If you got bad news, you wanna kick them blues, cocaine.
If your day is done, but you wanna run, cocaine.
She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie….. cocaine.
Great, great song. And hey, if the topic’s good enough for Eric Clapton to
write cover a wee ditty about it, then it’s good enough for me to pen a blog post. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to tell you about a place which may seem more than a tad unusual to our western sensibilities. A bar called Route 36, located in Bolivia’s capital city La Paz. What makes Route 36 different from other bars is that, along with your beer or wine, you are openly invited to indulge in a line or two of sweet sweet Bolivian nose candy.
Now, two things to be clear on right from the start: firstly – this post is not intended to glamorise drug use, it is merely intended to inform. Secondly – unlike all the other posts on this site, I did not personally conduct my own research for this article, instead everything you read here was relayed to me by a “friend”.
Now, this person who is definitely not me tells me that a bar by the name of Route 36 does indeed exist in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, and this bar is quite different from others you may have been to, in fact even it’s very location is shrouded in secrecy. Rumour has it that the bar keeps moving from site to site every few months to evade the authorities. In reality this seems more than a little far-fetched, and in all probability the police know exactly where Route 36 is at any given time but have been paid off well enough to turn a blind eye to it. In any case, according to my “friend” it is never hard to find, just jump in any taxi around town & they will be happy to take you right to the door.
This person (not me, remember) tells me that Route 36 is nothing much to look at from the outside, a rather drab looking building in a nondescript neighbourhood. Evidently well soundproofed too, since when you arrive you might not even think it is open, but rest assured this place never closes – it is open 24 hours. My “friend” tells me that you have to go up the stairs & knock, and you will then be led into the garish neon-lit bar area, with bad electro pop blaring on the sound system, and be seated at a table.
My friend tells me that the first sign that you have entered anything other than a normal cheesy late-night bar comes when the waitress brings not only the drinks that you ordered, but also a large mirror which she lays on the table. She then enquires whether you would like something to go with your beers, something slightly more euphoric. “Why not?” you may reason, when in Rome (or La Paz) right? And at a these prices you may think it would be downright rude not to. At the time of research (by my friend, not me, remember) you’d be looking at roughly US$15 a gram, which is ludicrously cheap, although quality was certainly not what you would expect when you’re right there in Charlieville, South America.
While you wait for your order to arrive you may look around the bar, and all will look normal, except every now & then one of your fellow patrons will dip their head down towards their table, blocking one nostril & then re-emerge looking slightly flushed with eyes watering. And everyone else seems to be rubbing their noses a bit more than usual. And then when your order arrives you & your companions are free to partake as well. It may feel strange doing this so openly at first, almost a bit surreal, given that pretty much everywhere else in the world this sort of behaviour is partaken in a much less conspicuous manner, however apparently you quickly get used to it. And so it goes, sipping a beer, chatting with your mates, and occasionally racking up a fresh line.
As the night goes on, the mood in the bar lifts significantly, everyone is literally buzzing. While previously the groups of friends had remained fairly segregated, now everyone is up & mingling freely with everyone else. Random strangers will appear next to you & start talking at a hundred miles an hour, and everyone is massively interested & enthusiastic about what you have to say – this is likely the friendliest bar you have ever been in. The dance floor is also heaving, and at one point my friend found himself enthusiastically dancing & singing along to the Kelly Rowland song When Love Takes Over – something he assures me would never occur when he is in a more sober level-headed state.
The only problem with a bar that never closes, and dispenses beer & cocaine at ridiculously low prices, is that it can naturally be difficult to leave. While on a normal night out where alcohol is the only intoxicant on offer, tiredness will eventually set in & people will start considering heading off home. However, adding a powerful stimulant like your Bolivian friend Charlie to the mix removes this entirely. Unless you’re set on the mother of all benders followed by the accompanying mother of all come-downs, the best course of action is to agree a time for departure with your friends before entering, and hope that at least one of you has the self-control to insist you all adhere to it.
Anyway, that pretty much sums up my “friend’s” trip to Route 36, La Paz’s infamous cocaine bar. Sounds fun right? Well it depends on who you ask, as when I was in Bolivia this seemed to be quite a polarizing issue amongst travellers.
On the one hand, there were those travellers who saw a visit to Route 36 as more or less mandatory. The implication seemed to be that we’re in South America, it would be downright rude not to sample the cocaine right?
Whereas other travellers found the very idea of a cocaine bar reprehensible. Surely a place like that does nothing but to debase the value of travel – it’s a bit hard to argue that travel is massively beneficial to both the individual traveller & the communities they visit if they’re spending their time abroad hoovering up mass quantities of illegal drugs isn’t it? Plus it does no favours for the reputation of Bolivia & South America more broadly, which are already often perceived as hotbeds of cocaine production.
It’s a tricky thing to weigh in on, especially if you’ve never visited Route 36 (like me – yep, that’s my story & I’m sticking to it), but one thing is for sure – where there is demand, someone will be there to supply. And, massively shocking as it may be, demand for ludicrously cheap cocaine amongst backpackers is high (as are many of the backpackers themselves – boom).
What I will say if if you’re heading to La Paz & you’re set on visintg Route 36, remember – safety first, and take care of yourself. On that note, some key points to bear in mind:
- Let’s be clear here – despite it’s easy accessibility, cocaine is illegal in Bolivia & if you get busted with it you could be in some very deep shit. Obviously the best way to stay out of trouble is to steer clear of it entirely.
- For those who are set on partaking, Route 36 offers probably the lowest risk opportunity, since the cops seem to have been paid off well enough to stay away. Nobody I spoke to had ever known the place to be raided.
- If you’re heading to Route 36, don’t even think of taking along your own Charlie that you’ve sourced elsewhere (you seriously shouldn’t be buying off the street anyway) – if you get caught, the coke will be confiscated & the proprietors of the establishment will be less than impressed with you.
- What goes up must come down – if you go out for a big night here, you’re gonna feel pretty shit the next day. Try to drag your ass out at a semi-reasonable time to minimise your state of misery the next day.
- It hasn’t been mentioned yet since it seems pretty damn obvious, however cocaine clearly isn’t the healthiest thing you can be taking into your body. Effects can include elevated heart rate, excessive sweating, blood nose, becoming an arrogant loud-mouthed egotistical dickhead, and going gay for pay. However drinking heavily sure isn’t good for you either, and I’ve done my fair share of that, so who am I to judge.
What are your thoughts on a place like Route 36 operating? Fair game on the South American backpacking circuit? Or a place catering to the lowest common demoninator amongst travellers? Any views welcome in the comments section below.
PS – absolutely, definitely, in no way, shape, or form was it me who went to Route 36 to research this post, it was my “friend”. Okay then.