“We have happy hour on right now, if you buy three bags, you get one free” said the waiter after taking our drink orders. The tune of Baa-baa black sheep ran through my alcohol soaked brain. Then, an awkward silence as our group of random backpackers glanced at each other not knowing what to say… or do.
It was a tad past midnight and we had just arrived at Route 36, the infamous cocaine bar of Bolivia’s administrative capital La Paz. The decision to head there was made after consuming copious amounts of cheap Jaeger bombs in our hostel bar – not too far away. I somehow don’t think anyone in his or her right mind would turn up at the imposing black door hidden between apartments in a downtown suburb without being pretty sauced up already.
Before I continue, I’ll spare the reader a lecture about how cocaine is illegal in Bolivia and how bad it is for you. It is – we agree on that. It’s also shoved in your face on the street, bathrooms and by taxi drivers everywhere between Colombia and Chile. If you want the booger sugar while travelling through South America, it’s not a problem getting it. This story is about a legendary bar in La Paz where the thin white duke is the appetiser, main course and dessert.
The most exciting part about a visit to Route 36 is the entire experience that comes with it – it’s a bit of a rush really. First, you need to track down a taxi driver that knows where it is. This isn’t so easy, as apparently the location moves frequently – sometimes every two weeks – to escape the mean cops (the ones that aren’t paid off) that want to shut it down. The drivers in the know hang around outside hostels though so it shouldn’t be hard to find if you want to.
Then you need to negotiate a higher than normal fare to take you there. Once you are stopped at the curb outside the joint a couple of beefed up security guards will approach the cab to make sure everyone is legit (basically drunk backpackers). Then you’ll be waved past a heavily fortified door into a dark room where a full body skiff will occur. After a couple of flights of stairs and a door with a pin-code later we were in.
Our group was a mish-mash of travellers; there were Aussies, Brits, a Frenchie, American and an Israeli. Once the initial shock and nervousness subsided the happy hour deal was selected and our drinks were served. It’s a weird situation when you are handed a gin and tonic along with 4 grams of raw coke and fresh straws. But hey, “when in Rome” right?
As the night wore on I discovered that only about half of our table was partaking in the festivities. I quizzed these onlookers as to why they joined the group if they weren’t into it.
“I just wanted to see if this place really existed,” answered the talkative Israeli.
“After hearing about it from friends and other backpackers it got to be kind of… A legend, you know? I don’t have a problem with anyone doing drugs around me, it’s just not my thing”.
Now as you can probably imagine, a bar that can pack up and move with a moments notice is probably not going to be decorated by a professional. The décor can be best summed up as “basement rumpus room chic”. Scattered around the room the chairs and lounges had this horribly ugly neon green and orange nylon stretched over them, which creates a kind of fairground puke motif. The music was an awkward mix of hip-hop, dance anthems and eighties ballads and the waiters hung around quite closely to our candlelit tables to make sure nobody snapped any pictures – although I managed one.
To sum it up, it reminds me of a tour I did into a working mine in Potosi on this trip. I’m glad I did it – but I would never do it again. Experiences like this one are not easy to obtain. All in all, nobody felt unsafe; some even seemed proud as we walked out into the Bolivian sun at 6am. Our conversations were vibrant, our wallets a little lighter and our bags of travel tales a little fatter. Oh, two iPhones didn’t make it home with us either, so if you decide to check it out for yourself – keep an eye on your shit!