Santa Marta Gold (My Story – Part V)

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Note: These are exciting times.  Daniel and I voted on Friday.  It was a thrill watching him cast his first vote under such historic circumstances.  It took 3.5 grueling hours but was so worth it.  What a great feeling.  Change is coming.

This has nothing to do with the election.  Please pardon the diversion, but if you could use one…

This is the latest installment in an autobiographical series I’ve been working on.  This episode takes place in Colombia.


Here are links to the other parts of this series:

This is my story – I hope that it finds you (My Story – Part I)

Wear Your Love Like Heaven (My Story – Part II)

The Case of Little Dutch Big Dutch (My Story – Part III)

Love and Death in Colombia (My Story – Part IV)

To catch you up:

So the weekend arrived for our trip to Rodadero.  We rode a bus to the train station where we waded into the chaos and confusion that was SOP at that important and always-crowded transportation hub.  After getting the run around at several different windows, we were approached by a cabbie who explained that he was from Rodadero and looking for fares so his journey home could be profitable.  He offered to take us for what it would cost for the train and convinced us without much difficulty that we’d be much more comfortable that way.

And so we piled into the cab, the three women in back, me up front with the driver, and we were off.  Or we were until we reached the outskirts of town where we were forced to stop at a military checkpoint.  We were ordered brusquely out of the car.  I was marched separately away and into an adobe building.


One of the soldiers ordered me to take my shirt off.  I just looked at him like WTF?  He jabbed me viciously in the stomach with the barrel of his machinegun.  I unbuttoned and removed my shirt.  I don’t have to be told thrice.  He ordered me to take my pants off.  I started to do so as I was feeling particularly agreeable at that moment, but the cabbie hurried over deftly passing out highly folded peso notes surreptitiously to the soldiers who gestured for me to put my clothes back on.  I quickly complied and we were out of there.

Our Spanish-speaking member asked the cabbie what the police/soldiers (the distinction blurs in Colombia) were looking for.  He grinned and said quietly and simply “coca-eena,” which is the sound of cocaine en espanol.

He explained, as we resumed our journey, that the police had hoped to find coke on us so they could demand bribes for our release.  He was also eager for us to understand that we’d have to repay him for the bribes, or regalos (little gifts, which is perhaps a nicer way of thinking of it) he’d handed out on our behalf, around 15 dollars or so as I recall.  We assured him we’d tack it onto the bill.

The road to Rodadero hugged the coast and ran through some wild and desolate country, ocean on one side, jungle on the other.  For long stretches, the only observable life was that of the fishing eagles.  At one point we were mesmerized by a long-running view of a majestic pair of twin waterspouts that danced for us just offshore.  

After a long while we came upon a fishing village in a place where the road ran between the ocean and some sort of inland sea.  Pueblo Viejo, or Old Town, consisted of a long row of bare wood one-story shacks built on land so flat and low they appeared to be in imminent danger of flooding.  The shacks were on our right paralleling the road and looking back over it at the beach, where small fishing boats lay belly up, and the rolling waves of the Caribbean ocean beyond.  

The cabbie suggested we stop for refreshments and pulled up in front of a particular shack where he got out and knocked on a piece of plywood which was raised from inside to reveal a window where orders could be taken.  He huddled in conversation with the guy who had raised the plywood flap.

Some curious onlookers had emerged a few buildings down from where we awaited our refreshments.  One guy stood out from the crowd.  He was short, dark, well-coiffed, elegantly dressed and dripping in gold jewelry.  He wore dark wraparound sunglasses and looked like some sort of misplaced Latin disco king.  He was also obviously flirting with my female companions.  I flashed a friendly grin.  He gave a just perceptible nod of acknowledgement.  About then our driver returned with cold bottles of beer for all and with a final nod to disco-man we hit the road for Rodadero.

Steep mountains loomed in the distance as we approached our destination.  Once in Rodadero we scored a hotel room, a large brown paper sack full of pot and a connection to the drug trade all in rapid succession.

In Part V, I will write about the reemergence of disco-man, meeting the Cuban connection, meeting the head honcho, my trip into the mountains to see a marijuana farm, and the sordid and twisted tale of fifteen thousand pounds of Santa Marta Gold.

Love and Death in Colombia

Santa Marta Gold (My Story – Part V)

Our cab driver knew a good bit about us by the time we rolled into Rodadero.  He had gathered that we had more than a passing interest in mari-guana, as he pronounced it, and that we didn’t harbor judgmental attitudes about coca-eena either.  He had ascertained that the three women were all teachers, and that I was not.  He offered to get us a good deal on our hotel room and help us score a little smoke, which seemed like a pretty good idea to us.

He pulled over next to a plaza that sat in front of what would come to be our hotel and called to a man who sat beneath a palm tree catching a little shut-eye.  The man got slowly to his feet and sauntered over.  He was thin, dark, medium height, wearing shorts, a tank shirt and a well-worn straw hat of the sort the Indians make in the Amazonian interior.  He approached, passed a few quick words with the driver then peered in at us grinning hugely.

“My name is Bill,” he said, “I am from Panama and I will be happy to assist you.”  He spoke English fairly well but with a heavy accent that made it hard to understand him at times.  One of our group was very nearly fluent in Spanish but even she couldn’t always follow the rapid-fire version of Spanish spoken by the coastal Colombians.  Language barriers sometimes have the quality of making the mundane surreal.  It was certainly so during our visit to Rodadero.  I would only later come to realize just how close we were to Santa Marta, even closer than the map suggested.  However I would not make it to Santa Marta on this trip.  That would come later.

Security The north end of town near the port area beyond the old railway station, and areas south of Rodadero beach are dangerous and travelers are advised not to go there alone.  If you arrive by bus, beware taxi drivers who take you to a hotel of their choice, not yours.  Also beware of ‘jungle tours’, or ‘boat trips to the islands’ sold by street touts.


Well we missed out on the ‘jungle tours’, or ‘boat trips to the islands’ but we did end up in a less than luxury hotel.  It was worth it though as it got us closer to the bone of Colombian reality and it turned into the adventure of a lifetime – though it was a little more harrowing at times than I would have wished.

Bill offered to score us some pot and we went off to sign into our hotel, a cinderblock affair, stairs only and beds very close to the floor, charming in its way.  In no time Bill was at the door with a large brown paper sack containing about a half-pound of fresh and fragrant pot.  If we just had papers.  There are no 7-11s in Colombia, or at least there weren’t then.  The only place I ever saw rolling papers was at the thieves market, which I only found out about later.  So we lit buds on fire, blew them out and snorted and huffed the smoke.  It was wasteful and indiscreet as so much of the dense smoke wafted into the air, but we had plenty and no one seemed to mind.

Bill told me he had someone he wanted me to meet.  “He is a liar,” he said with unmistakable pride.

I smiled, a little puzzled.  Turns out his pronunciation of lawyer sounded to my ear like liar.  Dude was a lawyer.  Took me a while to catch on.  To this day I sometimes joke when talking about people who are liars, adding, “and I don’t mean lawyer.”  Imagine my surprise when Bill later showed up with disco-man…the same guy we’d seen at Pueblo Viejo.  He was introduced as Arturo.

Arturo invited us all out to dinner and took us to a nice restaurant.  He was a charming guy, a little edgy maybe.  I learned he was a Guajiro Indian, and all I knew about them was that everyone was afraid of them.  I later learned that he was among the very first of his people to go to college much less law school.  A generation earlier his people were traditional tribal people, nomads.  Many of them still were.  He was a real curiosity for me.  We would become good friends despite our language issues.  The cultural issues may have been even more profound, as I would later learn.

After dinner Arturo dropped us off at our hotel, wished us a happy vacation and boogied.  At that point, I had no expectation of ever seeing him again.

I was quite surprised when he showed up at our house in Barranquilla one day the following week with three companions, one of whom he introduced as his driver.  The others were introduced but their roles went unspecified.  Arturo was very friendly and upbeat explaining that he came to Barranquilla frequently to do grocery shopping and such, so thought he’d drop by and say buenos dias.  He said he’d be in town that coming weekend and would like to take us all out to dinner again, to which in the spirit of never say no to a free meal, we all said hell yes.

Arturo took to dropping by once a week or so.  The whole time we’re becoming better and better friends.  I enjoyed getting to know Arturo and his friends but there was an undercurrent of paranoia as they all had a hard edge to them, and their agenda it quickly became clear was more business than pleasure.  We began to talk about possibly doing a deal.  I proposed 50 pounds.  Arturos friends laughed but Arturo just got a stern look on his face and said, “No, no no!” wagging his finger for effect.

“Fiteen tousand.”

I came to understand that was their minimum deal, fifteen thousand pounds.  And here I was thinking getting 50 pounds into the states would be quite the challenge.  I told them I had no idea how to do something like that.  “It’s easy,” they said as if we were discussing the tying of one’s shoes.

For the negotiated price, which turned out to be $100 per pound, they would deliver in international waters two miles off the coast anywhere in the USA.  All I had to do was get it ashore and sell it.

At some point things went from a concept to a reality as I realized I had crossed a line from thinking about it to trying to make it happen.  There also came a time when I realized that I was now, for better or worse, inextricably mixed up with Colombian drug dealers and that it might turn out to be a lot like bull riding…easier to get on than off.

One night there was a loud knock at the door.  It was Panamanian Bill, who I hadn’t seen in the weeks since we had met him in Rodadero.  He had a guy with him – a big guy, 7 feet or close to it, three hundred, three fifty – inhumanly big.  

Bill introduced the giant as his captain, his boat captain.  I invited them in and we sat down.  Bill explained the he had come to a parting of the ways with Arturo and that he wanted me to make a deal with him instead.  As Bill explained all this, the boat captain sat in sullen silence.  I was getting a bad vibe.  Bill tried very hard to persuade me to be done with Arturo, who he said was a very bad man.

I basically told Bill I’d have to get back to him.  Shortly after they left, Arturo called.  I mentioned that Bill had just come by with this huge guy who seemed very unfriendly.  He wanted to know if we were still cool, I told him we were.  He said not to worry, no hay problema, there is no problem.  Then he laughed, said goodbye and hung up.  His laughter lingered in my ear.  It sounded sinister.  I wanted to call him back and assure him that it was no big deal…the whole thing with Bill, that everything was under control…but I did not at that time have Arturo’s number.

I never heard from Bill again.  I have often hoped that things turned out well for him and that Arturo just said hey knock it off.  I later decided it might well have been a matter of Arturo testing my loyalty.  I hope that’s all it was, but I guess I’ll never know.

At some point I indicated that I would never buy anything without seeing it first and confirming the quality and quantity.  Arturo said that if I were game he could arrange for me to be taken to a finca, or farm, in the mountains to see the crop in the fields.  I leaped on the offer with an enthusiasm that amused my new friends.  It is very dangerous they warned.  They were pleased when I expressed confidence in their ability to protect me.  I told them I would place my life in their hands…and so plans were made.

We had a Colombian maid who cleaned our house on a daily basis and by this time we had all become quite close.  We had given her gifts for herself and her two children, we tipped her every payday and she was obviously very happy to be working for us.  When I told her I was going into the mountains, a fearful look came over her face.  She gazed silently into my eyes for a profound second during which volumes passed silently between us.  Her lip trembled, then she turned away sadly saying softly, trying not to cry, “Cuidado por favor,” please be careful.

I had read about the 40-year-old Colombian civil war.  I had seen the cops and soldiers on the streets armed to the teeth.  I had learned that to enter a bank you had to ring a doorbell and pass the scrutiny of machinegun-toting guards before having the door unlocked for you.  I had seen the revolutionary graffiti in the barrios.  I had myself been jabbed in the stomach in a most insensitive manner with the cold hard barrel of a loaded machinegun.  But I had seen no shooting or civil unrest and so the war still seemed somewhat abstract to me, a technicality – which was quite unrealistic I would eventually learn and entirely unlike the perceptions of those who lived in the middle of it all.  There was a real war going on and it just hadn’t entirely sunk in for me.  I would learn.

The day arrived for my trip to the mountains.  Arturo and his driver came to pick me up.  I said goodbye to my roommates who’d all tried to talk me out of going, and we were off.  We stopped on the way out of town to buy groceries and staples, scored some coke from a friend of Arturo’s, and slid easily through the military checkpoint where I’d once been prodded with Arturo smoothly passing out the regalos that greased our way – and we were in the wind headed for the infamous outlaw drug city of Santa Marta.


I stayed that first night at Arturo’s apartment where he lived with his wife and two young children.  The apartment filled up with Arturo’s extended family who were all very curious about me and anxious to communicate something of their lives to me as well.  One sort of middleclass European looking fellow told me his uncle was a brujo, a witch doctor.  I found that quite interesting but my Spanish was too weak to pursue it much, so I just smiled, said “how interesting,” and wondered to myself whether he was a good witch or a bad witch.

Arturo’s people, like many in the Colombian pot trade at that time, were experimenting with the making of hashish, the highly concentrated form of cannabis.  They had imported experts from Lebanon and elsewhere and were in the process of figuring out how it was done.  Arturo took me into his private office where he gifted me with a sample of their latest effort, a baseball sized orb of soft black hash wrapped in red cellophane, easily three or four ounces.  Nobody had a hash pipe of course so I pinched off a gram or so, rolled it into a ball and swallowed it whole.  Then Arturo broke out the cocaine.

I’ve said before that I always viewed cocaine as an unappealing drug.  It was different in Colombia though.  It was so readily available, so cheap, and so pure that it grew on you – though I’d still say the negatives outweighed the positives.  The stuff makes you crazy.  Arturo had scored what looked to be four or five grams of the purest and over the course of the night we snorted all of it.  In between our snort sessions we’d rejoin the party and I’d try to explain what the USA was like to people who couldn’t imagine.

Toward morning I ate more hash and fell into a psychedelic dream.  I dreamed of dancing euphorically around a fire on a beach in the midst of a deep dark night with all my new Indian friends, our naked bodies glistening in the pulsing light.  When I awoke it was afternoon.  I joined Arturo over coffee and sweet golden papaya sprinkled with limejuice for breakfast.  

After breakfast we hit the road following the highway south out of Santa Marta/Rodadero.


The dark green spot on the above map is the approximate location of the mountains that contained the finca where we were headed.  Just to the west is the highway on which we traveled southward.  At one point the traffic came to a halt and we learned that a bridge had been washed out.  We drove off the road, as we were in a Toyota jeep, bypassed the line of immobile cars and crossed the creek the hard way bucking our way across some hard churning water.  Back on the road on the other side we traveled a few more miles then turned east onto a gravel road.  We stopped at a little bodega to buy drinks.  While there I noticed a huge billboard posted with a dramatic WARNING!  YOU ARE ENTERING A YELLOW FEVER ZONE.  It was in both English and Spanish posted by the World Health Organizaton.  Had to be hell on the property values there abouts I thought.  Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound.  

The road went from gravel to mud.  We crossed another creek where there had never been a bridge, and then we started up the mountain.  It was steep and bumpy going.  You had to hold on for dear life to keep from being smashed against the interior of the jeep.  It was not padded.  We climbed and climbed.  It took hours and was a constant physical challenge the whole way.  By the time we came upon the little pueblo perched precariously on the side of a high mountain valley, I felt like I’d been beaten with a baseball bat.

We pulled up in front of a one-story cinderblock building with Polizia scrawled across the front in an unsteady hand.  There was a hitching post to which several saddled burros were tethered.  Three very young guys in ill-fitting police uniforms emerged smiling shyly.

I didn’t know what to think pulling right up to the cop shop like that.  It went against all my best instincts.  Arturo reassured me though.  “Tranquillo,” he said, be calm.  He spoke briefly to the cops and we set off on foot to hike the rest of the way to the finca, as we were at the end of the road.  The child police, as Arturo put it, would guard the jeep.

We climbed a steep trail further up the mountain.  At places we could look out at the clouds below us.


We came to a smaller trail that led off and down into a heavily forested valley.  The way down was wet and slippery.  At one point I slipped and slid belly down, face first and much too quickly toward the edge of the trail.  I dug in with both hands and just managed a panic stop right at the edge of the earth.  In my mind’s eye I sailed right out into the void, but bodily avoided that fate and just ended up staring gape-jawed and saucer-eyed out into the mist.  

“Despacio es mas major,” Arturo called to me, slow is more better.  Yeah I thought, no shit.

“We lose a lot of gringos that way,” Arturo chided me.  I was glad that he was so amused.  We continued down until we came to a small stream and crossed it.  Arturo picked some small red berries and gave them to me.  

“Do you know what these are?” he asked.

I didn’t.  I tasted one.  There was a thin layer of fruit surrounding a large pit.  It was sweet and a little tart at the same time.

“It’s coffee,” he told me.  I never thought of coffee as fruit but it is.  Little red berries…until they dry them and roast them anyway.  I was quite surprised.

There is much more to this story but it has gotten too long, so I will end it here.   I’ll pick it back up in Part VI and write about the finca, the harrowing trip back to civilization, and all that comes next.  Stay tuned.



Skip to comment form

    • OPOL on November 3, 2008 at 00:24
    • Edger on November 3, 2008 at 00:41

    Have to head out for a bit, but wanted to rec your essay first, and I’ll read through when I get home.

    The photo of Santa Marta looks eerily like English Bay in Vancouver from some angles… 🙂

    Hope you’re well…

  1. Quiero mas, por favor, quiero mas!!

    • Edger on November 3, 2008 at 01:30

    I’m glad you only slid off the edge in your minds eye and are still here to write about it… 🙂

    • RiaD on November 3, 2008 at 02:13

    yo gusto mucho! quiero mucho, mucho mas!

    muchos besos


  2. Have you considered writing this as a screenplay?

    Nice to still have you around and on our team.

    • kj on November 3, 2008 at 02:59


    • kj on November 3, 2008 at 04:02

    Laughter breaks like sun rising;

    the whole world shimmers and light

    shakes as though the belly of Earth

    moves with the mirth in one’s own gut.

    The power to celebrate excess wakes in us;

    we know enough to joke around, to survive

    the agonies of feeling irreversible pain

    explode upon the day. We sing of folly

    that shapes experience, remember

    to act indelicate and play. Coyote,

    mangy as ever, grins and whispers

    our sisters’ names; he plots to climb

    into the sky and dance with stars

    down some eternal day. We giggle

    like children, grateful that fool

    never did learn to behave. Life

    carries us down a stream that gurgles

    between rocks and sings improbable

    songs. Who cares we’ll have to paddle

    like hell and know panic before we get home.

    That’s how all the good stories were born.

    by: Gail Tremblay

    from: Indian Singing in 20th Century America

  3. And you had the full folly of youth on yah! Whew! Glad you came out on the other side with such panache.

    Many of us have tales, but not all can express them as well as you can.  

  4. …I’m with you

    …I’m tuned in

    …….awaiting VI…santa marta gold…

  5. now I have to follow you across the internets to finish your story. You’re worth it.

    Thank you for the wonderful read.

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