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Route 36 has turned La Paz, Bolivia into a hotspot for drug tourism, tempting backpackers from all over the world. But is it a good idea?

Photo: myguerilla

‘Drug tourism’ is going mainstream. Don’t believe me? Do a quick Google search for “Route 36 La Paz, Bolivia“.

Touted as “the world’s first cocaine bar” this lounge, which has to change locations frequently, serves up lines of blow alongside cocktails.

I’ve seen people doing lines right off the bar in dives up in the remote Andean pueblitos of Peru in 2003, so I assure you, Route 36 is not the first, but perhaps the first to advertise it. Drug bars could be the thing Bolivia needs to jump-start tourism, although, if I walked into Route 36, I think I’d stick to cocktails.

Any gringo who sits comfortably in front of a mirror at a public bar in Bolivia is asking for trouble.

Any gringo who sits comfortably in front of a mirror at a public bar in Bolivia is asking for trouble.

Although Latin America is moving towards a new strategy on drugs, you have to remember that in a country with military police, you have zero rights. Bolivia is poor, and so are its soldiers and cops.

If someone felt like it, they could walk in, drag you out of the bar and take you to the nearest bank to empty out your checking account at the ATM with the alternative of throwing you straight into a Bolivian prison.

This is a common move in Colombia. No probable cause; no search warrant; no problem. I had a couple soldiers search me in Taganga, Colombia down to taking every credit card out of my wallet. If I had a bag of anything on me, they would have found it.

Given the fact that “Route 36″ is now world famous and mentioned in mainstream blogs and newspapers, it won’t take long for tactless tourists to blow up their spot and for some shady cop to see how he could capitalize on the situation.

If you want to experiment with coke a little closer to the source, before it’s been stepped on 16 times, I would recommend finding a friend and making sure you can trust them. Even then, you’re taking risks that should not be taken lightly.

Being caught with hard drugs in a poor country can be more than just a minor bump in the road.

What do you think of the cocaine bars? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Further Reading:

The best way to stay safe is remember what 80′s cartoons taught us: and just say no to drugs. Consider 5 Legal Ways To Get High While Traveling.

But if you still want to indulge, check out Tripping Out On The Road.



About The Author

Ross Borden

Ross Borden is one of the founding members of Matador. He has lived in Spain, Kenya and Argentina and currently resides in his native San Francisco.

  • Eva

    Another point worth considering, apart from safety/legal issues: For anyone who thinks of themselves as a responsible consumer, are the cartels the sort of business operation you want your money supporting?

  • eileen

    we heard about and saw pictures of similar stuff from Colombia as early as the early ’90s, which is also the same time we saw the guy with the replacement passport picture that clearly showed ropeburn around his neck. Traveler beware, and friends of traveler be more aware. It’s one thing to get yourself in trouble, and a whole nother kettle of fish to implicate a friend. What ever happened to ayuhausca and san pedro?

  • Natalia

    As a traveller and a Colombian (Who has never use cocaine), it is really disappointing to see all this “open minded tourist” arriving to South America, not to enjoy the wheatear, the culture or the landscapes, but just with the banal purpose of getting high.

    The “gringo” and European beloved cocaine has been the reason for horrendous acts in my country and in some others in S.A. Thousands of people have died and keep dying for this drug. I find it quite hard to understand how “educated” people from “developed” countries can keep supporting such thing. I consider myself as a reasonable and tolerant person, except it this matter.

    Colombians not only have to live with the stereotype of Drug trafficking no matter where we go (Endless wasted time in airports, embarrassing inspections, tedious Visa’s processes, etc), but also with the label of consumers. And this kind of tourism doesn’t help much.

    One really important thing people (drug users) have to start realizing is that “developing” countries export the BEST products to other countries, what we have left (most of the time) is not the best quality. Best Colombian cocaine is not easy to find inside Colombia (or Bolivia, or any of our countries), what you most likely will get is a not so pure powder. We are poor but not stupid! Why should we leave best quality products inside the country if we can charge double or triple if we send them somewhere else?

    Unfortunately we have a corrupt system, play with fire and you’ll get burned.

  • louise

    the idea of a bar where it’s a pretty open secret that coke is sold and done isn’t really limited to latin/south america, you know. the thing white yankees should be raving about when they do these sort of “expose” articles is the low, low price tag, not the idea that there are establishments you go to where illegal drugs are used and sold–like half the dive bars in manhattan and brooklyn if you know where to go. dumb tourists manage to “blow up” spots where legal activities occur all the time, so i’m not surprised they’re doing it with illegal ones, too.

  • joshywashington

    This reminds me of backpackers and Opium in Northern Laos… you sit in a cafe and alongside the menu for food are selections for opium, mushrooms, weed and the like…if you sit the bars and partake, generally you are cool. But if you wander out with your purchase you stand a good chance of being shaken down in a similar manner as Ross describes.

    Plus, if you are impaired you can be seen as an easy target to get robbed…
    I had two machine guns pulled on me late one night in Laos because the men suspected I was smoking pot…and they wanted whatever money they could get their hands on. I wasn’t smoking herb and I walked past them (shitting myself) as if I didn’t notice their big gleaming weapons.

    I’m with Ross, I would not pony out to a sloppy rail of coke in Bolivia..too risky!

  • Adam

    All cartel issues aside, I just can’t see cocaine being a good idea, no matter where you do it. It’ll get you, one way or another, whether the cops get their hands on you first or you manage to get away from them long enough for the monkey to get on your back.

  • Ryan

    I can agree with Joshy on the bit about Laos. The city of Vang Vieng is a great example of drug tourism gone awry. In the past, people could (seeminly) enjoy a magic milkshake or a nice spliff with no hassle. Now, locals seem to have grown weary of the high number of hazy travelers who come for the sole purpose of getting high and watching re-runs of Friends. Restaraunt and guesthouse owners will now willingly turn you in to the corrupt authorities and they will slap a fine on you that will certainly do more than kill you buzz.

    While I can’t say I’ve never partaken in a bit of indulgance on the road, I must say that the so-called ‘drug tourism’ is a plague on whichever place it occurs. It’s also, like others have already said, quite risky. We grew up being tought not to take candy from straners, so how is this different?

    I can see how doing a bit of coke in Colombia would be nostalgic in some way but really, travel for the culture and experience–if you choose to indulge, break the law in your own country. These types of places only fuel the war on drugs and corruption linked to it. Don’t give the authorities another reason to bust you. Be a responsible user!

  • David

    To be frank, I had to deal with all of this crap when I drove, yes drove from houston to Panajachel and further back in 07. Drug tourism is mostly annoying to the traveler seeking peace and quiet and surf. If there is a demand then the supply will arrive and they dont know that your just looking for beer or a good bar.

    After being stabbed in tapachula on the border with Guatemala, the non stop drug offers in Panajachel became annoying and a little unnerving. Crack, meth, coke, weed, heroine…. . We wanted to take the ferry across the lake to San Pedro but we heard it was only worse there. Like another comment on here, these things do nothing but fuel violence in these countries. The drug violence in Latin America is DIRECTLY related to Americas hunger for drugs. After spending much time in Mexico its sad seeing the spread of meth and crack to a people once too proud to abuse anything other than a cerveza. Open pharmacies where you guy buy anything you may be needing are now being abused by people and drug tourists and its just sad.

    Honestly pretty sad that wherever you find a congregation of traveling first worlders, you find drugs, prostitution(often underage) and all kinds of craziness. Our sad pathetic working lives in the industrialized and modernized 1st world have led us to seek other escapes and fun. It used to be traveling and learning new cultures… Just because you have a backpack on your back doesnt make you any better than the first class guy who stays at exclusive villas and takes advantage of people when your doing the exact same thing, contributing to the problems of the people and country.

  • Hal

    My buddy spent a month working in the prison system in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and he encountered quite a few gringos doing 30-year sentences on possession/smuggling charges. I can think of many, many other places I’d rather spend 30 years than a Bolivian jail.

    Also, the local stuff is supposedly made by people hopping around barefoot in a vat of coca leaves, gasoline, sulfuric acid, and water. No thanks.

    • Christine Garvin

      And I recently saw a documentary where, after all the hard work these desperately poor people put into making coke (with the gas and sulfuric acid hardly being good for their health, either), they usually barely make any money, and often loose money because the materials to make it are so expensive, and the middleman screws them (of course).

  • Deadtraveller

    Come on come on..when in rome do as the romans…
    And reality is for people who cant handle drugs…
    Its only Another expierence…Thats it…

  • Merlin

    !. half the adventure is scoring.
    2. Route 36 has really really really really shit coke!

    • Stephy89


  • Jesse

    I actually went to Route 36 when I was in La Paz earlier this year, out of curiosity. Because the location is kept a secret and it changes all the time we had to take a taxi there (taxi drivers all know where it is). As we pulled up to a very plain building that does not in any way look like a bar, the taxi driver called the doorman on his cell and one of those metal rolly doors opened up. The doorman led us down a long dark hallway for what felt like forever, and finally we were in the bar. I’ve seen the occasional line of cocaine done in the bars at home in Vancouver, but this was something else. Coke everywhere. I cant say anything about the quality because i dont normally partake, but the Aussies seemed to love it. Then again maybe they just loved the price. When we left that morning the bar staff called us a taxi and they made us wait inside until it arrived. The bar and the taxis really seem to work together, which i guess is a good thing depending on how you look at it. Keeps the tourists safe anyway
    It was quite a surreal experience and I’m glad I went. It is not, however, a place I would frequent. Everything went smoothly and all had a good time the night I visited Route 36, but the next night was a different story. I heard from friends that were there that the police showed up and were trying to get in the front door. The bar staff came around and made everyone finish all the cocaine they had and they wiped all the tables down. Everyone was ushered out a back door and into waiting taxis. As far as I know no one had to bribe the police that night, but that will make me stop and think before going into a place like that again

  • http://none scott

    Going now. Fuck Amsterdam.

  • the candy trail … | Michael Robert Powell

    The drugs debate is endless and seemingly impossible to put into perspective but certainly the twisted side shows up alot in the mainstream media. And it’s not just North Americans doing the heavy consuming, but elements of the population across the planet are “doing something regularly”

    Back in 2002 in Buenos Aires, I went to an “After-Hours Club” in warehouse bar (opens at 10am on Sundays), and the Coke on tables was everywhere – but more casual situation than described above and this was only one of many institutions in the city. AND it was only Latinos, apart from me.Not a gringo place that catered for tourists.

    And you find the same in Iran – massive heroin, opium problems; Yemenis get buzzed on Qat, every afternoon; Indonesia and parts of SE Asia have speed addictions … it goes on … And, I have no answers.

    Regards – Michael Robert Powell | the candy trail … a nomad across the planet, since 1988

  • Lachlan Wittick

    Sounds like the safe injecting rooms we have in Melbourne, Australia.

    Practicing in a controlled safe environment is very different to a bar in the mountains of La Paz.

  • Markitolynch

    I was in route 36 a few years ago, the coke isn’t pure but you can sit there for a few days no problem, when you run out of cash the doorman will walk you to an ATM and make sure you are safe, it’s full of tourists but to be honest there isn’t a great deal to do in la Paz. They have stopped the prison tours now because it became too popular. Read marching powder by rusty young for a good insight into la paz

  • Leerobert011

    Thanks for giving here your good knowledge about south america tour.

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