You can’t blame the notorious for coming here. I mean, look at the place.
Norman’s Cay in the Exumas is nothing short of stunning. It’s that unparalleled pairing of enticing tan sand, shimmering jewel-blue water, kissing a deep blue sky.
So many of the islands throughout the Bahamas, and particularly in the Exumas look like this. Yet, Norman’s has some impressive but ominous history. I’ll have to consult with my lawyers, but I think I can rightfully say this: The island was once owned by Pablo Escobar.
Norman’s Rule by Drug Giants, Pablo Escobar and Carlos Lehder
Unfortunately, in Florida, we are all too familiar with the Escobar name. But, you cannot deny his craft and cunning as a pure business man. Escobar saw, seized, and subjugated an opportunity that made incomprehensible millions. But, a man cannot run an empire like that alone. In the last 1970’s and early 80’s Norman’s Cay was primarily operated by Carlos Lehder, a fellow member of the Medellín cartel, as a transshipment base for smuggling cocaine from Columbia into the U.S. Lehder hooked up with business partner George Jung during a stint in prison where he learned Jung had been smuggling marijuana into the U.S. via plane. Lehder, however, convinced Jung it was in his and the cartel’s best interest to begin smuggling cocaine via plane instead. At the time, Lehder was one of Escobar’s right-hand men.
Lehder eventually constructed a 3,300-foot (1,000 m) long runway for his fleet of smuggling aircraft. To protect the island, he planted armed guards and attack dogs all along the beaches and runway, as well as radar to identify and fend off any pilot foolish enough to try and land there. The island was a strategic point for Colombian drug flights to refuel and rest before proceeding to the United States.
And, as a drug hub, the island, not surprisingly, became a location for some serious partying. With Lehder allegedly pulling in over $300 million a year off the operation, some partying stands to reason. Norman’s Cay was described as a “ … playground. I have a vivid picture of being picked up in a Land Rover with the top down and naked women driving to come and welcome me from my airplane,” one of Lehder’s men was quoted saying.
“And there we partied. And it was … drugs, sex, no police… you made the rules… and it was fun.” I’ll bet. That’s probably the reason Norman’s Cay was chosen as the location for the fated Fyre Festival—the greatest party that never happened.
The Fyre Festival Fraud
Did any of you hear about this or watch the documentary? The Fyre Festival was touted as the most luxurious, wild island party to ever occur, with intoxicating promo videos, models running all over the island titillating viewers, with promises of the best music talent in the industry performing at an island-wide nonstop music fest for days. Go on, watch the trailer. See what they promised:
Without spoiling the movie, I can at least say an all-out magnificent party did NOT happen, but the tale behind the hype and fall-out is mesmerizing. Thousands of people bought tickets, costing thousands of dollars each. Millions of people followed, commented, and shared. It was an insanely successful … promotion. Here is the official trailer for the official Netflix documentary – definitely watch it:
Interestingly, much of the Fyre Festival’s collapse centered around the marketing team’s forbidden statement that the island was once owned by Pablo Escobar. Apparently that name ignites certain feelings (and legal ramifications). Ironically, it turned out in trying to capitalize on the legend of Escobar, Lehder, Jung, and the like, the Fyre Festival suffered the same fate: eventual demise.
After an impressive five-year run dominating Norman’s Cay exclusively for the cartel’s cocaine trade, the Bahamian authorities began to crack down in 1982, allegedly in response to pressure from the United States, and Lehder was eventually arrested in Columbia in 1987. His property was confiscated. He stood trial in the U.S. and was convicted on all counts in 1988. A fitting fate for a drug dealer. But, in another nod to their notorious past, Hollywood decided to commemorate their epic venture through Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz in the 2001 movie, Blow, which was based on the cocaine escapades of Jung, Lehder, and Escobar.
While Norman’s Cay is now a wonderful addition to the Exumas, offering idyllic strolls on the beach, and fantastic rum drinks, island food, and waterview cottages for rent at the long-standing MacDuff’s Cottages and Restaurant, there is one icon on the island that stands out among others: the (alleged) drug plane that sunk in the shallows of Norman’s Cay’s cut. While much speculation circles this plane, surmising it must have crashed because it was weighed down by too many kilos of cocaine, or because the pilot and crew were blitzed out of their minds, I found this seemingly honest account from the mouth of Jack Reed, Carlos Lehder’s first pilot and resident on Norman’s Cay during the late 1970’s. This paraphrased excerpt comes from the book ‘Buccaneer: The Provocative Odyssey of Jack Reed, Adventurer, Drug Smuggler, and Pilot Extraordinaire’ by Jack Reed & Maycay Beeler and was posted at https://www.outislandlifebahamas.com/2017/03/the-plane-wreck-of-normans-cay/.
The Iconic Sunken Plane
During Lehder’s reign over Norman’s Cay, an old C-46 World War II aircraft appeared piloted by one “British Andy.” As a large twin-engine transport plane utilized to carry troops and cargo, Andy thought it would serve as a good transport in Lehder’s fleet. While Lehder did not end up buying the plane, Andy left it there as a memento anyway.
Legend had it, British Andy had a drinking problem (not surprising), and had been known to take along a six-pack for company on many of his flights (a bit surprising). Being on a short vacation seemed like a reasonable excuse for starting his favorite pastime first thing in the morning, even a morning he decided to drop by the airport, being a bit tipsy, to “fire-up the old sled and shoot some touch and goes” which is pilot language for practice take-offs and landings. An unsuspecting Columbian lad joined Andy on his venture and off they went.
As Andy made his approach for the first landing, he miscalculated the beginning of the runway and touched down short. Realizing his error at the last moment, he gave the old girl full throttle to execute a go-around. To his great dismay, he clipped an earthen berm, tearing the left landing gear loose from its housing, leaving it dangling from the aircraft by cables and hoses. The plane then dipped low enough for the propeller on the left engine to strike the runway – bending it – and rendering it useless. With the right engine roaring and straining to keep the plane airborne, a bit of altitude was gained, but it was only enough to clear the runway and make a slow settling arc to the left. The plane ran out of flying speed and altitude about a block offshore of the marina in front of the hotel and belly-flopped to a splashing spectacular halt in shallow water, leaving roughly half of it submerged.
Many allegedly witnessed this fiasco. A boat at the marina made a quick trip to the site of the crash and rescued the two survivors, neither of whom had a scratch. Lehder furnished transportation for the embarrassed pilot back to the states, but the plane has sat in this location for decades, deteriorating, and being slightly repositioned by passing hurricanes.
Here are the Fyre models snorkeling around the plane. I’m sure I looked just like that when we dove it. Even in my platypus suit.
Our Visit to Norman’s Cay
After spending a fabulous, indulgent night at Highbourne Cay, wining and dining ourselves silly at Xuma’s restaurant, Phillip and I weighed anchor the following morning and sailed over to Norman’s Cay. We were excited to spend the day exploring the island, snorkeling the famous sunken plane, and ending the full-day adventure with a filling meal and drinks at MacDuff’s restaurant. And that is exactly what we did! Norman’s Cay, despite its ominous history, still offered a beautiful, bright sunny day on exquisite beaches followed by a fun, atmosphere at MacDuff’s and a chance to fill our bellies with a fresh catch.
While there were no sightings of Lehder’s ghost, we did spot a massive barracuda (easily four feet long) who lives in the sunken plane and eyes you menacingly if you swim too close. Come to think of it, his eyes kind of reminded me of Lehder …
All of these wonderful islands, with their legends and local treasures await! We hope many of you are already planning your trip to the Exumas this coming year! Help rebuild the Bahamas through tourism. Next up, we will take you to our most stunning stop in the Exumas, and our favorite destination during our entire Bahamas voyage last year: Warderick Wells Cay. Stay tuned!
Some great photos of the cartel remnants in Norman’s Cay – http://abnf.co/BAH-Norman%27s%20Cay%20Island.htm