The Guardian calls it ‘the world’s first cocaine bar’ and others have dubbed it ‘one of the greatest travel experiences in South America‘. Route 36, a late night lounge bar in La Paz aimed solely at a tourist clientele, has established itself firmly as a must-stop-off on the gringo trail by offering a relaxed club environment where you can buy cocaine and chop up lines in relative comfort.
Labelled ‘cocaine tourism’, other bars in La Paz are now starting to copy Route 36’s lead and tap into travellers’ spending power and intrigue. But how are these places actually able to exist?
The legality of such a place is of course at the forefront of conversations surrounding Route 36’s existence, an existence that sees the bar switching location every month or two in order to beat the authorities and avoid pissing off too many neighbours as a regular trickle of tourists make their way in and out of the venue.
Who knows how long it will be before the Bolivian government start a proper clampdown on corruption associated with the cocaine trade, and in turn this trend for coke bars?
Bolivia is currently ‘the world’s third biggest cocaine producer‘ and it’s going to be a struggle convincing the world that it’s actively battling the drug trade whilst they’re still pushing for global acceptance of the traditional use of coca leaves. There are clearly some cultural considerations that the wider world needs to be aware of and the country is taking steps to raise awareness whilst also making some significant changes. A recent increase in cocaine production, for example, has resulted in Bolivia putting to bed a previous public disagreement with the US Drug Enforcement Administration and accepting offers of help from the US and Brazil to fight this ‘war’.
But in terms of Route 36, cocaine with its low cost and easy availability forms the crux of its attraction, and the place itself is undoubtedly designed to appeal to the sensation seeking tourist and provide them with a story for when they return home. You went where? A cocaine bar? Really? No way! Imagine if we had…! The police would… blah blah blah. You get the drift.
So the novelty factor, maybe, plays a role in attracting in the punters. Nowhere else have I heard of a public bar where you can happily sit down, order up a few lines and snort them openly. It’s essentially the normalisation of drug taking; a place where you can indulge and party away from any critical judgement of non-drug taking friends and family. ‘It’s a pretty regular bar’ said one of my friends who found himself there on a few early mornings when he wasn’t yet ready for bed. The only difference between a ‘regular’ club and Route 36? Ask about the coke on offer, spend out 150Bs. (£13.69 / US$21.55) and you’ll get yourself a gram in the latter. No questions asked. No problems.
Why avoid the place? Other than the obvious health and legality issues, for what you pay, there is a far purer product out there at a cheaper or similar price. Friends and cocaine connoisseurs tell me that the quality of Route 36’s offerings is pretty pitiful, suspected to be cut with amphetamines that keep you uncomfortably awake way beyond the end of the party in a way that purer powder won’t.
Overall though, I can’t comment with any real conviction. I’m no expert and for various reasons I didn’t get around to visiting the place. Missed opportunity? Maybe.
- The world’s first cocaine bar (The Guardian)
- Cocaine Bars: A Latin American Adventure or Playing with Fire? (Matador Network)
- Stairway to Heaven or Fast Lane to Prison? Route 36 – The Cocaine Bar of La Paz, Bolivia (Blogspot.com)
- Route 36 Cocaine bar La Paz, Bolivia (Route36.org)
- Bolivia Becomes Better Cocaine Producer, US Says (Fox News)
- Cocaine and coca not the same thing, says Bolivia’s Morales in defiance of US (elpais.com)