Dark tourism is a type of tourism involving travelling to places usually associated with death, grief or suffering. Here’s some scary suggestions for dark travellers to Central and South America. Your Gran just wouldn’t understand…
1. Hacienda Napoles, Antioquia, Colombia
They say that Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s most notorious criminal, was responsible for over 4,000 murders. Hacienda Napoles was his luxurious estate near Puerto Triunfo, where many of these murders were carried out. The lavish hacienda was looted by the locals after Escobars death (he was killed in 1993), but has been semi-restored as a type of theme park. Visitors can imagine how the estate once was - by checking out Escobar’s now burnt out collection of vintage cars, admiring huge statues of dinosaurs or the remains of his collection of exotic animals from all over the world. Just remember that the guy was a nasty bastard responsible for a lot of Colombia’s misery in the 80’s and 90’s. More info from the BBC.
Hacienda Napoles, Colombia.
2. Day of the Dead Celebrations, Mexico
While it may seem pretty morbid from the photos, the Day of the Dead celebrations (Dia de los Muertos in Spanish), is in fact a joyous celebration of life. It’s a quasi religious affair involving a hotspotch of Catholic and various indigenous beliefs (Aztec, Mayan, Olmec etc.) The celebrations are in early November every year, involving candle light processions, morbid costumes and all night parties. Lake Patzcuaro is the best place to celebrate Day of the Dead, but if that is too off the beaten track for you head to Oaxaca instead.
3. Shanty Town Tours, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rocinha is the largest Favela (shanty town) in Latin America, and is home to 150,000 people living in desperate poverty. You might consider it a voyeuristic type of zooification to pay a visit, but it’s actually a reasonable form of responsible travel as you’ll be benefiting the community that you visit. Local children will show you around as they earn a little money acting as tour guides (rather than begging). Try to buy a souvenir or two. Various organizations operate such tours, and they are now regarded as relatively safe - try the favela tourism workshop for example.
4. Cycle the Road of Death, near La Paz, Bolivia
It’s called the Road of Death as it’s the worlds most dangerous road in terms of the number of deaths over history. Peer over the edge of the 1km cliff tops on the side and you’ll see plenty of wrecked vehicles that have tumbled into the rainforest below. Gravestones and flowers are found all along the side of the road. The road descends from near La Paz to Coroico - a 60 km journey descending from a very cold 4500m+ to the tropical rainforests of the Amazon basin at about 600m above sea level. At times the road is just a few metres wide, with sheer drops off the side. No wonder that in the past 300 tourists died a year taking this tour. It’s almost like a rite of passage - are you hard /mad enough to cycle the Road of Death and get the T-shirt to prove it afterwards? I’d like to point out that I am hard enough, and have a little Bolivian T-shirt that doesn’t properly fit me to prove it. It’s a lot safer now though, as vehicles have been banned from the most dangerous stretch of the road. Still, it’s a hair-raising experience and various tourists die every month taking this tour.
5. Ancient Tombs - Colombia, Peru or Bolivia
Tombs of Chaucilla, near Nacza, Peru.South America is full of seriously eerie tombs that can be visited. Some of the most impressive tombs are found at Tierradentro in Colombia. However, darker tourists will prefer to visit tombs still complete with bones and mummys - try Chaucilla in Peru (near the Nazca lines) or the Cullpas Cemetry near the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Both are a seriously freaky experience, aka Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
6. Shamanic Tours, Amazon Basin
Take your own personal trip - quite possibly to the dark side. Ayahusca is a halluginogenic medicine that has been used for centuries in the Amazon (ie. parts of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia & Brazil) - you’ll quite possibly have a very dark trip involving demons and jungle animals attacking you, but most people ultimately find it a genuinely life changing experience in the positive sense. See the previous article on shamanism and hallucinogenic tours for further info.
7. Prison Islands & Tours - Panama, Bolivia, Colombia & French Guiana
Visit the sites of unimaginable pain, suffering and hell experienced by prisoners since the colonial period. Whether it’s Coiba Island prison in Panama, San Pedro prison in Bolivia, Devils Island in French Guiana or Colombia’s Gorgona Island - all are awful places that are now fascinating (and in many cases utterly beautiful) to visit. See the last article on prison islands for more advice.
Panama - Coiba prison’s disintegrating cells hint at a dark past - the island itself is very beautiful though.
8. Ancient Ruins - all over South America
Pretty much all the ancient Inca, Aztec and Mayan ruins in Latin America are dark tourism sites. Whether you are atop a huge temple in Tikal (Guatemala), Teohuatican (Mexico), Caracol (Belize), Copan (Honduras), Ingapirca (Ecuador), Ciudad Perdida (Colombia), or Machu Picchu (Peru) - remember that all these ruins were designed by ancient indigenous tribes as sites of sacrifices (often human sacrifices) to the Gods. These ancient ruins are probably the most likely dark tourism sites you are likely to visit in Latin America. If you want to experience an even darker experience when you visit, make sure you watch the utterly gruesome film about ancient Latin American culture - Apocalpto, directed by Mel Gibson (a great, though disturbing film, based on the ancient Mayans I believe).
Have you had any other dark tourism experiences in Latin America? Drop a comment in if so…