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Lazarat – Albania – Day Tripping in the Illegal Drug Capital of Europe

What struck me at first was how very normal Lazarat, Albania seemed. A gas station, a couple of cafes. School kids waiting for the bus. We didn’t know where to go, so I just kept driving. Slowly, I drove up into the hills. And then quickly, Lazarat became very, very, abnormal. At first, is was just a whiff. The aroma was familiar. Unlike President Barrack “Choomwagon” Obama, I’m not going to lie, it’s true I may have indulged once or twice in the past. It’s true, I used to smoke marijuana. But I’ll tell you something, I would only smoke it in the late evening.

Oh, occasionally the early evening, but usually the late evening. Or the mid-evening. Just the early evening, mid-evening and late evening. Occasionally, early afternoon, early mid-afternoon, or perhaps the late-mid-afternoon. Oh, sometimes the early-mid-late-early morning. But never at dusk! Never at dusk, I would never do that. In any case, the smell enveloping Lazarat was somewhat familiar. Sweet, enticing, cannabis sativa. The Chronic. Back Yard Boogie. Cheeba. Mary Jane, Skunk, Weed, Cannabis, Hash, Snickle-Fritz – whatever your friendly street corner hook-up calls it, the point is – we could smell that dank. Everywhere.

Lazarat is not on the tourist map. For good reason. Unusually, I had actually done a small amount of research before heading into what is undeniably the illegal drug capital of Europe. The internet is filled with stories about SWAT teams, machine gun fire, drug lords, Albanian mafia, and vast, enormous, mind blowing, quantities of Marijuana. Just yesterday, I’d personally been told “Nate, it’s not smart to visit Lazarat”, and then “Nate, things in Lazarat are very… unpredictable…they really don’t like outsiders poking around”. Advice I would take on board, and respectfully ignore. I mean, what’s the worse that could happen?

 

lazarat marijuana distrubution

Lazarat is conveniently located inland from a cold-war era submarine base cut into a rocky mountain. Coincidence? You decide.

 

It’s estimated that Lazarat, a tiny town in the South of Albania, may produce as much as 6 billion dollars worth of marijuana, every year. To put that in perspective, the annual gross domestic product of the entire Albanian economy is about 13 billion. And in Albania, marijuana is illegal. Especially growing Marijuana in quantities that would even raise Bob Marley’s eyebrow. In Lazarat, the mafia maintains a presence. The locals are keen to keep a low profile. Tourism? Not a chance. But, I decided to take a drive and see what Lazarat was like, up close.

Lazarat Albania – The Plan To Infiltrate Europe’s Biggest Drug Plantation

We had a cunning plan. The four of us, two couples, were going to just drive in to Lazarat, take a look, and play the dumb tourist card, and “see what happens”. We were all in agreement. As the designated driver, I thought that my Netherlands license plates may help – given the reputation of the civilised Dutch and their attitudes to Marijuana. Any country that habitually combines marijuana and coffee can’t be all that bad, and I thought the Lazarat locals would have some kind of mutual brotherhood, perhaps team spirit, with the fine people of the Netherlands.

Despite all this, we didn’t even know whether we would be allowed to enter the village. The plan would be to drive from Sarande (our base on the Albanian Riviera) to Lazarat. Worse case scenario – if we got in, and things went bad, we get the hell out, fast. That was the extent of the entire plan. We would fill in the fine grain details, once we reached the home turf of the Albanian mafia.

From the main road, state highway four, we spotted the Lazarat sign post. The town sits close to the highway, and reaches high up in the mountains. We drove in, and their were cautious smiles from the front and back seats. Perhaps it was a contact high, but we were giggling, and I desperately wanted a packet of crisps. Or maybe some salty peanuts. Still, as we drove further into the village, and further away from the highway, I felt some trepidation.

 

Lazarat bags of "special plant matter"

Hmmm. Bags of plant matter, stacked inside an abandoned building not far from Lazarat. Nope, nothing to see here, move along!

 

Our Albanian friend, sitting next to me in the front seat, said it best. “ooohhhh myyyyy goddddd. Can you smell that?” Within moments, the stank filled the car like a dutch oven. Intense. Still driving up the hill, the plants started to appear. Everywhere. We had timed our run to Lazarat perfectly – it was time for business. Marijuana plants, in peak harvest season. Concrete block walls protected many fields, about 8 feet tall, but no barbed wire. The walls ran right along side the road, and the biggest “flowers” were poking out over the top. The yards of houses were full of lush pine-green plantations, front and back. And we started noticing something else – everyone was looking at us.

Which, when you think about it, is hardly surprising. We could not be more out of place if we tried. In hindsight, what the fuck were we thinking? A bunch of foreigners, just driving in to the middle of the largest illegal crop of Marijuana anywhere in Europe? Around us, on the road, deals were being made. Bags and boxes were being passed through car windows and loaded into vans and trucks. Cash was being exchanged. A large truck drove right past us, it’s tray overflowing with Marijuana. Things were getting surreal.

The stares were intensifying the further we got into the village. I took a right turn, and something inside me said “no, don’t go down this road”. We had just passed what looked like a restaurant, and we mutually decided to turn around, park, and go inside, and “see what happens”.

 

jazz cigarette in lazarat

President Barack “Choomwagon” Obama. Leader of the free world, jazz cigarette smoker.

 

Parking was a small ordeal. At the first spot I looked at to park, a bunch of people were manicuring and drying the Marijuana, ready for sale. Better pop Nancy into reverse, and park across the street. I squeezed into a spot between two big black Mercedes. Typical for Lazarat, both had tinted front windscreens and no license plates. Four guys, dark sun-glass types, eyeballed us as we jumped out of the car. They chatted among themselves. Our Albanian friend soon told me that they were saying “so, are these guys cops or what?” We walked into the restaurant, the same place the four guys were going to.

The first thing you notice, sitting at a restaurant elevated from street level in Lazarat, is Marijuana. Everywhere. This was the first real panoramic overview we had of Lazarat. It was astonishing. Looking through the window, I could see a couple of people harvesting the buds. Each bud looked to be the size of a man’s thigh. That, let me assure you, is some big buds. Behind us, inside, a few old men were chatting “…we are a state, within a state. Oh yes, we have a lot of money…”. At the table to my right, a few young men were enjoying a hearty, healthy lunch. Harvest weed all morning, tuck in to a hearty lunch, and then it was back to work. There’s a harvestin’ to be done, boys. The bumper crop of lush pine-green Marijuana fields that surrounded us weren’t going to pick themselves.

After a few minutes, the other diners stopped paying us any attention. I guess we had played the “dumb tourist” role pretty convincingly. Except, there are no tourists here in Lazarat. It was time to work on the fine details of our plan, now that we were sitting, enjoying lunch, in the middle of what we had dubbed “Drug City”. Over a delicious, long, lunch – including some great carbonara, some wine, a glass of Raki (local spirit), and a perfect macchiato – we decided what to do next. It would go like this. First, we would tell the owner how good his food is. Then, maybe order a couple more drinks. The Albanian member of our crew could casually mention that he is touring us dumb tourists around Albania, to see the sites. Only after he had gained some trust, would he then ask if it was cool to take a few photos of Lazarat, looking out the window at the sea of weed that surrounded us.

 

We relaxed, and tried not to be too obvious in staring out the windows. I savoured the pasta, it was fantastic. As was the Raki. I looked out at the fields, and watched the water trucks continually driving up and down the road. Along with the many, many Mercedes. And the people carrying unmarked boxes and bags. With utter disbelief, I kept looking at the fields. But not too much, I didn’t want to arise any suspicion. We were just here for the food. Dumb tourists, who somehow ended up in Lazarat, Albania.

Patience. Soon, it would be time. Time to ask for permission to take a quick holiday snap. I had my camera settings all worked out, but didn’t want to grab my camera from the backpack under the table. The sun was in the right place. Maybe I would drop down 1/3 of a stop on the exposure. F8 and be there – I wanted all the details of Lazarat’s finest. Then, I’d click like crazy until I’m told to stop. Hopefully, politely. I’d checked out the other diners, examining their clothes for tell-tale signs of gun straps. Nope. I was pretty sure nobody was packing heat.

And then the conversation started, in Albanian. The thing about Albanians, is they nod up and down for “no”, and shake their head side to side for “yes”. For the first few days in Albania, I always thought that everyone was pissed off about everything. Always shaking their heads. Then, I realised they’re actually saying yes, shaking in agreement. They’re quite a happy bunch, given the decades of brutal communism they so recently endured. But the head shaking, it’s impossible to get used to. I watched as the conversation continued. There were smiles being exchanged between my Albanian friend and the Lazarat restaurant owner, but the body language was indecipherable. I’ve picked up a few words in Albanian, but the conversation was revealing nothing to me. The owner was smiling a lot. Big, genuine smiles. I hoped for the best.

The conversation ended, and the owner walked away, back to the bar.

I turned to my friend, and whispered.

“Soooo….what did he say… can we take photos?”

He whispered back.

“Well, he said that he advised us against taking any photos, anywhere in Lazarat. That people would get really, really annoyed. They don’t want the photos ending up on the internet. If we were to take photos, things could change, the situation could get very bad within seconds. People would be angry. Anything could happen.”

“Hmm. So, does that mean no photos?”

“No photos, Nate.”

And, he was nodding his head.

That means no, in Albanian. I told you, it’s hard to get used to.

I looked at my Albanian friends wife, she was sitting on the other side of the table.

“So…the ladies toilet. Are there any windows?”

“Yes, one, but it’s quite high up.”

“Hmm. Did you take a photo out of the window?”

“Yes.”

So that was the only solution. In a restaurant situated in the middle of an Albanian mafia stronghold, in a lawless state within a state, where I had been explicitly told not to take photos, the only option seemed to be to slyly grab my backpack that had my camera inside, walk past the old guys sitting behind us, in front of the owner standing at the bar, the young guys sitting at the table, the other group of men that had recently walked in, and carry my backpack into the ladies toilets. I would then lock the door, pull the camera out, and snap away.

Which is what I did.

 

Lazarat Albania - home to a lot of Marijuana

Lazarat Albania. The green area is Marijuana (for the uninitiated).

Lazarat marijuana crops in Albania

Lazarat is known to have some of the most fierce guard dogs. Keeping a watchful eye on a small Marijuana crop, form the safety of a communist-era bunker.

 

Hey, better than nothing.

I did notice that the ladies toilets had an overpowering smell, of freshly harvested Marijuana.

I’m pretty sure that’s not normal. But nothing about Lazarat is particularly normal.

Personally, I think it’s one of the most magical places I have ever visited – and a highlight of my 400+ days on the road.

I wish the citizens of Lazarat all the best of luck, and I apologise in advance for repeatedly ignoring the advice I was given.

Nate

PS, here’s a couple of tourists that also were crazy enough to check out Lazarat, Albania, up close:

 

 

PPS, do me a solid, and share this article on Facebook or Twitter? The buttons are top and bottom of the post. Thanks.

 

 

 

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33 Responses to Lazarat – Albania – Day Tripping in the Illegal Drug Capital of Europe

  1. ryca Oct 4, 2013 at 2:31 am #

    you entered a womans lav with your backpack past the owner to get the shot! you my friend are crazy! kudos tho.. appreciate the photo… the visual is just wow (ohh… and no, never at dusk or in the morning nate. never)

  2. Nate Robert Oct 4, 2013 at 5:24 am #

    Never, ever.

    Cheers my man.

  3. Funkigreendog Oct 5, 2013 at 5:57 pm #

    Wow…you obviously have a very adventurous wife!!

    It sounds like it was a very interesting place to experience. Did you just head straight out after lunch? Purchase any souvenir’s for the trip home? ;)

    • Nate Robert Oct 6, 2013 at 4:41 am #

      FGD, I can honestly say I didn’t pick any souvenirs. And my lady friend is not yet my wife. And, I’ll have to get back to Lazarat, and maybe pick up a souvenir. ;)

  4. Daryle Oct 9, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    Nate this is one of the most interesting travel stories I’ve read in a long time. You have a gift for finding fresh story angles while traveling. Keep em coming!

    • Nate Robert Oct 13, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

      Thanks Daryle. I guess when we visit unique places, unique stories will follow!

  5. Arthur Oct 20, 2013 at 11:19 pm #

    Thanks Nate. You’ve given me another reason to visit those less popular areas of Eupoe. Nice Steve Martin reference also…

    • Nate Robert Nov 13, 2013 at 5:51 am #

      Cheers Arthur – glad somebody picked it up!

  6. John Oct 26, 2013 at 3:07 am #

    You’re brave enough to post these photos here. I agree that the view are marvelous. It seems a paradise where a hell thing is allowed. I’m glad you were able to get away from that place without anybody discovering your camera.

    • Nate Robert Nov 13, 2013 at 5:52 am #

      I’m glad I got away as well, John. Now, working on a plan to get back.

  7. Rashad Pharaon Oct 28, 2013 at 6:39 pm #

    Wow! This was like a travel spy adventure! What else could be lurking in Albania? Thanks for the great photos!

    • Nate Robert Nov 13, 2013 at 5:53 am #

      Hey Rashad – there is a LOT lurking in Albania, that’s for sure.

  8. Fisnik Dec 18, 2013 at 5:10 am #

    I’m amused by the way you explain that same feeling I encountered when infiltrated Lazarat personally, with a couple of friends of mine, but of course, we were only there to pick up souvenirs for our beach trip to Dhermi, kilometers close to the submarine base shown on your picture. I’m Kosovar Albanian, and been there twice. I believe you were being modest when you said that you left the village empty-handed .. haha or maybe you did, but like I said, I certainly didn’t.

    Kudos to your great story. I enjoyed it.

    p.s. The distance between the village and the submarine base, is probably around 50 kilometers of rocky mountains. Unless there exist underground tunnels between them, then it’s rather impossible for the village to be related to the it.

  9. Lisergiko Dec 18, 2013 at 6:54 am #

    Dear Nate, I really enjoy this, but I’d like to correct something; Albania is that kind of country where nothing happens, ever, there’s no change, and nothing usually lurking. I live in Tirana, the capital might be different but I smoke myself. Lazarat is full of villagers, you can call them criminals if you want, but that’s their crop, they plant to eat. The Albanian mafia isn’t really present here, they operate in countries like Italy, Greece, France, Germany and USA. Anyways I was suprised to read about our communication oddities, I have never met an Albanian who nods up a down for no and shakes his head for yes. Probably those people were angry for real..
    Cheers my friend and keep up the good work.

    • ilir Jan 5, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

      Lisergiko, wtf are you on about mate? Have you only lived outside Albania? All Albanians do the yes and no nodding the opposite to the rest of Europe..Nate great articles about Albania. Not just this one but all the others you’ve written. Good on you mate. Keep traveling, my only question is how do you fund your adventures, because I’d love to do the same

      Take care

      Ilir from Vlore, living in UK

  10. enxhio Mar 4, 2014 at 9:05 am #

    well i read ur post, i’m from Gjirokastra, Albania. well that photo of the submarine base is taken too far from Lazarat. That’s nothing u should try to find out about this. The submarine base was build before Lazarat started “blooming” .
    and what those mafia things aren’t all true, everyone can enter as a tourist and most of them will be willing to guide u across the village.
    another correction about ur post, Lazarat isn’t a city!

    • Nate Robert Mar 4, 2014 at 10:36 am #

      Thank you Enxhio, that’s an interesting development in Lazarat! BTW, Gjirokastra is a very cool town, I hope you enjoy living there.

    • Martin Mar 24, 2014 at 5:33 am #

      Hi Enxhio.

      I am from Slovakia. We were also in Albania last year. It is beautiful country and the peopke were very friendly. We were in Lazarat but turned it at the first petrol station. My friend was littke afraid :). This year I would like to visit lazarat again, without any camera, just to enjoy being there. Maybe I can find any guide :)

  11. Jimmy Mar 16, 2014 at 10:40 am #

    Thanx for an great article Nate, i definitely have to go there, did you go there in September? it must be possible to buy some from the locals or? just a strain or 2, i can even do the work myself, no prob. if its possible to buy some, what do you reckon the price in Euro would be?, Thanx in advance for your answer Nate/ actually any1 can get back at thismessage if you got any info who goes hand in hand 2 what i asked. Puff Puff Pass Guys. Ps. whats the price range in Albania, like for food and budget places? does any1 recommend any particular place to visit when i Albania…

    • Martin Mar 24, 2014 at 5:41 am #

      The prices in Albania are very low in comparison with Western Europe. And they have very good local beer – Tirana (owned by Amstel a guess). Regarding Lazarat, I don’t think local people would welcome courious tourists. We were blocked by 2 cars, but my stupid-like smile probably convinced them, that I was harmless.

  12. fatime Apr 5, 2014 at 11:51 am #

    by the way I am from Lazarat and there is no mafia here. people here have found a way to live…and Nate you have to be glad that no one didn`t find out your camera…

    • Nate Robert Apr 7, 2014 at 1:16 am #

      You’re a very lucky person, to live in such a place. Keep up the good work.

  13. Eneida Apr 22, 2014 at 10:47 pm #

    Nate, I was cracking up reading about the head shaking of Albanians YES and NO. That is too funny and very true! Glad your trip went ok, you just never know with these guys, one wrong look and… Albanians have an amazing hospitality, but I know first hand, they (including me) are very hot-blooded people. :) Looking forward to reading more of your travel adventures!

    • O Zana Jun 16, 2014 at 11:30 am #

      O motra ca ben sikur je nga vlora.

  14. Lazarati Jun 17, 2014 at 9:06 pm #

    Today is the third day of the Siege.800 cops from all over Albania are surrounding the village of Lazarat, shooting at inocente people.Untill now there are two people seriously injured and another police officer also.Lets wait and see, but for sure the “capitol of marijuhana” its only a history now.

    • Nate Robert Jun 18, 2014 at 7:03 am #

      Thanks for the update, Lazarati. If you have time, I would be very happy if you could provide more updates. Thank you.

  15. aldo Jun 18, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    hello, I live in Albania, Lac. I am following the news.
    Lazarati will be history in few days. the old times of lawlessnes are gone. I strongly disagree with the post made from the user “Lazarati”. NO ONE is killing innocent people. there are just thugs (the majority not from lazarat) shooting toward the police and the police trying to defend themselves. the police has advanced very carefully because they dont want any casualities from either side. the user ‘Lazarati just said a big lie. Shooting the police isn’t fun. if someone shoots the police elsewhere like europe or usa , the shooters would be dead in matter of seconds. But right now the albanian police and special forces do not want to cause death. Sorry for long post , but I just wanted to clarify things. Sorry for bad english too.

    • fatime Jun 19, 2014 at 8:02 am #

      hey aldo you are from Albania but not from Lazarat… you dont know a shit what is happening in Lazarat.. you know what those bitches medias are communicating. peoples are in terror right now. we are not Irak..there is no terrorist organization here. so came and see, then speak..

  16. Ilir Jun 23, 2014 at 6:21 am #

    #fatime,
    You don’t have to be from Lazarat to understand that what goes on inside that village is one of the biggest open crimes of the century. However, being a smoker, I don’t mind people growing a bit for their pleasure. The fact that the media is now reporting on the goings on at Lazarat is testament to the new government of Albanian who are waking up to the realities of the world we live in. Albania will never be part of the EU with the corruption and chaos left behind by Sali Berisha and his bunch of dickheads. This includes taking care of Lazarat. Finally some sort of order is being restored. Nobody said that the Lazarat lot are terrorists, but they are the biggest drug dealers the Balkans have ever seen, or indeed are ever like to see again. I think the gravy train has stopped. And also lets not forget of all the season crop farmers that have been taken ill over the years, some very young boys who to try make a half decent living by tending the crops. I mean we are in the middle of Europe for fuck sake…..Can you imaging a village in the middle of Kent in the UK growing crops to this extent and the UK Government doing nothing about it? I think NOT. Lawlessness does not equal coolness and Albania needs to stop this shit, otherwise us Albanians will be associated with drugs and mafia and human trafficking and prostitution for all time to come. Then, NOBODY will want to go to Albania to visit. We have nothing to offer the world apart from great hospitality and tourism. Let’s not scare the tourists away with this shit man, and let’s open the doors for them to come and enjoy Albania for the RIGHT reasons.

    I declare Albania open for tourism as of ……….now! (rant over)

  17. aha Jun 28, 2014 at 7:06 am #

    It seems your photo made it to wikipedia
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lazarat

    • Nate Robert Jun 28, 2014 at 10:22 am #

      Thank you – I will need to do something about that!

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