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The Traveller

Friday, 20 March, 2015

Farrago does not condone the use of illicit drugs, bribery or any other form of skullduggery.

There are always a few giggles when La Paz is introduced as the highest capital city in the world. It’s like a dad joke for backpackers and recreational drug users. At 11,913 feet, the sprawling, in-your-face centre of Bolivia certainly deserves the geographic accolade. A strong case can also be made for a wink and nudge, nose-tapping interpretation of the title.

While in the Londons, Los Angeleses and Melbournes of the world, coke is a budget-destroying luxury for anyone without celebrity status or a six-figure salary, in La Paz a gram will set you back about the same amount as a pint… of Carlton! You don’t have to be Milton Friedman to understand the inevitable spiral of supply and demand, particularly among young travellers known for their slim wallets and voracious appetites.

Bolivia has a long history with coca, both in its mild plant-based form and the Charlie-Sheen-grade chemical derivative that we know as cocaine. Coca leaves were originally the Red Bull of the Incas, but with the explosion of the drug trade in the ‘70s and ‘80s, many thousands of farmers have since turned their hands and soil to the lucrative crop for reasons beyond ritual and medicinal purposes. Evo Morales, the current Bolivian President, headed the cocalero (coca growers’) union before taking over the nation’s top job and favours the expanded legalisation, industrialisation and regulation of coca production. While this policy reflects Morales’ support for coca products such as tea and cosmetic lotions, and not for the production of cocaine itself, the President has repeatedly branded the US-led War on Drugs a failure and expelled both the US ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Today, Bolivia produces over a third of the world supply of coca leaves and paste, and while much of it is transformed into cocaine destined for consumption in the economic North, there is also no shortage within her borders.

The prevalence and price of the drug attracts many smugglers and one of these, Thomas McFadden, has done more than anyone for cocaine tourism in La Paz. The UK national was convicted of smuggling in 1996 and held in the city’s notorious San Pedro Prison. He took an entrepreneurial approach to his incarceration, playing tour guide for wide-eyed backpackers who could enjoy both the prison hospitality and produce (inmates were applying their considerable skills to a high yield lab within the compound). Australian Rusty Young documented McFadden’s exploits in the seminal backpacker text, Marching Powder, and the backpacker bible Lonely Planet included a write up of the San Pedro experience, further cementing the reputation of both the prison and the city as a Mecca for cocaine aficionados and enthusiasts.

The prison has since cleaned up its act, but the powder marches on. Selling coke provides a supplementary income for many of La Paz’s citizens, and foreigners run a gauntlet of whispered “Cocaína?” offers once outside their hostels and hotels. Dealers and police often work together, selling the same bags of coke over and over to unsuspecting tourists, who are busted immediately and issued on-the-spot ‘fines’. With both cocaine and corruption in such plentiful supply though, stories abound of cops returning drugs once a bribe is paid or offering directions to the nearest cocaine lounge – bars that serve alcohol only as an afterthought. The police, it seems, don’t want to bite too hard on the hands that feed them, and a bribe is just another pint or two back home anyhow.

Route 36 is the best known of the La Paz cocaine lounges. The bar changes locations every few months to keep ahead of the complaints that inevitably arise when you set up shop and your shop happens to be a drug den. Each new incarnation is more or less the same as the last though and finding it is only as difficult as hailing the nearest cab.

Inside, the dim lights common to all of Route 36’s many guises illuminate animated bodies and heads bent over tables. There are piles of half-straws and waiters deliver orders on empty CD cases as casually as they would a plate of arroz con pollo (rice with chicken). The a la carte menu here is minimal – strong and extra strong – but the price is right and you can stay all night (and put the money you save on accommodation straight up your nose). It’s almost like Revolver on a Sunday morning, but without the pretexts or price tags of a Melbourne nightclub.

If travel is an escape from reality, you could do worse than a sleepless week or two in the Bolivian highlands. It’s probably not advisable – on moral, medical or legal grounds – to spend much longer destroying your nostrils and maxing out your dopamine levels, but if you’ve ever wanted to live like a backpacking Pete Doherty, La Paz might well be the city for you. Just be sure to pack plenty of tissues in your false-bottom suitcase.