Traveling through South America, I'd heard whispers, rumors, and outright recommendations for the so-called Route 36. According to some—and by "some," I mean the types who enjoy putting high purity cocaine into their noses—it's up there with Machu Picchu on any backpacker's itinerary.
Route 36 is an illegal pop-up lounge bar located in La Paz, Bolivia where cocaine is served by the gram on a silver platter, along with the cocktail of your choice. It also seems to be somewhere literally everyone knows about, which leads you to suspect that, for it to remain open, there may be an element of corruption at play.
Of course, while everyone knows of it, not everybody knows where it actually is. After provoking blank faces from three cabbies, we eventually found our man. "Can you take us to Route 36 please?" we asked, in Spanish. He quoted us 15 bolivianos (just over a buck) and took us on our way. The only hiccup on our journey was the roadblock we had to circumvent.
La Paz's main plaza had been protected by riot police for the past week or two as striking miners from another city demanded investment. The day before our taxi ride, at the end of July, those demands were delivered by way of dynamite set off in the middle a busy road. This is the sort of climate in which La Paz has resided for the past few years; tourists indulging in artisanal local drug services, while protests rage every couple of months, from soldiers demanding better working conditions to the disabled campaigning for better welfare support.
As we avoided the roadblock by driving into the outskirts of La Paz, the cabbie explained to me that the majority of Bolivia's cocaine is produced around the eastern cities of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. It's the many farms here that give Bolivia its number three global ranking when it comes to coca production, with its 23,000 hectares of plantations behind Colombia's 48,000 and Peru's 49,800.
Arriving at the bar, we were almost manhandled through a four-foot opening in what looked like a garage door by the three young Bolivian men who were rather inconspicuously standing guard outside. After paying our 25 bls [$3.62] entrance fee (which we exchanged for ripped pieces of paper indicating no.12056 and no.12057, respectively) we sauntered in and were beckoned over to the busiest table by a charming Norwegian man.
He'd just been asking around on the street for coke and had been bundled into a cab that ferried him here for the night.
"Dos caiprainas, por favor," my friend, Josephine, asked of the weary hostess who approached us as we sat down.
"And a gram of cocaine, right?" she interjected before the last syllable had escaped Josephine's mouth.
We paid the 50 bls [$7.26] for the cocktails, in addition to the 150 bls [$21.77] for the gram of coke. It was delivered to us instantly.
This isn't the kind of bar that turns a blind eye to dealers in the bathroom; this is a bar that actively facilitates and promotes the use of cocaine. Route 36 changes location as soon as there are complaints from the locals. According to a few of the guys sat around the table, it had been here for several weeks.
There were around 20 people in the bar. We were sat with eight English gap year kids, two Belgian professionals, and the Norwegian. Half a dozen Irish businessmen were sat on the opposite side of the bar, definitely the most wound up and coke-y of everyone in there, in addition to two bar-women, the hostess, the DJ (who kept playing fucking terrible dubstep), and two security guards constantly pacing around.
The coca leaf, of which cocaine derives, made news recently amid the Pope's visit to La Paz. In the Andes, the leaf is considered a sacred commodity, and President Evo Morales is a staunch defender of its medicinal and nutritional qualities. And he makes a very valid point; its cultural importance for Andean people, who have chewed the leaf for thousands of years, is primarily to relieve altitude sickness, not facilitate four-hour house party conversations with your boss about how to improve workflow.
It is for this reason that he ended the practice of previous governments, which destroyed coca leaf fields as part of the American war on drugs, kicking out the US Drug Enforcement Agency, which was offering farmers £960 [$1,500] for each field of coca destroyed. He had referred to this as cultural imperialism, arguing that increased demand for cocaine in the United States shouldn't rob indigenous peoples of ancient traditions.
Since legalizing coca cultivation after he was elected in 2006, Morales has repeatedly insisted that coca is not cocaine, calling on the UN to remove it from its list of prohibited drugs. However, Bolivia's cocaine exports have risen steadily since he took office, with production rising from 290 to 420 tons between 2013 and 2014, and it is perhaps inadvertently due to his liberal policies that Route 36 exists.
Watch our documentary 'Cooking Cocaine in Lima'
I had to excuse myself from pleasantries and introductions to rack up on the cut-out surfaces that the bar had provided. I made two slugs from the wrap we'd been given and hoovered it up. Unsurprisingly, I became chattier than usual as we all exchanged life stories and travel tips.
The two English guys next to me, Hamish and Josh, explained how they had been forced to withdraw the equivalent of $900 (in exchange for 10 grams—they'd only wanted two) by some Colombian gangsters when they had tried to score in Medellin. This place was a far cry from their experience that day.
The bar had a deal going, so Josephine and I pooled our cash with our two new friends to get four grams for the price of three. Suddenly a charismatic—but a little wet behind the ears—Swedish guy pitched up next to us and started passing lines around for everyone. I had to show him how to snort the coke. He was the kind of man who would get busted in a second anywhere besides the security of that box, and his entrance summed up the ease with which one can locate the place.
By 5 AM I was pretty wired, chain smoking cigarettes and talking very much at people rather than with them. At around half 6, a woman in her fifties asked us if we wanted any weed, trying to avoid the gaze of the bar-staff. We bought five grams of an almost un-smokeable black clump masquerading as marijuana (which subsequently gave me a headache) for 80 bls [$11.61] and headed back to our Airbnb in a cab with seven of our new very high, very chatty friends.
Some cocaine, not at Route 36, because it's impossible to take photos inside. Photo by Zxc via