‘Some guys at my hostel told me they’ll probably let us in if we slip them a twenty’, said Blair, my Kiwi travelling friend. I’d met up with him in the sunshine flooded San Pedro plaza where people sat around and socialised, seemingly oblivious to the criminals contained behind the gates of San Pedro prison just across the road.
Since Thomas McFadden, a Brit banged up for cocaine trafficking, decided back in in the late 1990s to start up prison tours and Lonely Planet jumped on board with unintentional promotion, backpackers have found ways to enter Bolivia’s notorious prison for a bit of a nosy. Bribing poorly paid guards, for example, seems to have worked for a fair few people.
But what are visitors actually hoping to gain from getting inside San Pedro’s belly? The legendary, cheap cocaine? Insight into a lawless society? The thrill of being so close to criminals and the taste of danger? Did anyone really care where their money was going? Or the underhand methods at play? Or, as with so many travelling experiences, was it just to see something different?
It was April 2012 and research told me that the San Pedro prison tours, despite being openly discussed amongst travellers, were banned once again. Brad Pitt’s upcoming film adaptation of the book Marching Powder is suggested to have panicked the government and triggered a clampdown on prison tourism. Bolivia is, after all, trying to build-up its reputation beyond that of cocaine and criminality. For the super keen, however, I knew that there was always a way around these rules. Whilst I’m no goody-two-shoes, did I really want to break these rules? And if so, why?
BoliviaBella.com makes a clear case for not supporting these illegal tours, asking instead for a more responsible, ethical approach. She adds that ‘there is nothing benevolent or altruistic about taking this tour’ and that, asides from the voyeuristic nature, it is also ‘a risk to you and your liberty’.
Like many other travellers before me, I stood outside of the prison and pondered: did I want to find a way to get inside? I wandered around looking up at the great grey mass of concrete, questions and butterflies flitting around inside me. Placed centrally within La Paz, it took five minutes to stroll the perimeters.
What struck me about this infamous place was the size and location. I’d just started to read Marching Powder and as a result I expected these heavy, windowless walls to contain a massive village of activity, yet here, in reality, I couldn’t imagine it was actually that big inside. I guess that looks can be deceiving… but still… it seemed surprisingly small.
A glamorous girl in her late twenties balanced a young child on her hip whilst she rang the bell of a discreet side door. The door opened and a woman let her in. ‘Is this the entrance?’ we asked. ‘Are you here to visit someone?’ she quietly asked back. We weren’t. Time to move on.
A bustle of people clustered outside the main gate opposite the plaza. I walked over to get a closer look and saw a single iron gate leading into a courtyard crammed with men. Some waved. Dangerous criminals? High security? It all felt very close and accessible.
I crossed back over to the plaza and watched from a bit of a distance as a prisoner exchange took place. Above the archway into the jail, prisoners gathered at the window and watched the outside world and their new inmate arrivals. It surprised me how relaxed the whole operation was, how security was kept to a minimum.
And then suddenly two guards were in my face. They grabbed my camera from Blair. ‘Where is your camera?’ they barked at me. I told them that what they had was actually my camera. They refused to give it back to me. It was forbidden to photograph the jail, they told me, didn’t I know?
I thought quickly about everything I’d read and heard about San Pedro prison and wondered whether a bribe was in order, whether it was expected. Instead I persuaded them that I was sorry and would delete the photos.
They held on to the lead whilst I showed them the photo of the prisoner exchange. They weren’t happy. I got a lecture and a telling off in Spanish. And then I deleted the best photo of my trip to the prison. They seemed appeased and sent us off into a La Paz midday.
‘I feel like we’re not having the full experience’, said Blair as we skulked away from the prison. I understood what he meant yet, at the same time, prison tours have been banned (again) for good reason. All it took was a small photography altercation and my mind had been made up. I didn’t want to mess with these guys. Why had I even considered it?
So I dodged the con artists trying to sell tours that wouldn’t materialise and I avoided bribery of any sort at the gate. I left with mostly a clean conscience and only a few photos of the outside of the prison.
An eye-opening experience or a sensationalist enticement that ultimately allows the wrong people to profit? Without having done the prison tour proper, it’s difficult for me to fairly comment.
- Prison break (The Guardian)
- San Pedro prison (Wikipedia)
- San Pedro Prison Mutiny: Government Decries Mass Escape Attempt (BoliviaBella.com)
- A black-market prison tour in downtown La Paz (travelmag.co.uk)
- A Brief Pause for Prison in La Paz (Los Angeles Times)
- San Pedro prison tours? (Lonely Planet forum)
- Inside South America’s Most Notorious Jail (Giresh Gupta)
- Marching Powder
- Book Review: Marching Powder (leahrolson.com)