The Time I Watched A Man Eat Coca In A Colombian Mountain Taxi

Santa Marta, Colombia — Cars are pretty expensive to buy in Colombia, so a lot of people take cabs and buses. As a friend of mine always told me, wheels beats heels, and by that logic catching a ride in someone else's car works for me.

One sweltering summer day as I sweating to death in Santa Marta, Colombia, I decided that it would be a great idea to leave the steamy Caribbean coast for the much cooler environs of a mountain village nearby. So I hailed a cab. The ride up the mountain in a beat-up Chevrolet took longer than I thought, and included a random sack of bananas and an Indian sucking on a bowl of Coca. The ride back was a three-deep night run on a windy dirt road.

With the exception of the U.S., most places I've traveled in the world are pretty simple to navigate if you don't have your own set of wheels. Getting from point A to point B usually involves some kind of bus or cab ride, or if you're in one of those fancy European and Asian countries where socialists the government uses taxpayer money for solid public transit systems, you can ride the train.

Cab rides in Colombia, or, I've found, in most places other than the States and Europe, are somewhat more leisurely than I'm accustomed to. Here (South America), cab and bus drivers take advantage of opportunities to stop, chat with friends, pick up snacks, and get all kinds of little non work related things done. (I experienced something like this on a bus in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn once, but that doesn't count, as it's a place lost in time.)

The Time I Watched A Man Eat Coca In A Colombian Mountain Taxi

My girlfriend and I were headed up to Minca, a jungley mountain hamlet about 12 miles inland and a couple thousand feet uphill from the sea. You could ride a bike there, but you'd have to rent/steal a shitty bike from somewhere, and the hill's pretty steep. Plus the motor traffic can be a little hairy for people who aren't used to riding in conditions like that. But they've thought of everything here, and have collective taxis that make the trip back and forth between the sea and the mountains all day. Once they have four people to stuff in a tiny old beater, you're off to the races.

We ended up in a well-used natural gas-powered 1985 Chevrolet Chevette — one of the Vauxhall ones you never see in the States. I was raised to regard Chevettes with a certain degree of disgust, but the South American variant, even the battered one we climbed into, is pretty cool-looking (and judging by the condition of the one we rode in, they withstand quite a bit of abuse). It was also one of the few small cars of the econobox era to maintain a rear wheel drive setup, which you all know we here at Jalopnik are big fans of.

This particular Chevette was pretty worked over, and had clearly seen years of hard use as a taxi in this mountainous/coastal region. (Neither mountains nor salty air are good for a car's longevity, but Colombians are pretty good at keeping cars on the road forever no matter what they've been through.) Its body had been painted a bright, serviceable white, and its interior stripped of all but the bare essentials to keep stuff from falling off on rough roads. There was no carpet or headliner, and a fresh coat of gloss black had been brushed onto the floor in the not-too-distant past. The only adornments it had were a religious mural hanging from the rear view mirror and a portrait of Pope John Paul II stuck squarely in the center of the dash.

The driver explained that his company uses old cars on the Santa Marta-to-Minca trek because the roads are pretty bumpy. Chevettes are cheap to fix, easy to find parts for, and if they completely destroy one, it's not a huge loss. Slapping an inexpensive (which is to say, not extensively engineered) natural gas conversion into one doesn't do much for fuel economy, but natural gas is really cheap compared to gasoline, so lots of cabbies are burning the stuff.

Leaving the cab stand, we trundled through Santa Marta's grid of weathered, Casa Blanca set-looking buildings, the car's shrill horn sounding whenever the traffic ahead moved too slowly, when there were pedestrians who wanted to cross, when we passed women who struck the driver's fancy, when he saw one of his cabbie bros... You get the picture. The horn was constantly tooting, even while he was telling us about his farm in the mountains and the 1955 Willy's Jeep he has squirreled away up there.

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The cabbie seemed to know everyone, and other cabbies, and cab passengers wearing traditional Arhuaco Indian outfits, sped by from time to time, honking and waving and yelling greetings out the windows.

At some point, our driver swerved to the side of the road, the car clattering to a halt in the gravel. An Arhuaco guy named Sam, all kitted out in traditional garb, hopped into the car with a cheerful smile. He had long, wavy black hair capped under a thimble shaped white hat, and was wearing the Costeños' white linen trousers and a white, native style poncho cinched at the waist with a thin belt. The woven bag slung over his shoulder was the type that would sell very well at a Williamsburg hipsterdashery. As he plopped into his seat, we saw him twisting a stick into a curious wooden bowl shaped thing.

As the road ascended, the pavement gave way to ever more frequent sections of erosion-damaged dirt. The ol' Chevette didn't fall apart, but its suspension made some interesting sounds as it clunked in and out of huge potholes. At times, I was surprised the thing could continue under its own power with four people on board. But the cabbie seemed to know what he was doing and the car chugged steadily uphill.

Again, he saw another one of his muchachos, a man standing next to a red Chevette, and bounced onto the shoulder. The red car's back wheels were chocked with stones and the man jabbered something in his lighting fast Costeño brogue about needing help. Our driver proffered a phillips head screwdriver, but that didn't seem to be what the situation called for. So he and his stranded friend did what anyone would do in that situation and paced slowly around the car, scratching their heads and doing nothing to actually fix the car.

Eventually, they decided that the thing to do was take the massive bag of bananas out of the broken car and throw them into the trunk of our cab. The Indian slid the stick in and out of his wooden contraption while the other two tied the lid of the car's overloaded trunk with a piece of twine. Broken car man saw what he was doing and broke into a smile.

"Coca!"

The Time I Watched A Man Eat Coca In A Colombian Mountain Taxi

He suggested that the Indian should give some to us, but he didn't offer and I didn't want to be rude, so he smiled and took a slug from the thing as we trundled back onto the roadway with our new cargo. Miraculously, the little Chevette didn't fall apart and made it the rest of the way up the mountain.

By the time we got to Minca, Coca man was smiling broadly, and looked ready for a day spent bullshitting with tourists in his paradisiacal workplace (unfortunately, he scurried off before I could get a photo of him). Its not like he was blowing rails or anything — Arahuayo Indians have been drinking and chewing on Coca for millenia — but he sure looked happy. I wish my morning cup of coffee could do that.

Maybe someday, the U.S. government will get wise and let the rest of us give it a try. People say coca is a good medicine, so we can start by passing it out in Congress to see if it will do anything to cure the malaise that currently afflicts that effusive lot of heel-draggers.

But enough of all that. Nobody really thinks about politics when the chips are down. They think about more vital issues, like how you're going to get back down a mountain you got someone to drive you up in their dilapidated clap trap taxi.

First, let me say that if you've never been to Colombia and want to, you should check out Minca. The hiking trails up there are through some of the most beautiful country I've ever seen, and will take you snaking through Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark first act scenery like nothing you've ever seen. Every time I heard a stick crackle, I was looking over my should for that huge round boulder, or 100 poison dart-blowing natives.

The Time I Watched A Man Eat Coca In A Colombian Mountain Taxi

We had gotten our Chevette driving cabbie to agree to pick us up in the same little crossroads in Minca at 7pm, well after dark when you're that close to the equator. After running up the side of a mountain to swim in a truly massive mountain stream, we descended back into town to find that he wasn't there. In a case like that, there's only one thing you can do. Buy some cheap food and a bunch of beer at a roadside stand and think over your options. Only there weren't any.

All of the cabs had gone back down the mountain for the night, and none of the locals was really into making a special trip down. After we'd stuffed our faces with some delicious fried chicken potato pocket thing and slurped down some of the national brew, we managed to talk the stand's proprietor into calling someone he knew to pick us up on his motorbike.

That meant three people were going to be riding down a sketchy mountain road on a 150 cc motorcycle at night. I was ready to go (especially since it was way cheaper that bribing someone to drive us down in a car), although my girlfriend wasn't so keen on it. But with no other options and a promise from the driver that he'd keep it suavecito we were off.

We were all wearing shorts and T-shirts and only the driver had a real helmet, but it was way more fun than driving in a cab. Our driver gunned the motor out of turns into straightaways, speeding onto flat tarmac until it was time to slow down again for another washed out section of road.

Every so often, we'd pass another motorbike loaded down with people, and I remembered that the whole time I've been in this little slice of coastal paradise, I haven't seen one BMW or Porsche or screaming fast crotch rocket. Most people here can't afford that stuff. The muse I'd had about everyone driving slow crapcans and everyone being safer reappeared. If they could afford better, I'm sure they'd go for it, but for now, expectations are low, so everything is muy tranquilo. It's interesting to see a society at a point where that could all change so quickly.

Photo credit: Benjamin Preston; Moto-gundy via Wikimedia Commons