Long Reads

“What happened when I spent a night in the world’s only cocaine bar”

Route 36 in La Paz, Bolivia, is renowned for being the world’s only cocaine bar. But what is it really like to spend an evening there? One woman reports on an eye-opening night…

It’s a little after midnight and I’m standing in the drizzle outside a hostel in La Paz. Bill*, one of the guys I’ve just met in the hostel bar, has his head in the window of a cab, while the other, Dan*, is excitedly talking to my boyfriend.

Bill pulls his head out of the car and waves the taxi driver off.

“Nope, he didn’t know.”

He flags down the next passing cab and leans in to ask the same question.

“Do you know Route 36?”

The driver nods, and the four of us cram into the car. We agree on a price of 50 bolivianos (£6) – which may or may not be fair, we have no idea where we’re going – and set off.

We’re en route to the worst-kept secret in La Paz – the infamous cocaine lounge, Route 36. 

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It’s been called the world’s first cocaine bar, though, as it’s hardly a legitimate business model, it’s hard to verify that. While cocaine is freely and inexpensively available in Bolivia, it is definitely still illegal. Route 36 greases the right palms of the notoriously corrupt officials to avoid being shut down or prosecuted, and it moves location every month or so to avoid drawing attention to itself by way of complaints from neighbours. Plus, it’s strictly foreigners only; no Bolivians allowed.

There’s no address, so curious tourists wanting to find it have to do as we did: rely on La Paz’s cab driver information network. The best spot to find a cabbie in the know is outside one of the city’s party hostels – Loki or Wild Rover are good bets – but it seems that most drivers in the city centre will have an idea. 

route 36 cocaine bar la paz bolivia
Cocaine bar Bolivia: a neighbourhood in La Paz, Bolivia

The taxi drops us outside a nondescript door on a dark street with two serious-looking men standing to attention outside. I feel a twinge of anxiety. The security guards look us up and down then unlock the door, pull it open, and gesture us quickly inside and upstairs.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t a room that looks like your mate’s garage hangout. There’s a DIY-looking bar along one wall, and clusters of couches around coffee tables throughout the room. The music and lights are low and there’s only one other group in the room; we’re clearly early to the afterparty.

The four of us claim three couches in a corner and the waiter brings us laminated menus printed on red paper. For 150 bolivianos (about £18) we can get a gram of cocaine, and it’s another 25 bs (£3) for a cuba libre, or 15 bs (£2) for a beer. 

The taciturn waiter takes our orders and reminds us of their strict no-photos policy. In most other places I’d try for a sneaky shot on my phone, but I get the feeling I don’t want to risk it here – there are three eagle-eyed staff serving drinks and coke, and at least four don’t-fuck-with-me security guards lurking at the door and around the room. Probably the worst that would happen is that I’d be forced to delete the photos – they’re unlikely to start trouble in their own bar – but I don’t chance it.

The cocaine arrives, with each gram wrapped in a small paper parcel on a red plastic plate. My boyfriend and I are sharing one, while Bill (American) and Dan (Australian) are starting with one each. I’d been expecting some paraphernalia to arrive with the plates, but instead I pull out my driving license and the cleanest 20 bs note I can find in my wallet. I’ve taken cocaine a handful of times in my life before, but never like this. It’s more than a little surreal.

Bill has been in La Paz a couple of weeks and has already been here a few times. He is nonchalant as he cuts the white powder into little lines.

“Everyone comes here. Of course the police know, but they get paid enough that they actually look after the place,” he says. “It’s super chill.” Perhaps it’s just traveller lore, but I’m reassured that I’m not about to be arrested.

Dan has been once before during his week in La Paz, and he’s a little more wired, his already-twitchy demeanour becoming hard to watch once the drug hits his system.

“Last time it was the middle of the morning when we left. It’s great, you know? The party life is why I’ve been in La Paz for so long. I guess I should leave soon, but…” he gestures at the table. I get the feeling he’ll be in town a little longer.

While in Peru and Bolivia, my boyfriend and I have become fans of coca leaves. These have been chewed or made into tea by Andean people and used for energy, appetite suppression and relieving altitude sickness since at least Incan times. The cocaine alkaloid was isolated by Europeans in the mid-1800s and from there, it was quickly turned into medicine and, later, cocaine.

In the 1980s, as part of the war on drugs, US anti-drug teams entered Bolivia to eradicate the supply of coca by burning or spraying crops. During this time, attacks on farmers were common and livelihoods were threatened. With the 2006 election of anti-imperialist president Evo Morales, himself a cocalero, came the expulsion of the US Drug Enforcement Agency and relaxed coca restrictions.

These days, while production is regulated, a certain amount of coca inevitably ends up in cocaine production. Bolivia doesn’t seem to have quite the same problem with violence as, say, Colombia – local gangs have a reputation for resolving their differences peacefully – but as demand, and therefore cultivation and production, rise, so do smuggling and violence, particularly on the country’s borders. 

route 36 cocaine bar
Cocaine bar Bolivia: Route 36 has a top secret location that moves every couple of months

It’s hard to imagine this innocuous white powder being a source of violence as the lounge slowly fills with increasingly garrulous gringos who just want to talk (and talk and talk). Although we’ve met plenty of female solo travellers on this trip, it seems that not many have come here; I am one of maybe three females in a bar of 30-odd patrons. There is a stony-faced woman working behind the bar but the other bar staff and all the security guards are men.

My boyfriend is deep in an existentialist rabbit hole with Bill and the manager of a hostel, a Chilean guy who doesn’t want anyone to know he was there. I’m having an intense conversation with some earnest German boys who are losing their cocaine virginity tonight. It’s a lounge, rather than a club, so there’s no dancing, and all our chemical energy has to be channelled into talking very intently at each other.

It’s strange, but after the initial illicit thrill has passed, we could be in any dive bar where, instead of getting in rounds of pints, we’re ordering illegal drugs. The tiny paper packages and the drinks keep coming until, sometime around 6am, my boyfriend and I realise we’re out of cash. We’ve probably had three grams, maybe four, between us, along with a couple of rum and colas and not nearly enough water. 

If not for the empty wallets we would keep going – we’re wired and having fun. But this is not the kind of establishment that offers an ATM so, along with the German boys, who reckon they’ve had enough, and Dan, who looks uncomfortably alert by now, we reluctantly leave the still-packed bar and are ushered quickly into a waiting cab by the bouncers.

As we rattle through wet, quiet streets, the driver gives me a sidelong look and pulls out a small package that he waves in front of my exhausted-but-very-awake-eyes.

“You want to buy cocaine?” 

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*some names have been changed 

All images featured in this article are stock images

Images: Getty, Unsplash