There is a not so well-kept secret on the backpacker trail in South America. There is a bar in La Paz, a city in Bolivia, which serves cocaine in addition to the standard legal drug, alcohol. I was backpacking around South America and decided to throw all caution to the wind and check out this bar. This is my story of my crazy night out in La Paz. Warning: don’t try this. It’s not worth it!
Arriving in La Paz
La Paz is the most well known city in Bolivia and is, contrary to popular opinion, not the official capital. I flew in and the location is spectacular, when viewed from above. It is in a canyon on a plateau at around 4000m above sea level. Rich people get to live in the lower part of the canyon, where it is cooler and the altitude is not so debilitating.
I was really looking forward to visiting La Paz. Firstly, Bolivia is quite a poor country and less westernized than other South American countries, so I was expecting a more authentic or unique experience. Secondly, I had heard stories of this crazy nightlife there.
Boy was I disappointed. La Paz has very little to offer in my opinion. I had terrible problems with the altitude. I only found one or two interesting historic streets. The rest was just ugly. And as for this famous wild nightlife – what a joke! The bars are rubbish. Everything closes down at 3am. Then you have to try and find a private house party.
Still, I was determined and had heard rumours about this famous cocaine bar, Route 36, and decided to check it out.
What is cocaine?
Firstly, a bit of harm reduction. Cocaine is a wildly popular drug extracted from the leaves of the coca plant, found in South America. It is made via a complicated chemical process and shipped to customers mainly in the rich world – Europe and the United States. The main producing countries are Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Cocaine is used as a topical anaesthetic in surgery. Sigmund Freund once touted cocaine as a cure for opioid addiction. Coca leaves were in the original recipe for Coca Cola up until 1890. Modern day Coca Cola contains instead the legal drug, caffeine.
Pros of cocaine
Cocaine is wildly popular all over the world for good reason. It is a stimulant of the central nervous system and drastically increases your dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for reward. It improves cognitive and physical performance dramatically. It is a super booster of confidence and motivation. It combines extremely well with alcohol (hence its popularity), as the stimulant effect overrides the depressant effect of alcohol, allowing you to keep drinking more and more! In fact, cocaine and alcohol combine in the blood to form a new compound, cocaethylene, which gets you ever higher than if you just took cocaine or alcohol on their own!
Cons of Cocaine
Cocaine is very addictive. Like alcohol, it is short-acting which leads to the urge to redose. Most cocaine comes in powder form which is inhaled throught the nostrils (snorting). It is often cut by unscrupulous dealers and contains impurities. The freebase form of cocaine, know as crack, can be smoked. This is even more addictive due to it’s very fast and short-acting effects.
Cocaine is extremely bad for your health. It increases heart rate and blood pressure, and causes vasoconstriction, which can lead to a cardiac event. Although cocaine can increase motivation in the short term, once the effect wear off, your dopamine levels return to lower than baseline, leading to cravings.
Combing with other drugs, like alcohol, can be extremely dangerous. As described above, cocaine allows you to drink much more, leading to overconsumption of alcohol. Cocaethylene is even more cardiotoxic than cocaine itself!
Cocaine oftens leads to a false sense of confidence – i.e. it can turn you into an arsehole. Suddenly, you are are a know it all, you get really aggressive and so on. If you are already an arsehole, it turns you into an even bigger arsehole! This is why cocaine has such a bling status. It’s expensive, so you can show off how much money you have. And arseholes like it!
Basically, taking stimulants like cocaine is like spending lavishing on your credit card. It’s seems like a great idea at the time and you have a lot of fun, but then when you get the bill later, the sudden fear and panic set in, but much worse!
Cocaine is illegal in every country. As it is illegal, the business of producing, distributing and selling is taken up by criminal gangs. As criminal gangs cannot rely on the courts or police to protect their business, they must use violence to deter competitors. Violence begets more violence and leads to a vicious cycle resulting in death and devastation.
The so-called “War on Drugs” started 50 years ago by Richard Nixon has exacerbated the situation. People take drugs more than ever and criminal gangs have enriched themselves through violent means. Billions have been wasted in trying to reduce supply, e.g. by spraying the jungle in Colombia with toxic chemicals. Any economist can tell you that this policy is doomed to failure unless you can also reduce demand. However, there will always be demand from people in rich nations who want to get high. It is a no-brainer that new drug policies are required which focus on education and harm reduction.
Route 36 – how to find it
Ok, back to the story. As I mentioned, this bar is not such a secret and has been featured in many many mainstream media outlets and was brought to the world’s attention by an article from 2009 in The Guardian. As cocaine is illegal in Bolivia, it changes its location every few months to avoid problems with the local authorities. As the location is secret, only taxi drivers know where it is. But you can imagine that in a poor, corrupt country like Bolivia, many are being paid to turn a blind eye.
I went to a local party hostel to hook up with some other intrepid adventurers (I didn’t want to try this alone). I met a couple of lads there and we went to hail a taxi on the street (first mistake – never hail a taxi on the street at night in a South American city). We had to try several taxi drivers before we found one who knew the location. He took us to some kind of venue. We went inside and there was some kind of local gathering, like a wedding reception of some kind. The people there starting screaming and gesturing violently at us to leave immediately. We found out later that was the previous location, so no wonder the people there were pissed upon seeing yet another taxi full of tourists drive up.
Finally, we found a taxi driver who knew the current location. We drove across the city and came to a small collection of bars and cafes in a residential neighbourhood. This was in the days before smartphones and google maps – we had no idea where we were or how to get back in an emergency. As soon as the taxi stopped, before we had hardly opened the car door, we were jumped on by heavies. They escorted us directly to this building with a big iron gate. A bouncer unlocked the gate and we were escorted throught this dark, dingy alleyway and up some stairs to another imposing iron gate. This gate was opened and … we arrived in a luxurious coctail bar! I was expecting something dodgy, seedy place with a dealer in the toilet. Instead, it was like a bar anywhere else in the world, except for the fact that you could order a gram of cocaine in addition to your drink. The bar was just full of other tourists and backpackers – no locals at all.
Was it worth it?
No. Ok, there was a novelty and danger factor. Another tick on the bucketlist. But it was expensive, the quality poor (so I was told – I went solely for research purposes, of course) and not worth the risk. If I wanted to hang out with teeny backpackers getting wasted, I could go to any bar in the world for that. Getting there and back was fraught with danger. We stayed for a drink, got bored and then decided to get the hell out. Luckily nothing happened to us, but we might as well have had “mug us” tatooed on our foreheads when we came out.
Although it might seem like a cool thing to do and to add to your travel kudos, I would not recommend trying this. I have taken many risks on my travels – no risk, no reward is my motto. Sometimes, though, it is just not worth it – the risk outweighs the reward. There was really nothing special about this bar. Cocaine is illegal. Don’t invite trouble, especially in a foreign third world country where you don’t know the language or culture. I am not saying don’t go out and have a good time, but if you really want to take cocaine, better to stick to your local dealer back home.
Disclaimer: The Earlybird does not condone the use of any substance, legal or otherwise. This post if for education and harm reduction purposes only.