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How I Ended Up in a Cocaine Bar in Bolivia

La Paz Narrative
by Jordan Mounteer Sep 6, 2012
Jordan Mounteer heads out for a night on the town and finds himself at the infamous Route 36.

I’D ONLY HEARD OF IT in passing, like a footnote dropped in an overheard conversation. Nothing specific. A ghost location. Route 36.

At 9:30 I left my hostel, passed rows of barbershops hocking haircuts like cheap candy, dodging night market patrons on the way to the Brittania Pub on Calacoto’s main drag. Amit was waiting for me there, and motioned me over to a booth where his girlfriend, Natalie, and three others from his entourage sat drinking oversized pints. Natalie’s leather jacket creaked at me as she waved, its glossy angles catching the light of the candles on the table. Amit’s arm, slouched across her shoulder, looked like another one of her accessories.

Earlier today I’d met Amit and Natalie among a dozen other Israeli backpackers biking the Death Road — the North Yungas which connects to the jungle town of Coroico, on the border of the Amazon basin. He and a few of his buddies were heading out to Route 36 that night, and had invited me along. I still had no idea where or what it was, and hadn’t had the opportunity to ask.

Amit’s black eyes bulged at me like bubbles at their threshold. The spice of his aftershave stood up with him as he raised his hand. “He made it! I was getting worried, I was saying to Natalie, we should just go out and find him. What do you drink?”

“Black Russian,”

“Black Russian, coming up,” he said, and wandered to the bar.

The tall, thin Israeli man beside Natalie bobbed his head at me, the pencil smudge of a moustache writhing as he tried to smile.

“I’m Jarib. You like to run, my friend?” he asked.

“This pub, it’s where the Hash House Harriers meet. You know of them?” Natalie interjected. “You must have them in Canada. They’re going to have a run tonight, you don’t have to, though. I’m so sore from biking, I can’t even walk up stairs, I’m just going to walk.”

In almost every country you can find a “hash” — a chapter — of the Harriers. Their premise combines three fundamental activities: socializing, drinking, and running. One club member, the “hare”, leaves a trail of paper or clues that lead to the next clue, and so on, leading a jolly band of tramps (some opt to be inebriated first) through a gauntlet of alleys, stairways, and random establishments, before reaching their destination, where more drinking and socializing takes place.

“I’m walking too. I can’t run after I drink,” Jarib laughed, raising his glass.

Amit came back and handed me my drink. In the back corner the sharp slap of a cue ball ricocheted off a solid 2 on an antiquated pool table. Two French ex-pats chuckled loudly and banged their sticks together like a salute.

“How do you like it here?” Amit wanted to know.

Sababa,” I said.

After travelling alone for over a month, it felt good to laugh in the company of others…

Amit grinned ear to ear like my answer had cut his face open. Widely spaced teeth grinned out and he slapped me hard on the back. His aftershave seemed to follow him like a shadow. God, he must’ve bathed in the stuff. My nostrils reeled.

“You remember my language, man! Right on! Sababa!”

Sababa!” everyone shouted.

We raised our glasses and cracked them together above the table. Two Black Russians later I swayed in the comfortable confusion of Hebrew as they chatted back and forth, Natalie or Amit or Jarib occasionally translating a joke or a sentence. After travelling alone for over a month, it felt good to laugh in the company of others, and I ordered them all another round until we’d all reached that maximum state of numb bliss and intoxicated brotherhood.

* * *
An hour and a half later the candle at our table grew spindly, sputtered, and finally petered out before we joined a group of Harriers and tumbled into the streets like laundry, tripping downhill as another ex-pat with an Australian twang took the lead with overused military sign language.

His huge sneakers slapped down on the sidewalk so hard I was surprised he didn’t break his toes. He took his role as the “hound” — the one that tracks the path laid down by the hare — as seriously as possible. Everyone was half-drunk, and forgot the volume of their voices. But the Australian was cool, stern. And boy, did he love hand-signals.

He had it down to a science. Everyone would be jogging casually, talking, when suddenly the whole troupe would unexpectedly slam into the back of the person in front of them as he raised his closed fist. Or he’d reach an intersection, scrutinize a piece of damp yellow paper pinned against a wall, and then pivot two fingers like an imaginary pistol in the direction he’d chosen for us. Amit got a kick out of it, hoo-hawing every time the big Australian gesticulated.

In Israel, military service is mandatory. Amit and the others knew all about tactics, military protocol. And this big lummox was a melodramatic parody.

As we passed another nightclub, lit up fluorescent and sticking out the wall like an infected thumb, Natalie tugged on Amit’s arm and pouted. They argued in hushed tones between their brown cupped palms. I don’t know why. I certainly couldn’t understand them. Jarib and the other two guys were climbing on each other’s back further down the street, having rooster fights with the French pool-players from the Brittania.

“Hey, Jarib! We’re going now! Yalla,” Amit shouted, but I could tell it was Natalie speaking through him. She had limped all the way out of the pub with a pained expression.

”They want to go keep going to the next pub. I told them we’ll meet them back at the hostel,” Jarib said, lighting a cigarette.

The other two Israelis, still on each other’s shoulders, waved back at us and then disappeared with the Harriers down another alley, no doubt following the Australian commando-wannabe. Amit signalled one of the many white renovated taxis, and it screeched abruptly onto the curb beside us with the smell of old rubber burning.

“Ruta 36, por favor,” Amit squeezed into the front seat, and handed the driver several folded bills.


* * *
In no time at all I had lost track of our whereabouts and put my faith in the driver’s discretion. And just as abruptly as he’d picked us up, the driver floored the brake pedal next to a garage with closed steel-riveted shutters. The driver switched his headlights on and off several times and leaned out his window with a bored expression.

“Ruta 36, aqui,” he said, pointing as the garage doors opened and Amit shuffled all of us out of the taxi.

Inside we went down a cement flight of stairs into an open basement, dimly lit with cheap plastic chandeliers. Several tables scattered across the floor; a couch at one end featured an amorous couple making-out so heavily I felt embarrassed. A long table down one wall was upstaged by a full length mirror that ran the entire length of the bar. A heavy-set bouncer with a head like a mound of unsculpted clay stood like a federale near the stairs.

The four of us sat down at a table, and a keenly dressed Bolivian with slicked hair left the refuge of the bar and hurried to our table with small foot-steps.

“Hello, friends, you speak English?”

“Yes,” Natalie hurriedly answered. The nervousness in her voice was like a guitar string pulled a little too tight.

“Good, good, welcome. What can I get you tonight?”

“Well, this is my friend’s first time, so… you want another Black Russian? And I’ll take one too, Natalie?”

Natalie shook her head, but Jarib ordered a rum and Coke, and winked. The waiter blinked rapidly (like he’d never heard that one before).

“Good, and, for tonight we have very good quality. 100 Bolivianos, is our starting price. If you want very good stuff, 150, but the decision, of course, is up to you.”

Amit’s decision was recorded in a little notebook by the waiter, who gave us a tight-lipped smile and returned to the bar.

Amit scratched his chin thoughtfully and feigned a profound seriousness. I was lost: 100 bolivianos for a drink was steep, I thought. Our waiter tapped his fingers impatiently on the enamel of the table. Everyone at the other tables looked like tourists, and here and there I caught muted fragments of English, but it was as though each table was self-contained.

“How about we try the normal stuff, first, what do you say, guys? We’ll take two of those,”

Amit’s decision was recorded in a little notebook by the waiter, who gave us a tight-lipped smile and returned to the bar.

“You never done coke before?” Jarib asked sardonically.

Wait, what? I shook my head and my eyebrow must have been arching like the Manhattan bridge because Jarib recoiled in his chair and flashed Amit a glance.

“This is coke den, my friend. Best place in La Paz to do it, everyone is super chill, y’know. Best place, they really care about their customers. It’s the first cocaine-bar, sababa. I knew it was your first time, don’t worry. You just rub it on your lips, we’ll show you,” Amit assured me.

The drunkenness in his black eyes had settled, and he gazed at me dreamily, wrapped another arm around Natalie who leaned into him with the same soporific expression. Something in my stomach dropped. The first international cocaine-bar.


It should be noted that I have pretty lax personal ethics regarding illicit substances. Psilocybin, LSD, marijuana. So what? But opiates, narcotics – I knew the history of opium, and the corruption, addictions, slavery, and destructive effects it had amassed in countries like China and Afghanistan. In the short time I’d spent in Bolivia, I’d come to draw certain parallels with the cocaine industry.

Cocaine is the biggest drug export in South America. On top of the upper crust that profit and pocket 99% of the cocaine industry’s payoff is the abusive servitude, violence, and political corruption that keeps the white powder flowing. It is, by far, the least ethical drug I could indulge in. My brain circled the decision while we waited for our drinks and “dessert” until my temples started to throb.

It wasn’t just that narcotics scared the hell out of me. Health-wise, South American cocaine is generally cleaner due to the fact it is closer to the source, but you can still count on it being cut with some awful and toxic shit. Plus, earlier that day I’d already run into a Canadian who’d experienced the Bolivian penal system — god knows how long he’d been in.

The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, had put his country on precipitous scales. An avid coca grower himself, he’d advocated the chewing of coca leaves as a cultural entitlement. Hell, I had a $1 grocery bag full of the light green brittle leaves back in my hostel, and I’d have a wad in my mouth all day. It’s the perfect way to treat the soroche (altitude sickness) some foreigners experience this high above sea level. Morales had even gone so far as to throw the United States DEA out of Bolivia — but that didn’t make cocaine legal, not by a long shot.

“I’m sorry, man, I don’t think I can,” I finally blurted.

Amit drew a dazed smile on his lips. “It’s alright, it’s fine. You just put it on your lips, you’ll be okay, I promise. The stuff here is really cheap, but it’s quality, y’know. Back home, this would be three times the price, and just shit. Try some, just a little, you’ll be fine.”

“Nah, I’m really fine.”

If he was disappointed, it didn’t last long. Our waiter returned with drinks and several small baggies, which Jarib poured with practiced dexterity onto a small mirror. The off-brown powder formed itself into three parallel lines under Jarib’s expert hand.

Natalie snorted first, slowly, through a rolled bill. Her eyes rolled back in her head as her back stiffened and she leaned like a plank against Amit. A smile drooled down her lips, and she closed her eyes.

Jarib and Amit both took theirs with similar gusto while I nursed my third Black Russian of the night. My armpits squelched uncomfortably and I had to wipe my face with my sleeve several times. I was waiting for MP officers to burst down the cement steps and bash all our skulls in with batons. I hoped no one else was picking up on my anxiety.

“Now that is nice, you sure you don’t want to try, man?”

I finished my Black Russian.

“I think I’m gonna head out, guys.”

Jarib just grinned and started laughing, and Natalie, picking up on some telepathic joke between the two of them both collapsed with giggles while Amit rubbed his chin again, thoughtfully.

“You sure? You don’t want to stay?”

I stood up and slapped Amit on the back. Hard. “Nah, man, I think I drank too much. I’m gonna head out for the night, but you guys have a good one, alright?”

* * *
I took a taxi back to the Brittania Pub. The French ex-pats were at the pool table again, like they’d been playing the same game all night. They recognized me from the Harrier walk and invited me to a game of 9-ball over another Black Russian. The mean-drunk I’d attained earlier had all but run through me. Paranoia brings on a meaner sobriety.

I told them about Route 36 and they both nodded ambivalently. The one with thick blonde dreads lined up his shot, jabbed at the cue ball smoothly.

“It shifts positions every few weeks, or a month at most. It is always moving. You see, so they have to. They pay off the right people, and they stay open. But they have to keep moving their location. All the taxi-drivers know where it is. Or, if you stay at hostels. But it has to be word of mouth. Route 36 is unofficial, you see.”

His friend sank two in a row off bank-shots.

“But the stuff they have, it’s not good. Sometimes, it is. Sometimes, really good coke. But other times, really nasty stuff. Still, super cheap compared to Europe. Or North America, too? That’s why all the tourists love it.”

You step off the ledge and take a risk and keep your eyes open no matter how close the ground gets. I’ve made the best friends that way. I’ve had the craziest adventures that way.

I tried to picture Natalie and Amit and Jarib, blitzed in their cocaine reverie. I’d met a number of young Israelis in Peru at various hostels, fresh out of military service. The drive to let loose, party, to engage in some kind of disorder after all that drilled-in discipline was understandable.

I left the Brittania a little conflicted. On one hand I felt pride in my decision not to do cocaine. Knowing its origins prevented me from even considering it. I wasn’t sure if that was just another way of taking the moral high-ground.

I’ve always found the credo, You should do everything at least once, inspiring. And once you adopt it, it’s a slippery slope, it’s its own addiction. You step off the ledge and take a risk and keep your eyes open no matter how close the ground gets. I’ve made the best friends that way. I’ve had the craziest adventures that way.

But now I had to mark a line in the sand. Travelling alone, talking to strangers, buying a butterfly knife from a vendor and walking down dark alleys, horse-back riding to a shamanic lake in the altiplano, trying every bizarre and unthinkable dish in the mercado, were written out on one side of that line under the credo, at least once.

Route 36 and cocaine, I’d put on the other.

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