Tulum’s Villa Escobar
In Tulum, the vacation home of the world’s most notorious drug lord is now a luxury eco-inn—if only the walls could talk.
A yoga class has broken out in Pablo Escobar’s living room. The sounds of deep, mindful breathing drift through the spacious foyer like a mild ocean breeze, while strength and serenity go toe-to-toe beneath the thatched palapa roof. At a newly tiled counter down the hall, a blender whirs, smashing mango, ginger, and wheatgrass for the heaving, sweaty guests prostrating themselves on the floor. A few choice pieces of driftwood have been casually assembled on the living-room landing, and Tibetan prayer flags hang from the ceiling. Somewhere someone is dozing off while having her feet rubbed.
Pablo would have hated this.
The pair of grand three-story beach houses that command an impressive stretch of sand a few miles south of Tulum’s primary drag of eco-lodges, restaurants, and beachfront palapas are now known as Casa Magna I and II. Their current occupant—Melissa Perlman—an American who owns and operates Amansala, a self-described “eco-chic spa” nearby, has renovated the properties, which are believed to have been built by the drug kingpin in the mid-80’s. It is unclear whether Pablo Escobar, the Colombian cocaine trafficker who was responsible for moving more of that seductive white powder than just about any other individual ever, got around to naming the houses or even if their construction was complete when he was gunned down near his home in Medellín, Colombia, in 1993. It is also not entirely clear if Escobar actually owned them at all—it’s a connection the house’s American owner isn’t eager to scrutinize—but the big white beach houses seem to fit squarely into the excesses of Escobar’s lifestyle: What suits an 80’s drug lord better than a pair of grand stucco houses on a secluded Caribbean beach?
Rising between a dense, vibrant jungle and the as-yet-untrampled sweet spot of the Mexican Caribbean, it is hard to imagine a more desirable location in the Yucatán. Casa Magna has the largest, and by most accounts, sturdiest structures in Tulum, where low-key palapas and quaintly hippie rent-a-hammocks are only now giving way to smallish resorts, spas, and a few boutique hotels; the southernmost section of Tulum’s only coastal road, which includes the stretch in front of Casa Magna, was paved just last March. It’s also hard to imagine a more luxurious roof to put over the heads of you and your 20 closest friends for a week’s vacation.
Certainly that’s what Pablo would have had in mind. (He owned as many as 19 homes in Medellín alone and threw famously lavish and lengthy parties.) In the larger of the Tulum houses, there are no fewer than five master bedrooms, each with a private terrace, a massive poured-concrete tub, and ocean views. The common rooms on the first floor were made for elaborate spreads, expressions of excessive opulence and decadence, fitting a host who once ranked on the Forbes list of billionaires and who was wanted by some of the world’s most persistent law-enforcement agencies. The living rooms were large, and with their long, open staircases and mezzanine balconies, made for spectators. A room now filled with soft sectional couches, candles, and Chinese lanterns was once a private dance floor.
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It’s easy to picture Pablo here with his cohorts and lieutenants, and the telenovela stars and pop singers he coaxed to his beach house. You can imagine the drugs and bad music, the uneasy tug of respect by intimidation, the whiff of sexual slavery and riches acquired beyond the pale. It doesn’t fully jibe with the health and tranquility offered by the new management, but then isn’t Pablo’s connection, however tenuous, also part of the appeal?The source of all this luxury doesn’t coincide with mere fame—as if it had been the getaway of Merv Griffin or Lionel Richie—but genuine, fearsome notoriety. It’s not merely the home of some anonymous rich man, but a legendary outlaw. While Perlman stresses that the opulence of Casa Magna is balanced by “that bohemian-chic thing,” she understands the power of Pablo. “The history of it just adds to that.”
Indeed, for every colonial mid-Atlantic inn that claims to have provided shelter to General Washington, there’s a ranch that was raided by Jesse James. I’ve drunk shots at a hotel bar where Butch Cassidy supposedly carved his name after robbing the Telluride bank, and fed quarters into a jukebox at a Long Island motel where the Stones stayed while recording Black and Blue. And what trip to New York’s Sparks Steak House is complete without noting that Gambino mob boss Paul Castellano was gunned down on the street outside?
Gangsters’ life expectancies may be short, but they do know how to live while they're still living. Vacationing in Escobar’s villa comes with a lifestyle seal of approval, an endorsement by a man who had no budget to stick to and who knew no limits. The man who had everything built these houses, chose this stretch of land. The appeal—and the irony—is just how well-suited the place has turned out to be for its reincarnation as a small resort hotel. The secluded location. The slightly decadent ambience. The grandiosity, the thick, bullet-proof walls. The privacy and quiet, the amazing views—or are those lookout turrets?Come to think of it, might there not be an essential correspondence between the life of crime and the lap of luxury?
What is clear is that the government documents Perlman received when they finalized the lease described the villas as “narco-trafficking seizures,” but, she adds, “We get mixed stories.” And though the Casa Magna Web site strikes a note of certainty—“Originally built by the Colombian Pablo Escobar”—Perlman concedes that the history is a bit murky. One local, she says, claims that he was an ice deliveryman in the 80’s and remembers celebrities arriving in helicopters that landed on the roof.
It’s true that the houses share some curious features: a tunnel that runs the 100 or so yards between the two structures, and an unusual roof. While a bit too narrow to act as a reliable heliport, it offers many natural lookouts, and one could imagine it being patrolled by armed guards on the alert for federales traveling by sea or plowing their Jeeps down the jungle road. U.S. authorities, however, seem to have no knowledge of the properties.
Javier Peña, an agent at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who was the agency’s main liaison to the Colombian national police during the years it sought Escobar’s capture, has no knowledge of the drug lord owning any Mexican property. Neither does author Mark Bowden, whose Killing Pablo is the definitive book on Escobar, though he acknowledges that it would certainly have fit his character. “I know Pablo was given to excesses,” Bowden says, “and building himself grand homes was something he enjoyed.”
Some locals, however, are happy to provide alternative theories as to the ownership and origins of the houses. Some say that they were built not for Escobar but by Escobar, as an expression of gratitude toward then president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who looked the other way as Escobar’s smuggling operation deployed speedboats offshore. Others believe that the homes were indeed built by drug dealers, but none that went by the name Escobar. They were criminals of lower profile and less renown. But perhaps it’s better not to mention that theory, because believing that, well, that would just ruin everything.
Km 9.5, Carr. Tulum-Boca Paila; 52-998/185-7430; www.amansala.com; $1,842 per person for six nights, including meals, two massages, yoga, and an excursion to the Tulum ruins; from $26,000 to rent one of the villas, which sleep 16 and 26, respectively.
Several major airlines fly directly from the U.S. to Cancún Airport, about a 90 minutes’ drive from Tulum.
Eight More Hangouts of Notorious Criminals
Vicrory Gardens Biograph Theater
This red pressed-brick theater, one of Chicago's oldest, is where John Dillinger—dubbed Public Enemy No. 1 in 1934—saw his last film, Manhattan Melodrama. One of Dillinger's female companions, known thenceforth as "the Lady in Red," betrayed him to federal agents in exchange for dropping outstanding deportation charges against her. Upon spotting her vibrant dress as the pair exited the theater one evening, authorities fatally shot Dillinger. Last year, new ownership transformed the city landmark into a space to present live theater in addition to films, restoring the Lincoln Avenue façade and interior grand staircase to their early-20th-century glory. Despite recent efforts to downplay the theater's past, locals and tourists alike simply can't stay away. (2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, Ill.; 773/871-3000).
Dunton Hot Springs
After robbing a Telluride bank in 1889, Butch Cassidy fled 30 miles southwest to the settlement of Dunton Hot Springs, deep in the San Juan Range of the Colorado Rockies. While there, the "Robin Hood of the West" carved his name into the wooden bar of the local saloon. In 1994, business partners Bernt Kuhlman and Christoph Henkel turned Dunton Hot Springs, then a tiny ghost town, into a luxury resort comprising 11 cabins with authentic exteriors and wood-burning stoves, a library, two spa treatment rooms, and the saloon, where the inscribed bar remains untouched—a cherished reminder of the West's most romantic outlaw. (52068 W. Fork Rd., Dolores, Colo.; 970/882-4800; cabins from $300 per person).
Hotel staff has long suspected that Al "Scarface" Capone owned this historic 137-room inn for 18 months during the prohibition era (records don't show his real name), but one thing's certain: the mob boss used to retreat to Room 222 when his affairs became too intense in Chicago. The building was a convenient getaway for Capone. From the upper floors, his henchmen could monitor the Dubuque Bridge for threats—from both sides of the law—crossing the Mississippi, and the underground garage neatly concealed his cars. Quirky structural details, like the cubbyhole at the top of the staircase with a hard-to-spot door (perfect for watchful bodyguards), make for an intriguing stay. (200 Main St., Dubuque, Iowa; 563/556-4200; julieninn.com; doubles from $85).
Jesse James Home Museum
James' fellow gang member Robert Ford fatally shot an unsuspecting (and unusually unarmed) James from behind at this house in 1882. Ford had secretly been in negotiations with the Missouri governor to bring James in, but the governor's swift pardon of Ford after the murder left many speculating that James' assassination had been the real plan. Today, the bandit's former four-room residence draws over 20,000 visitors a year, and contains relics such as a diamond pin James was wearing when he was killed, a bullet from his right lung, and a cast (created in 1995 when the body was temporarily exhumed) of his skull showing where the bullet entered behind his right ear. (1202 Penn St., Saint Joseph, Mo.; 816/232-8206; $2 per person).
Chosen by F. Scott Fitzgerald as the background for Tom and Daisy Buchanan's wedding in The Great Gatsby, this elegant hotel was also a favorite of the 1920's most infamous gangsters. Charles "Lucky" Luciano, credited with reinventing the mafia, Dutch Schultz, the "Beer Baron of the Bronx," George Remus, a Cincinnati bootlegger, and Al Capone all went to the Seelbach to gamble and bootleg. The lovely Oakroom, formerly a billiards hall where Capone once played cards, has a strategically placed mirror, two hidden doors leading to underground tunnels, and spring-loaded tip-off doors, all to ensure a quick getaway in case of a police raid. (500 Fourth St., Louisville, Ky.; 502/585-3200; seelbachhilton.com; doubles from $159).
The 6 House
Boston's fugitive Irish crime boss, James "Whitey" Bulger, supposedly collected unpaid loans at the shabby Triple O's pub, now a sleek bar and grill called the 6 House. In the heart of insular South Boston, the 6 House is a far cry from its former self: a neon sign announces the pub to the street and flat-screen televisions line the spacious bar area. On the run since the FBI dropped him as an informant in the 1990's, Whitey has reportedly returned to Southie on occasion, a fact that draws curious Bostonians to his former haunt. (28 W. Broadway, South Boston, Mass.; 617/268-6697).
Sparks Steak House
The filet mignon may be among the best in town, but the real appeal of this midtown classic is its edgy past: in December 1985, mob boss Paul Castellano was gunned down outside on the busy 46th Street sidewalk on the orders of the infamously captivating John Gotti. Tensions ran high between "Big Paul," then head of the notorious Gambino family, and his ambitious cousin, "Dapper Don," as questions of succession arose. Weeks after the highly public shooting, Gotti became boss of the Gambino family, a position he held long after his imprisonment. To this day, no trip to the restaurant—a renowned power-lunch spot—is complete without a whisper about its villainous affiliation. (210 E. 46th St., New York, N.Y.; 212/687-4855; dinner for two from $140).
Umbertos Clam House
One evening in April 1972, during a birthday meal of linguini with clam sauce, the ruthless New York gangster "Crazy Joe" Gallo was fatally shot in this kitschy seafood joint, whose nautical atmosphere is anything but sinister. Despite moving from its original location on Mulberry Street, Umberto's littleneck clams and late hours (they're open until 4 a.m. each day) consistently draw celebrities like Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, as well as hungry after-party hordes on the weekends. (386 Broome St., New York, N.Y.; 212/431-7545; dinner for two from $50).
More best hotels in Tulum on T+L: Hotels in Tulum.
A compound of three-story beach houses, Casa Magna was reputedly built by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, and the outlaw couldn’t have chosen a more desirable location than the tiny Yucatán town of Tulum. The place has been reincarnated as a small resort hotel, created by Melissa Perlman, who also owns the nearby Amansala spa. The 22-room property rises between a dense jungle and an unspoiled patch of sand in the Mexican Caribbean. In the larger house, nine master suites each have a private terrace, massive poured- concrete tubs, and ocean views. A room that once had a dance floor is now filled with soft sectional couches and Chinese lanterns. The “Oms” of morning yoga classes echo in Escobar’s former living room, while at a tiled counter down the hall, a blender whirs mango, ginger, and wheatgrass into health shakes.