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Latin America Travel Drugs Cocaine

Route 36

It starts out with an idea: Route 36, Bolivia. Bolivia shocks and woos me from the moment I land in La Paz. There is profound allure in Bolivian urban indigenous culture. I love cities, I love major metropolitan cities. The best cities are capital cities. I didn’t know it before I came to La Paz, but major, metropolitan, capital cities full of multiple different ethnicities of indigenous people at 12,000 feet elevation are pure, sweet pleasure of the most exotic kind.

My host is Quechua and it is through her eyes that I learn about all the local happenings. She has worked with Evo Morales, and tells me stories of him having his nose bridge replaced with metal because of damage from incessant cocaine use. I reply that many of our US presidents have been alcoholic.

There is political graffiti all over La Paz. Morales is campaigning to do away with term limits so that he can continue to lead. The election is less than a month away. I meet Bolivians on all sides of the issue. The majority do not want him in power, but question what alternative would be better. With the knowledge of the current time, I admire their prescience.

Photo of political poster in La Paz, Bolivia

Soon, I meet a local Bolivian that does not identify with either the Quechua or Aymara, he has enough Spanish in him to call himself “Bolivian” over either of those identifiers. It is he that tells me about the wholesale coca market.

I beeline.

Though not a big user of coca or cocaine, I can count the times I’ve used cocaine on the fingers of two hands, I am fascinated with the history of both. 

I have long been an activist against the War on Drugs and have studied the history of the use of coca and cocaine. Before coming to Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia, I read an excellent book on the subject (Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography). Coming from the United States, the seat of the war on cocaine, I am fascinated by this place so proudly resisting our imperial ban.

I smell it from a block away. It smells of cocaine. It smells of coca. It’s overpowering and makes me sneeze. 

I see an Aymara woman in her bowler hat see me sneeze, and she laughs and waves her hand in front of her face to acknowledge the stench. When she opens her mouth in a broad smile, some of her teeth are gold.

Photo of a well dressed Aymara woman, white shirt, grey vest, blue skirt, black bowler hat

Earlier today I had ridden the Teleferico, and at the top there were massage chairs. A large Aymara woman sitting in these with her bowler hat on her belly, jiggling and shaking and laughing at the sensations, is an image I still get in my head whenever I see the braids of the Aymara.

I’ve been taking all the varying forms of public transportation, some minivans with questionable braking systems that switchback their way through the steep neighborhoods clinging to severe rock formations. There is a smell to the Aymara that I wouldn’t know if I took private transport. I’ve gotten used to just flagging them down anywhere, and yelling “parada” when I want to get out, and climbing over families to reach the exit. I find it a superior system to set bus stops.

Photo of inside of a collectivo in La Paz

I stopped the vehicle this time many blocks away, however, not wanting it to be obvious where I am headed and approach the market on foot. There are cargo trucks outside stacked high with bales of coca. Bales of it.

It is a giant warehouse. The dust of the leaves fills the air. The scene is overwhelming.  It is one open space, full of coca, and full of people selling the coca. The air is full of cries of pricing and amounts and calling out to people to move bales.

Here in the market it is the Yungas farmers primarily come from the neighboring plains to La Paz to sell their product. It is mostly the women selling, sitting atop bales of coca. The men carry it and pack vehicles, which are ostensibly picking up a supply to make commercial products like tea, candy, soda and balm. Coca is also sold at every corner store in Bolivia, so the bodega owners are here to stock up on smaller amounts as well. 

That said, it is clear from the look and professionalism of those packing that about 2% of this market’s supply is processed into cocaine. Most of Bolivia’s cocaine supplies the European market.

I’m still dumbfounded. Bales of coca. It is tremendous. I am astounded. I know it’s just a sweet, small, sacred plant – but in my homeland it is a controlled substance. They yell out prices and banter with one another. I understand some of it, but most of it isn’t Spanish, it’s Aymara.

One woman looks at me coming towards her and thinks for a moment.

“FIVE!” she yells, holding up the five fingers of her hand, and pointing to the open trash bag full of coca she sits near.

It is the only English I hear in the market. I nod and hand her 5 Bolivianos, which is equivalent to about $.60 at the time. She fills a clear green plastic shopping bag with the leaves, and ties off the top.

Photo of a green plastic bag full of coca leaves

At one of the many llipit’a sellers I ask for the best they have in Spanish and they give it to me. I’m stunned to see the variety of shapes and consistencies. I have no idea what to do with most of it, and so point to what is familiar to me. 

And with this I am high on coca for the rest of the trip. It helps with the altitude. I carry my giant sack of coca with me everywhere, because it is legal, and because the locals love to see me with it. In the musical instrument museum the ticket-seller sees my bag and pulls his out, the same green plastic obviously purchased wholesale from the same location. 

“Mi coca es mas grande.” I say proudly, pointing to my bigger bag. He laughs.

“Si, si, pero el tamaño no importa.” He says, winking. I laugh.

I love that I can chew coca in a museum. And so I do.

Photo of coca leaves being prepped against a background of coffee beans

When I travel to countries poorer than the United States, I carry my money and cards in my bra, and do not carry a purse. For a week in La Paz, the only bag I have with me is my translucent, green, plastic bag full of coca. I love proudly walking by police officers holding it. None of them bat an eye.

I meet many people, and have many conversations. I am continually impressed, inspired, and surprised by the courage, resilience, and soul of Bolivia.

Eventually my love for Bolivia is so strong that I am almost shamed out of my original purpose for coming to La Paz.

I want to see Route 36.  The illegal underground cocaine bar for tourists only.

And so I do.

Theoretically Route 36 changes locations every few weeks, but I am skeptical that this was true for the time period I visit. Because the location isn’t listed, I’ve heard the way to find it is by asking the cab drivers, and so I do. With one I go on a long adventure with many stops, only to end up  at a knock-off Hard Rock Cafe. This is not the goal. After a drink here, I try again.

This time the first two cab drivers immediately drive away when I say “Ruta trenta y seis”

But the third pretends to know. And then after I am inside, to my horror, he asks dispatch if they know where Route 36 is. I am sure that things are about to go poorly for both him and me, but instead they just tell him where Route 36 is. 

And so, I’m gently deposited there by the cab driver, who also knocks on the door and has the discussion with the Route 36 bouncer to make sure all will be well.

I pay the taxi driver, who immediately zooms out of there. The bouncer doesn’t frisk me. I had read I would be thoroughly searched. I pay him $20 door fee.

Route 36 Bolivia

As with most things I have high expectations for, Route 36 is dismally disappointing. It’s a moldy basement, lit with blacklight reflecting random decorations in fluorescent spray paint. There are tables, and a bar, and I’ve read of platters full of lots of kinds of cocaine, but really it’s just one, and you order a drink and each one can come with a gram if you like. There’s no amount smaller than a gram, and no upper limit on the grams you can buy, but technically you are ordering a $30 drink.

I order a whiskey and coke, since there’s nothing on the Route 36 menu but that and beer. It comes with ice cubes in it. I am not drinking the water in Bolivia, and I oppose and vehemently hate coca-cola, and the whiskey they used isn’t something I’d drink if they paid me – so I let the drink sit. I get my gram with it, and realize I’m out of cash, completely, I didn’t anticipate the door fee. 

I’m “no way to get home” out of cash. At 12,0000 feet. In the middle of the night. In La Paz. Where walking is hiking.

I’m the first one there, but soon after some Australians arrive and take up a table in the other corner. I quickly ask them if they want to buy half a gram off me before they can order their drinks, and they do, and I feel much better about my prospects of getting out of a cartel-controlled business alive and well with a few Bolivianos in my pocket. 

I also now have enough to buy a bottle of water, which is not a choice for a drink that comes with cocaine at Route 36. With that, I am ready to snort my cocaine, as without a bill there would be nothing to use. They don’t provide straws at Route 36.

They’ve provided a small chunk of mirror. I look at it closely and then use some of my water and a napkin to shine it. The cocaine is wrapped in a small folded paper package.

I’ve often wondered how cocaine and origami became intertwined.

I pour it out onto the mirror and it’s crystalline, no chunks, no need for cutting or mixing. I don’t have a card or anything to use anyway, and mumble to myself about this overhyped Route 36 cocaine bar being the equivalent of an alcohol bar handing you booze without a glass, napkin, or a straw while I roll up the largest denomination Boliviano bill I have, a tradition I have always employed for cocaine. And then, to the sounds of the increasingly chatty Australians in the corner, I snort two messy lines of cocaine, one for each nostril.

The cocaine is pure. I have only ever had pure cocaine once before, in Los Angeles. In the United States, the cocaine is cut before it is even imported, and then stomped on multiple times as it trickles down to the actual sales point. Samples of cocaine seized by those with might are often as low as 5% cocaine

In the United States, cocaine is an idea, not a drug. 

Here, however, it is absolutely pure. It’s also missing the telltale scent of gasoline that much smuggled cocaine has because the mules wrap it and place it in the gas tank to get across the border. I am again reminded that the only cocaine worth doing is pure, and even then… not always. 

I spend two minutes enjoying the euphoria and thinking gratefully upon Bolivia and the Bolivian people, if not on Route 36, Bolivia.

As the drip slides down my throat, I gift the rest of my half gram to the Australians, who I only have to overhear to realize I do not want to meet.

The bartender/waitress and bouncer are shocked that I want to leave so quickly. I want to ask them if this is their idea of a good time, or even a good job. Watching entitled foreign pricks get shitty on this drug that so much Bolivian blood has been spilled for. I want to ask them what they think of people like these Australians, who would voluntarily sit in a sketchy, moldy basement just for a shot to overtly use cocaine. There’s nothing to stop me from walking out of here with the cocaine, there is no reason to stay inside. 

I think of all the other taboo underground tourist destinations I’ve seen, and how almost always the hunt for these trumps the kill.

When they hear that I am going to the other side of town, to the wealthy neighborhoods, they bundle me into a cab. The cab driver is sniffing constantly and is actually the most hopped up on cocaine person I have ever seen in my life. He drives me a few blocks, asks six times where I am going, and when he finally gets it he pulls over.

“Mi auto no puede hacer ese viaje” he says, miming the rock formations and steep hills between there and here with his hands. There is no route in La Paz that doesn’t contain this, there is only one small flat area, and we aren’t in it currently. 

“Claro.” I say,  just wanting to be out from the car of the cocaine cabbie.

Photo of Incan mask

It’s after midnight. I’m in a random residential neighborhood in La Paz. It’s chilly and I no longer feel any trace of the cocaine. I mumble to myself about getting myself into situations and begin walking. It’s certainly not the worst neighborhood I’ve been to in South America.

Thankfully it’s not two blocks before I pass a taxi dispatch place. After knocking on their window a bit someone inside awakens. I press every Boliviano I have to the window. A woman comes out. I point to the cab sitting outside.

“Te daré este dinero si me llevas a Obrajes.” I say. She looks me up and down and shakes her head disapprovingly. 

“Momento.” she says, and returns inside. I hear her call someone over dispatch. The car soon arrives and I get home.

All told, the night still costs me less than half of what a gram of “cocaine” would in the United States.

Photo of me in La Paz with a bag of coca in my hands, head blurred out with a white halo

Another story about cocaine.

I love Latin America:

1: Oaxaca, Mexico: Ruta Del Mezcal

2: Medellín, Colombia: Buying Drugs in Iconic Places

3: Bolivia, Chile, Peru: Singani or Grappa?

4: Chile: Puente Alto


Like stories about buying drugs? Here’s more:

1: Drugs and Sex: The European Lovers: Hookup

2: Christiania: Christiania

3: Hasidic drug dealer: Padding the Pushke

4: Mezcal: Ruta Del Mezcal

5: Sonoma County, California: Tweaker Pool

6: Sugar: Gateway

7: Happy Pizza in Cambodia: Happy Pizza

8: Bhang in Delhi: Cannabis in India: Bhang


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