Playing Ludo and cooking coke in the Colombian town of San Agustín.
The puppy is not essential to the cooking of the cocaine, but is hella cute. All photos by the author
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
"It's always the English," says Alberto* with a toothless grin, as I step onto the peeling linoleum floor of his kitchen and reveal my nationality. "And the Australians," he adds, nodding at my accomplice. "They love these classes."
In Alberto's classes, pupils are taught how to make cocaine. Chances are, most of the people who've gone to the trouble of getting here love his classes, because San Agustín—a tiny Colombian town 12 hours from the cloudy capital of Bogotá—has proved difficult to reach. Only one company seemed to operate the route on a slow Sunday evening, so we boarded the last bus, eventually arriving in a dusty pueblo peppered with bakeries and tourist agencies.
Locals swarmed the bus when we arrived, looking to poach the only gringas (us) for business. We followed a Colombian lady called Dina to a deserted office and, after about five minutes of raised eyebrows, elongated vowels ("speeeciaaaal touuuur"), and saying one thing but meaning another, she agreed to bring us to Alberto's house.
The two girls I came here with—the Australian, and another from Iceland—were charged 150,000 pesos [$60] each, which covers the class and 1g per person. I paid half to observe.
Related: Watch VICE News' documentary 'Cooking with Cocaine'
It was as we all shoveled shit on a volunteer placement last month that I'd first heard about the tours rumored to be available in Sierra Nevada, Medellín, and San Agustín—of backpackers being bundled into 4x4s covered in tarpaulins and taken to the mountains to cook up; of kidnappings and police bribery. But none of us had heard of tours taking place in anyone's back garden.
Although Peru replaced Colombia as the world's leading exporter of the white stuff a couple of years back, cocaturisma—the pursuit of the drug as a tourist attraction—is currently booming, and draws plenty of Western tourists to Colombia. Alberto is just one of the many cocaine producers capitalizing on this particular gold rush.
As Dina leads us up to his house, my chest grows increasingly tight. I catch sight of our distorted reflection in a car door. It's 10 AM: What the fuck are we doing?
Alberto's house is modest. Telenovelas blast out of a bulky TV on the shelf in the kitchen, and on a wooden table a new Samsung phone sits between a Ludo board and a bowl of fruit. Alberto and Dina speak in a slow, soporific kind of Spanish, with sweeping hand gestures and wide eyes. They're used to dealing with tourists.
"You want a banana?" Dina asks us, as she greets Alberto's teenage daughter, who's just back from school and doesn't give us even a cursory glance. We decline and perch awkwardly on the plastic stools, facing Alberto's garden as he preps his work space.
Beckoning us over to his tiny wooden shed, Alberto shoos away the chickens and puppies gathering around our feet and we get to work.
The first step is cutting up the wet coca leaves on a tarpaulin sheet on the floor. I notice they've been prepped already. Still, Alberto lets us all have a go at playing Indy for a bit and we take turns to hack away with the machete.
"The cocaine plants in Colombia are the best; they grow in three months, and they're cheap. We also get plants from Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia here," he says.
Yields (and profit) vary greatly according to the strain of plant, climate, and level of government intervention, and Alberto says he makes very little money from running these classes. "I make more from chicken farming," he assures me.
He adds the finely chopped leaves to a big bucket, along with a sulphate ("from Germany"), ammonia, cement, and gasoline poured from a Coca-Cola bottle.
Alkaloid, the active ingredient in the coca leaves, must be extracted from the plant before being converted into its most recognizable powder form, and gasoline speeds up this process.
We crane our necks as Alberto plunges his hands into what could be a really big tub of basil, swirling the ingredients until it becomes a dark, caustic-smelling paste.
Extraction takes around 20 minutes, so we return to the kitchen, coughing out the globules of spit gathered in our throats from holding our breath to block out the gas fumes. Alberto gestures to the Ludo board on the table (or Parqués, as they call it in Colombia).
" Vamos a jugar!" he enthuses.
While we play, Alberto tells me that, for five years, he worked in a huge cocaine lab close to San Agustín, but left for his health and his freedom.
"If you work for the cartels they always have you doing stuff for them," he says. "You can never leave the game."
He moves his counter and tells us that the special tours here in San Agustín are being shut down after years of booming business.
"Tourists get caught because they are so obvious," he tells me. "They are arrested after stepping off the buses. Other tour guides used to take people to factories and then informed police once they returned to their hostel. The police get a big cut. It's more dangerous now, so I'm doing my classes here. I don't work with the police, so the prices are less."
Alberto suddenly whips out his Samsung for a couple of selfies, and I lean in, baring my teeth—reluctantly at first, as my grinning face on the wall of a Colombian police station flashes into play. Then he pulls up the photos of the tourists before us who'd also agreed to feature in his album—there are hundreds. Everyone's beaming or sticking their thumbs up, and Alberto fondly recalls anecdotes for each group, each nationality. I ask him why so many people come for the classes.
" Mirar, aprender." To look, to learn.
I settle into the game a bit more and show Alberto my DSLR. He asks about our jobs and our home countries, and it's clear he's into a bit of cultural exchange. For a man operating such an illicit tour he's surprisingly chilled—but then again, it doesn't feel that illicit. Maybe it's the Ludo.
We finish our game and return to the shed.
Alberto pours out the sticky leaves into a rag, squeezing tightly until a brown residue drips into a separate bucket. When he throws the rag into the bushes, I think he's made a mistake, but then remember that the leaves have now served their function. Next, he adds sodium bicarbonate and some household bleach as the girls wrinkle their noses in disgust. These are the legitimate ingredients, in cocaine of 100 percent purity.
Alberto covers this bowl with another rag and tells us that we'll return in 15 minutes. It's during this cocaine-making interval that the kitchen becomes a beauty parlor; Dina starts playing with our hair, Alberto's daughter starts talking about makeup and clubbing, and it all starts to feel a bit Clueless. We go with it anyway and one of us ends up with a fish-tail plait.
Back in the shed, a white almost-powder has separated itself from a brown pond-slime substance. Alberto scrapes the white out of the bowl, spooning it into a child's beaker and pouring away the excess liquid before placing it in foil wrap under a lightbulb in a wooden box.
"This," he says, gesturing back down to the brown gloop in the bucket, "is crack cocaine."
I'm reminded of the conversation I had with a 22-year-old Colombian musician at the airport, who told me that crack cocaine is growing in popularity in South America and wreaking havoc among some of his friends. Suddenly things feel a lot more illicit.
"Very popular in Colombia, but very bad," says Alberto. He mixes the crack inside the bowl with water, chucking it out into the bushes. "Finished. No more."
Removing the foil from the light-box ten minutes later, Alberto reveals a snow-white talc that he pours into a plastic bag on the kitchen table. The coke game is complete, and it's barely taken us an hour.
"This is the purest stuff you'll ever have," he says to us. "In the factories they cut it with silicon and amphetamines, but you know this is pure."
The girls rack up a line each and their noses wrinkle again, this time in uniform appreciation.
Before we leave, I ask Alberto a question that I'm sure he's used to hearing—did he know Pablo Escobar?
"He was a bastard... a ruthless man," he starts. "He used to have sex with women, then kill them afterwards. Bastard. But I did meet him once in 1983, and he shook my hand."
It's perhaps not that unusual that the embers of Escobar's legacy still warm Colombia's cocaine underbelly 22 years after the drug lord was killed in a police shoot-out. Across the country, his name still sparks heated conversations and inspires weird tours. For some backpackers, distilling myth from truth isn't important. Perhaps Alberto had met Escobar—perhaps he embellished the truth knowing full well it could bring him more business.
Although cocaine retains its appeal for many Western tourists here, nothing appeals more than the way in which it can now be marketed: the rumors, the thrill, the story. It seems today in Colombia, the potency of the powder is somewhat overshadowed by the overall experience.
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*Names have been changed.