If there were anywhere on earth to indulge a drug lord fantasy, it’s where I’m standing: poolside with a coconut mojito at Envy Roof Top bar, 18 floors above the streets of Medellín, Colombia’s former cocaine capital. And she’s definitely looking the part.
It’s dusk and hundreds of pastel pink skyscrapers are lighting up the sub-tropical Aburrá Valley like the bejewelled décolletage of a gangster’s mistress. Picture Rio de Janeiro’s urban tropicana, but cram it into the Andes and scoop the waters of Ipanema onto private rooftops and you have this view.
This is where the most notorious drug smuggler of all time built an empire on alkaloids. At the height of his reign, Pablo Escobar spent $3000 dollars a month on the rubber bands he needed to stack US hundred-dollar bills in his warehouses. In 1989 Forbes estimated his personal net worth at US$3.5 billion dollars – at the time his cartel controlled more than 80 per cent of the global cocaine market.
As Envy completes a transition from Saturday pool party to chic evening bar, I imagine I can see vestiges of this intoxicating era of criminal wealth. Designer labels, diamonds, gold chains and silicon reflect in cocktail glasses directly across from the bar’s key feature: a clear Perspex wall that transforms the neon-lit pool into a human fish tank. It’s exactly how I imagine a drug lord would roll and reminds me that Escobar built his own private zoo, complete with hippos in a lake, at his hacienda. But like the hippos (according to headlines they’ve since escaped and are causing havoc) Escobar’s business proved impossible to keep clean and controlled. It fuelled a decades-long civil conflict, earning Colombia the mantle of the world’s murder capital by 1992. By 1993 Escobar was dead – killed in a 15-month, $100 million special operation that distinguished the bloody high-water mark of Colombia’s dark years.
Fortunately, the red tide has long since receded and Medellín is in the midst of reclaiming the narrative. At the foot of the building a booming restaurant and nightlife scene is more typical of the new Medellín. In the words of the former mayor Sergio Fajardo, the city is moving “from fear to hope” and building a reputation on festivals and tango rather than its criminal past.
But with two Hollywood features on Escobar in the making, Medellín won’t be able to shake the King of Cocaine’s shadow anytime soon. And for tonight, with Envy’s 270-degree panorama urging me to order another mojito, it’s a safe place to indulge a dangerous fantasy, even if it’s only in my imagination.
Envy Roof Top bar is located at the top of the retro-glamour Charlee Hotel, directly opposite Lleras Park.