My Night at Bolivia’s Illegal Cocaine Bar
In La Paz, our correspondent finds a legendary basement dive, where the house specialty is not a cocktail, but an illicit tray of the white stuff.
It’s a well-known secret in La Paz, Bolivia, that it has an illegal underground cocaine bar, noted as the first in the world. Backpackers and adventure-seeking travelers whisper and pass along the name: Route 36.
Additionally, the location changes about every few weeks, so you need to find a savvy cab driver in the know. That’s because even though plentiful, cocaine is actually illegal in Bolivia.
The country has a complicated relationship with the drug. Coca leaves grow by the plenty here and the country is the third largest grower of them behind Peru and Colombia. Its president, Eva Morales, was and continues to be the leader of the Coca planters union, the Cocalero.
A friend of mine in the Yungas region, the main jungle where the coca leaves grow, once pointed to a nice SUV on the road when I was visiting and said to me, “You see that car? How do you think jungle people afford that kind of car?”
He told me 85 percent of the leaves from that region will go to cocaine production, with more and more of the jungle being eradicated every day for coca fields. He even pointed out the cars of the well-known drug dealers that come to pick up the leaves.
Its main point on the drug trade though is producing a paste from the leaves, or as the locals call it, basé. That paste is exported, mostly to Peru, to be refined into cocaine. According to some documentary filmmakers I spoke to working on the story, it’s then mostly shipped to Brazil (conveniently, all three countries share a border where a lot of the drug trafficking takes place), where cocaine consumption is highest in South America (and second in the world only to the U.S.).
That spiked around the time of the World Cup and is anticipated to spike again during this Summer Olympics. It’s also then transferred from there to Africa and then Europe, and then the rest of the Eastern Hemisphere for consumption.
But tonight, my crew and I set out to find the pop-up bar where the most ordered thing on the menu isn’t the drinks to see what the fuss is all about. We’re unsuccessful when our first cab doesn’t know where it is, but the second cab driver we flagged down knew immediately.
When we arrive, we all look at each other with some worry—it just looked like a basement apartment. One of my companions had been to this spot before, though—five weeks ago. It looked like it hadn’t changed locations in quite a while and I felt better knowing she at least had gone down this creepy, suspect stairwell and emerged unscathed.
We walk in, and there’s terrible club music playing and a large dance floor next to a bar. English words like “Sex on the Beach” are painted all over the walls and bar, and there are smaller, semi-private lounge seating areas. It actually looked like a legitimate dive bar—not bad for something that will most likely move soon, although not the amazing, cool place I had heard so many travelers rave about.
When we walk in, we’re the only ones there, which is odd as it’s about 1 a.m. and I thought that was decently late for the place. There are eight of us and we sit down in one of the lounge areas.
I immediately get up to go grab a beer for me and one of my friends and the girl who had been before joins me. I order my beers and look around. When I look back, the girl is talking to the bartender—they are talking price.
That’s when I spot it, right on the counter in front of me: four, neatly packaged in folder up paper, grams of cocaine on a small plastic blue plate. She is talking about the price of the drugs. “Four grams is a better deal here than one,” she tells me with authority.
Cocaine. Right there in front of me, like we had ordered a plate of fries. No big deal, it’s why we came, right? But I’m still shocked to see how easy and nonchalant it was to score an illegal drug from behind a bar.
And frankly, I’m disappointed by the lack of fanfare. I was promised mirrored silver platters! There was going to be a story here! But it was actually kind of sad watching this girl cut rows up on a plastic plate in this rundown basement bar.
I snap a photo of two of my friends and the millisecond after I take the photo, two men come racing up to me. “No photos!” they say sternly and want to take my phone. I show them the photo, assuring them I didn’t take any pictures of the drug or anything that would incriminate this place.
They seem satisfied, but they continue to linger and brood. I have a bad feeling all of a sudden and I look around and I think my group does, too. This isn’t fun—we’re in a place where illegal activity is taking place and we’re party to it. We decide to get the hell out of there.
At first they don’t want to let us up as it looks bad with a group of eight standing outside waiting for cabs—they’re worried about the cops, too. I nervously wait downstairs just wanting to go go go, hoping they’re not keeping us hostage for any other reason than flagging down cabs. The DJ starts to become hostile, telling us not to touch his stuff even though no one did. The bad feeling grows.
Finally, they say we can leave—the cabs are here. When we ask the cab driver how much the prices is to take us home (prices are set up front with cabs in La Paz), I know he’s ripping us off and overcharging us, but I don’t want to stand here any longer. I insist to my friends we get in so I can be done with my first and last drug tourist experience.