Monday, October 3, 2011

Stairway to Heaven or Fast Lane to Prison? Route 36 – The Cocaine Bar of La Paz, Bolivia

Evo Morales took office in 2006 and became Bolivia's first indigenous president. He, himself, is a grower of the Coca leaf and continues as leader of the Coca workers union. The year 2008 saw Morales dismiss the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and in so doing created a new mood. Though legally speaking, the Bolivian world remains divided into the colors of white and green. It´s a climate of zero tolerance for cocaine (white) and an open heart for the leaf (green). One is gringo and the other native… and between these two extremes there thrives an after-hours disco near the center of the city that unabashedly offers cocaine by the gram. The world’s first openly cocaine bar, Route 36, is much like any disco anywhere on the planet complete with dancing, trippy lights, funky cocktails and big bouncers at the door. But here the rules change just a bit. You need a foreign passport to play; no go if you’re Bolivian. The focus is on international tourists that are passing through while packing ample cash. Route 36 offers a blow-out, a once in a lifetime experience to share back home. Just a little naughty and gone!

And with international currency it really doesn’t cost much to play. When you sit down the waiter takes a drinks order and asks about cocaine for the table. At the equivalent of $22 per gram, a pleased corporate lawyer commented it was 'round the price of two packs of cigarettes home in London. His IT manager wife laughed and ordered yet more Gin Tonics. With cheap cocktails and tall bottles of beer the tables were full of travelers (mostly Euros, Aussies and Kiwis) drawing little white lines. All were generously buying rounds and powder; spirits running high! Evidently, what happens in La Paz stays in La Paz. Not so unusual considering everyone would be moving on in a day or two... no one lingers at 3,650 meters (11,975 ft).

In March 2011, the former head of Bolivia's main anti-narcotics unit was busted for smuggling cocaine along with 15 other police officials being detained for complicity. Shortly thereafter Bolivia withdrew from the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs. What that means at street level is absolutely nothing. Not to suggest it’s the wild, wild Andes as there’s always caution to exercise. Route 36 sporadically shuts down and reopens in a new location to avoid the heat. You might wonder how to find the latest clandestine location? Ask any radio-taxi driver (formal registered taxis, not hacks)! They keep up on developments and, yes, you’ll pay just a little extra for “on-the-quiet” information but less than $5.00 will easily get you there with companions. Another fiver will return you to your pillow, no matter the hour. And as a tourist in a quiet La Paz hotel room contemplating the light fantastic one may well ask, “Is this a stairway to heaven or the fast lane to prison?” Either, frankly, being a real possibility.

Cameras are prohibited, therefore, these images were taken on the sly.
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binky Sanchez said...

Hmmm, a risky article to publish. Always something to keep in the back of the mind.

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