ground.
I encountered a teenager and asked if this was the way to “La Manuela”.
“No hay nada por aca,” he said. Nothing this way.
I doubled back and asked a guy on a porch for directions, and he told me to go continue back the way I’d come.
“When you come to a Y in the road, go right. Then you’ll come to another Y, and go right again.”
I repeated the directions to confirm. “Encontrare un tenedor en el calle-”
“Uh, si? Un Y.”
Apparently “fork in the road” doesn’t translate literally.
I followed the directions, passed the confused teenager, and took the second right. The road led along a ridge line with more amazing views. I picked up the pace- the last bus back to Medellin would leave at 6:30, and I didn’t want to miss my flight the next day.
I came to another Y in the road with no signage and chose right again. This led me past several terraced farms built into the hillside. Each farm I passed had at least two dogs patrolling the road, who’d bark at me and give chase. It’s well known that dogs can sense fear, and if they sense fear in you they’ll consider you prey and respond aggressively. Each time I maintained my speed and continued calmly. Each time the dogs yelped, followed me for a while, and turn back without incident once I’d passed by their owner’s land.
The further from the main road I got, the bigger the dogs got, too. A St. Bernard the size of a bear trotted out to meet me, followed by a slightly less enormous creature with legs like a canine bodybuilder’s. These were big fucking dogs, and while my riding gloves and jacket might offer some protection from bites, I had no illusions of who’d win if the dogs wanted a fight. I considered speeding up to outrun them, but figured my calm approach was working well.
The two dogs flanked me as I negotiated the narrow gravel road. They barked and growled and jumped toward the bike, but it seemed like they were just testing to see how I’d react. I responded by making kissy noises and remarking about the fine weather. They’d been following me for quite a while when I saw that the hill I was riding down led to a dead-end in front of a house and surrounded by cliffs.
“It’s probably not good that I’m a stranger riding right up to their master’s home,” I thought. Hopefully their owner would come out and take pity on a lost tourist, but no one seemed to be at home. I rolled down to the tiny strip of a driveway and cut the engine. Both dogs continued to growl, but I found myself pleasantly calm. I needed to maneuver a three-point turn around the dogs, get myself pointed back uphill, and get the bike moving again; the presence of animals big enough to kill me didn’t change any of that. Bernardo (as I’d uncreatively dubbed the St. Bernard) wasn’t growling so much. He was sniffing my right leg with great interest and wagging his tail a little. Brazos (my name for the other dog- literally “arms”) seemed to be taking his cues from the bigger dog, but still growled distrustfully.
“Tranquilo, amigos,” I said to the dogs. I moved slowly and deliberately without sudden motions. I got the bike turned around without crushing any paws and tried the engine. Brazos barked in surprise, but Bernardo continued to sniff the front tire. I gave the clutch a try, stalled, and slipped back, nearly rolling into Brazos.
A couple of days before leaving the US I’d learned to drive manual for the first time in NYC and got some practice on the hills in Harlem in case I needed to rent a car somewhere in Latin America. I remembered each time I’d used the hand break to start the car uphill- something I’d neglected to try with the motorcycle. I set the break, started the engine, and worked the clutch with all the finesse of a late-game Jenga player. The day’s practice paid off, and the bike started chugging uphill. Bernardo and Brazos followed closely, but their barks seemed less urgent. They could see I was leaving and were escorting me off the premises. “Just doing my job, sir,” they seemed to say.
I returned to the previous fork, took the other direction, and encountered another fork. I imagined the frustration the Cali cartel hitmen must’ve felt navigating these roads at night, particularly in the years before MapQuest.
I went left this time until I saw a well-dressed old lady trimming flowers in her gated garden as humming birds flitted around her like a Disney Princess. “Is this the way to La Manuela,” I asked again.
“No,” she replied in Spanish (“no” also means “no” in English, but I could tell.) “Go back to the Y and go right, then go down to the lake.”
I thanked the woman profusely and followed her directions, finally arriving at a smashed gatehouse. The road was overgrown with grass but much more driveable than the surrounding hill paths. I passed by a gutted guesthouse and rusting chain link fences surrounding a tennis court and followed the road all the way to a ruined lakeside mansion: La Manuela.
Here I was surprised to find two women sitting on a balcony drinking beers and wearing “Pablo Escobar: King of Coke” T-shirts. They waved and beckoned me to join them upstairs in the bar.
It turns out after Escobar’s death, his wife left the estate to the families of gardeners, cooks, and other helpers who lived and worked on its grounds. For the equivalent of $1.25 one of them offered to show me around the estate and tell me its history.
“This is where the Pepes [a paramilitary group consisting mostly of rival drug traffickers] drove the first bomb in,” she said, gesturing to the remains of the mansion’s entry way. “They brought two bombs and dozens of gunmen, but fortunately they didn’t damage the bar or my family’s house.”
Beyond the obvious damage from the bomb, no corner of the property had been left undamaged by local looters who’d smashed the double walls in search of stashed cash and cocaine. The property was still glamorous despite the smashed walls and fetid pool water- like a five-star AirBnB that had hosted a too-rowdy after-prom party.
I asked my guide how her family had come into Escobar’s employ- the druglord had enjoyed her chef brother’s cooking, and through him much of her family came to work for him. Like many of the poor in Medellin who’d lived in the houses Escobar had built, learned in his schools, and were served by his hospitals, my guide appreciated the tremendously positive impact he’d had on her family- but had no illusions about his violent actions in the broader world. She was proud of where she lived and genuinely enjoyed sharing its history.
I offered a substantial tip after the tour, but she refused to take a single peso, insisting that it had been her pleasure. We chatted over a quick drink in the bar and my guide asked if I’d like to come back the next day to ride the jet skis. That sounded positively lovely, but the sun was setting and I had to ride hard to make the last bus back to Medellin- I had a flight to Argentina to catch in a few hours.