Prepared coca leaves and solid sulfuric acid. Photos by the author.
"If you want, I'll take a picture of you with a line this long," the Colombian Walter White tells me, holding his hands about a foot apart as I was discussing what his "special tour" would entail. "As long as you don't take pictures of our faces."
At first, all he spoke about were more standard environmental tours offered through his hostel, such as six-hour horse rides for $10 and all-day jeep tours for $15. But then I pointed to an entry in the composition book that counts as his hostel's registry and asked what the "special tour" is.
"You're not police, are you?" he asks.
"I used to work for Pablo Escobar," he says. "As a chemist."
I'd be going on the tour that evening, it was decided. Seventy-five dollars for a coke cooking class and three grams of the finished product.
Like the fictional Walter White, the Colombian version has a wife and a kid, and a comfortable home in small, quiet town in the southern part of the country. Like the fictional Walter White, his wife, so he claims, has no idea what he does for a living.
When discussing his "special tour," he talks in a hushed voice, putting his finger to his lips.
"Nothing to the cab driver," he says. "Nothing to my wife. If she asks, tell her you were interested in learning more about Colombian coffee."
The elderly gentleman, who we might as well call Walter, is not a great criminal. His business, after all, runs on word of mouth. I heard about the "special tour" at a hostel in Popayan, a town that's a grueling 6 hour, 150 kilometers drive down an unpaved, mud-strewn carretera from his place. Word is, he's got people spreading information about his tour in Salento, a backpacker-friendly town 10 hours north.
The finca's guard dog, Cati
Ostensibly, he runs a hostel out of his home, renting out beds with crappy pillows and worn mattresses for seven bucks a night to tourists passing through on their way to or from more interesting cities.
"Hot water available from 6 PM to 9 PM daily," a sign reads on the bathroom door of my dormitory. When I check in, the power is out. At 9 PM, the family goes to sleep, and you're either locked in or you're locked out.
"What if I want to take a shower at night," a girl in my dorm room asks him. "Could I get hot water then?"
"Nada es imposible," Walter tells her. "Todo es posible."
That's his motto. It even says so in a few entries of the worn composition book he drops on the table of reception as we check in. People from more than 50 countries have signed the guest book, he says. More than a handful of the entries written in English reference the special tour.
Like I said, Walter is not exactly a lawbreaker hiding in the shadows.
"The special tour is amazing, if you're into that kind of thing," a girl from England wrote.
Finding cocaine in Colombia is not a difficult or costly endeavor. The country, trying to clean up its image, has in recent years attempted to crack down on one of the two stimulants that have made it famous worldwide. Police regularly search sketchy-looking tourists in Cartagena and Medellin. Special agent teams use mortars and grenade launchers to fight traffickers in the jungle. Airplanes drop coca-killing chemicals that decimate the crop by the hectare. The navy seizes it by the ton.
None of it makes finding cocaine here any tougher. Supply has stayed roughly the same over the past few years.
"While the area used for coca leaf cultivation decreased in 14 of the 24 departments of Colombia, that trend did not offset increases in 6 other departments. In 4 departments, no major change was observed," reads a 2012 United Nations report from 2012.
"Overall, the picture, therefore, remained stable for the raw material used in the production of the illegal drug cocaine."
Outside discotecas in the major cities, tobacco and gum hawkers also sling blow. If you're paying ten bucks a gram, you're paying too much. Taxi drivers will offer it to you unprompted, as will drunk guys at bars who are trying to practice their English.
If Walter wanted to sell cocaine inside Colombia, he wouldn't have a very profitable business. Instead, he offers a rush you're not going to get from sliding 10,000 pesos to a dude on the corner. He teaches you how to make the stuff yourself.
I don't make a habit of hanging out with drug chemists, but I am confident that Walter does not look like your average cocaine cook. He's got a well-groomed mustache and a nice windbreaker jacket that bears the name of his hostel on it.
He speaks a slow, easy-to-understand Spanish that makes it clear he's constantly dealing with foreigners who generally smile and nod and ask if he can turn on the warm showers at night or if he can show them how to make cocaine. He's never in a rush. He's always positive. Anything is possible.
Later on the day of my arrival, I told him I was ready for the tour.
"The weather's bad," he said. "Tomorrow."
The weather was not bad, but when dealing with such things, a bit of flakiness is to be expected.