“I’ve lost weight since I’ve been in Colombia. It must be all the drugs,” says the American backpacker, loudly, seeming to put special emphasis on the last word to make sure everyone in the Bogota hostel’s common room can hear. “That, and the sex.”
“2, 4, 6, 8, who do we appreciate? Cocaine!” retorts his new-found English compadre, much to the bafflement of onlookers.
It’s 6pm on a Saturday and the pair, with a Swede in tow, are getting ready to go out into Bogata and score. Five minutes ago, it was a hostel scene like any other the world over: travellers congregating to eat dinner, swap tips, catch up on emails. Now it’s taken a surreal turn and become Nathan Barley does Colombia.
It’s hardly shocking that some travellers in Colombia can’t resist trying the country’s most famous product, but it seems the drug is becoming a tourist attraction in itself. Just as you try steak in Argentina and caipirinhas in Brazil; in Colombia, you sample the coke.
Backpackers are doing lines in their dorms, signing up to visit cocaine factories, and word is going round that somewhere in San Augustin lies a place where you can make your own. Meanwhile, the six-day trek to the Ciudad Perdida (one of the country’s most talked about trips) often includes a photo stop at a “cocaine factory”. It may be little more than a table, set up for the benefit of tourists, but that, in itself, seems to further distance travellers from the serious reality of the country’s problems.
“It was hilarious,” one Mancunian backpacker said after his visit to the makeshift factory. “Just like Blue Peter. I kept expecting them to say, ‘Here’s one we made earlier’.” After the demonstration of the initial pulping process, the group had a chance to smoke the drug. “It wasn’t great stuff,” he said, “but you could feel it.”
A few years ago, only the most intrepid travellers would add Colombia to their South American itinerary; now it’s the most talked about destination on the continent. Most visits to Colombia are, as the Foreign Office says, trouble-free. Most are drug-free, too, except perhaps for the caffeine in the spectacular Zona Cafetera region, or perhaps a shot of local firewater, Aguardiente, in the hip bars and restaurants of Bogota or Medellin.
However, for a growing minority, it’s the country’s dangerous reputation that has become the attraction, with these travellers seeming intent on pushing boundaries to get good stories to email home. (“The FARC are nearby? Cool!” I heard an Irish backpacker say.)
German Escobar (presumably no relation to the country’s infamous late druglord) has run a hostel in Bogota for 15 years. The homepage of his website features a prominent plea asking travellers not to do drugs in his home country and to be aware of the trouble they are causing. (“If not for your own well-being, we would encourage you to refrain from supporting violence against the Colombian people by purchasing cocaine.”) German says this generally filters out the biggest users, the majority of travellers are respectful and he loves his job, but he has still seen his fair share of problems over the years.
“The type of traveller coming to Colombia is changing,” he says. “When we first started, it was like a family. It was a high-risk destination so there was solidarity among travellers. Now, a lot more people are here just to party.”
German has some horrifying stories of travellers whose touristic dabblings have turned into something much darker. There was an English girl who became a user and then a dealer, before running up huge debts “with the type of people you don’t mess around with”. “She came back to visit the hostel one day very high, threatening to kill herself, and I had to wrestle the knife off her in the kitchen,” he says. Tragically, at the end of last year, a 22-year-old British male, high on drugs, followed through with his threat.
Blood, drugs and death is exactly the image Colombia is trying to get away from. The government is making a concerted effort to try to clean up its international reputation (with the help of Blur-bassist-turned-cheese-farmer Alex James) and the tourism board has a direct, new slogan, “Colombia: the only risk is wanting to stay”.
Unfortunately, try as they might to get people to reassess this beautiful but complicated country, some backpackers seem intent on making their own risks.
Getting into a cocaine drug rehab center is necessary for those who have been abusing cocaine for a long time.