San Augustin and the Special Tour

Guest Blog by Albert the Llama – Thanks for sharing Albert!

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Albert in his element

Nestled in the sleepy town of San Agustin, best known for its famous pre-Columbian statues (a UNESCO world heritage site, and worth the visit to San Augustin alone) I had one of my more interesting tour experiences within the whole of South America.  The special tour of San Agustin is passed verbally from traveller to traveller, as good tours are, but only verbally as the content of the tour could lead to considerable trouble for all involved.

The special tour consists of seeing first hand (and in most cases helping in) the production of cocaine. A traveller I met along the way recommended the tour to me and I was automatically intrigued, even for those among us who are not inclined to partake the actual process was interesting enough to seek out.

With enough background on the tour to track the man down I ventured the four hours from Popayan through some amazing scenery to arrive in San Augustin to instantly be asked if I wanted to take the special tour, including a book of testimonials of other travellers. After getting my bearings in the town and canvassing a few potential participants (a big help in keeping costs down!) we arranged the tour for a Sunday afternoon. The six of us headed along, with some slight trepidation mixed with excitement at the unknown. The actual tour guide himself was a very jovial fellow; with the air of entertainer about him (his claims to have cooked for Pablo for 11 years were dubious, but certainly added to the mystique).

We were taken a small way away from the centre of town on foot, to his friends house, by this time nerves had overtaken somewhat, but the presence of his mother preparing coffee for us soon calmed us all. We then packed ourselves into his small courtyard where the goods were compiled, all cunningly hidden within the area.

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the magic ingredients

At this stage the two guides assumed their roles, Umberto, the main guide was more talk, with very good English, while Carlos had less English but was more action, including a very depleted right hand, which was later explained.

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the process, photo, photos!

At this stage we were then taken through the process of producing coke, helping to strip the plants down into leaves, this was all done in a somewhat rapid fashion, however with excellent explanations of the ingredients and chemistry, Umberto was kind enough at every opportune time to prompt us with “photo, photo, but not the face!” a personal highlight for me was after mixing the leaves in battery acid and gasoline (by hand –explaining the state of Carlos’ right hand) the leaves were then drained and Umberto quite seriously looks at us and says how important it is to not have evidence, before chucking the leaves and the container over the wall of the courtyard.

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Carlos the work horse, mixing the leaves with battery acid, notice his smaller right hand, he was wincing in pain the whole time.

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this was drained off from the leaves note the rooster.

We were then taken into the kitchen to complete the process, which was only difficult as it was tiny and six people couldn’t fit, not while Umberto’s mother was cooking lunch, while we cooked coke. The final step of the process was holding the powder under a naked light for five minutes, again carried out by Carlos and his mangled right hand.

Upon completion of the process (with many photo, photo opportunities) a very generous line was divided up for each tour member, with some Dutch guy literally as excited as a kid in a candy store. The highlight of this was a little gift bag of coke for us to take-home with us. Not being a big drug user, and only ever having taken coke when drunk it was an interesting experience walking out of the house into a quiet Sunday afternoon in San Augustin.

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the finished product.

The tour is quite well run, and all things considered was a very safe experience, the tour guide himself was very earnest in keeping the tour quiet, and only telling people who were ‘cool’. We were then more than happy to buy the man a beer, as he was very keen to get out the house and away from the evidence.

Obviously Columbia and cocaine are a very common association, and while having misgivings about supporting these activities it was interesting to see exactly what we are putting up our noses and how this can impact on Columbia (the two guides were some of the best dressed guys in town) in a safe environment. The tour while not a must see was a surreal and very interesting experience.

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