In the first of two ‘Letters from La Paz’, Declan Tan straightens a few myths about Bolivia’s Route 36, “the world’s first cocaine lounge”
“Take it out of the bag,” one of them whispers, as a small mountain of Bolivian marching powder unfolds from the wrap. Forming peaks where it piles on the surface, the small patch of black bin liner is emptied into the soft light of the room. The backpackers lean in, pushing pure uncut white to and fro with an out-of-date health insurance card from some place far, far behind them now. Racked up with two fat lines, sat side-by-side along the blackened edges of a bootlegged copy of Appetite For Destruction, some stranger nearby leans in and assuredly urges: “Don’t use the straw, use this.” He hands over a softened and tightly rolled 10 Boliviano note. The newcomers eye their bounty and savour a last breath. They then begin judiciously disappearing it up their snouts, chattering and grunting between disjointed monologues that they might later call conversation.
It’s not surprising that with a flick through the guidebooks one soon realises the nightlife of La Paz isn’t for reading or researching, but for devouring – with one’s eyes, ears and, for some of the travelling crowd, their noses. This fact only hits you once you’ve arrived and, like any place worthwhile, what you find can’t be written up in a tourist handbook.
The buses ride in on La Paz’s vertigo high roads that encircle the valley metropolis of Bolivia’s capital, which sits pretty at 3,660 meters above sea-level, making it the highest capital city in the world. I’m in a crowded bus, heading for a hostel in the city’s centre. As we wind in from the mountain ranges, we’re afforded a final opportunity to peer down on the rabble below – because once we get amongst it, we won’t be getting any of the peace that the name La Paz suggests.
It’s getting late when I check in to the hostel. Upstairs in the bar, things are already heating up. I join a ragtag group of stragglers, all heavy from a night of drinking and trading coin in sporadic games of Texas Hold ‘Em. We’re told of a place called Julia’s, named for its sexagenarian ex-prostitute owner, which is apparently not favoured amongst backpackers due to its grimy interiors and knife-loving regulars. Not to mention the inelegant prospect of witnessing Julia inhaling savage charges of powder before indulging in a reminiscent rub up on some vagrant’s unzipped lap.
Incorrectly labelled the world’s first cocaine lounge, Route 36 is nonetheless one of the few lounges that exists in La Paz. Travellers opt for its relaxed atmosphere and welcoming attitude, and that night so does the hostel crew. A couple of more silent types from the other end of the room enrol when they hear the word circulate. We band together, and exit out of the bar’s warm confines to hail cabs. There are eight of us, but as we peer back and forth along the street there’s not a vehicle in sight.
We wait for a while until finally two short-skirted receptionists from the hostel offer us a lift. They have the contact, for Route 36 anyway. The location of the bar certainly isn’t common knowledge, and for good reason. Though it remains a poorly kept secret our eager escorts make the call to get us on our way. The first girl leads us to her car, half-mounted on the pavement at the side of the street. “We can’t take too many at once,” she says, “They don’t usually like that – it alarms the neighbours.”
Part of the group stays behind. The rest of us jump in the cramped hatchback, rowdy and curious, but by the time we arrive we’ve turned solemnly introverted, contemplating what the night has planned for us.
Suddenly Quincey, one of the fresh faced near-mutes, pipes up and offers, “What if it’s a full-on crack den? What if it’s all used syringes and withered bodies hanging from the walls?”
“Don’t worry,” one of the receptionists replies, turning from the front seat, “it’s more like a cosy little house – not so well lit but warm, with loads of backpackers.” The word ‘backpackers’ conjures a familiar scene, and this is a comfort at least, but our paranoia is hard to shake. The possibility of finding ourselves stranded in bandit country is all too real.
Dropped in some nondescript street in an unthreatening residential area, we pay the cabby and get out in silence, walking across the road. No one says a thing. We step up to a large steel gate, leaving it to our receptionist to knock. Apparently they prefer girls.
We wait. Nothing happens. Knock again. We listen to the metal shake in the crisp air. Someone makes a phone call. Slowly, an invisible door opens and the post-box slides across to reveal a pair of suspicious eyes. They look us up and down in a vague, uncaring way. We hear the other side of the gate unlock as the eyes disappear. But we’re still worried. We’re not in yet.
“What do you want?”
“We’re looking for Marco,” one of the girls says.
Pause. A quick look around.
We get the nod. We’re nearly there. Walking through to a blue-lit corridor we enter stage left. The music seeps through to the hall as we track inside. At the entrance a middle-aged couple are chatting around what appears to be the front desk. Before them sits a table of unlit candles and ashtrays, alongside a glass full of chipped straws and a pile of pirated CD cases. It all looks extremely improvised.
“Do we take these now?” someone says, pointing to the CDs and straws.
“No, it’s okay, just come on through.”
The faces at the desk smile furtively, and we reply with an awkward nod, as they make us immediately conscious of where we are. We go through to the ground floor of an open plan house with all the appliances taken out. A selection of coffee tables and large, gray sofas has been put in their place. We soak in the action. Finding it hard to shake the surreal surroundings, we take some seats at an empty table close-by to another, where youthful faces plunge their heads into the dusted table. Conversation stagnates.
We’re greeted with an “All right lads?” from the only busy table in the room. The music stops. Everyone smiles through the silence. The room is dimly lit by muted disco lights and floor lamps, with national flags adorning the walls. They are black with marker pen, displaying messages like “Steve-o on tour”, “Gary loves boys” and our personal favourite: “REALITY WAITS” – just a flavour of what amount of brain cells have been left behind on these sofas.
At first it strikes us that the place is quite small. It’s 2am, but the few people here are really getting stuck into it. “It’s early yet, there’ll be more when the clubs shut,” someone sitting close by reassures us. Conversation, if you can call it that, drives out from between all the chattering teeth. Sentences are blurred in an unbreakable wall of voice, slurring and jittery. People sit deep in their seats, tense, trying to loosen up, with cigarettes going feverishly from mouth to ashtray. Music starts again; the rhythm from the sound system resonates through the bodies of those present.
“Good tune, this,” Quincey comments.
“Yeah.” The uninitiated sit tapping the offbeat while the well-schooled nod calmly out of rhythm. “Just relax, they’ll change the music if you want.”
We smile. Someone asks for Joy Division. They don’t have any. They put on Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. It breaks the ice. As the night bears down on us, the company grows in number and becomes increasingly erratic. Some youngsters suffer from a severe aggravation of mood, occasionally ending in a barely controlled wriggling frenzy. By nap-time, any agitation will have been soothed with a little Valium.
Due to the highly illegal wares on sale, the respectable-looking proprietors of this place have had to shift it every few weeks. Marco, though he’s dressed in a hood and jeans, is called the waiter. He fills me in on the details in perfect English, a language that he’s forced to practice by some of our fastest talking exports. “This is a new location; we’ve been here for a couple of weeks. We were raided not long ago; gas masks and smoke grenades, a whole SWAT team. But we received warning. We’re usually told by an informer beforehand so we get rid of anything illegal before they turn up. It looks like we’re just an after hours spot selling some drinks, and that satisfies them. Policing is like the theatre around here, it’s just a show.”
I stretch my legs and have a stroll, lighting one of someone’s lost cigarettes. Trying to talk to the actual owners is difficult. They seem to view their customers as wild beasts as they cash in on their cravings. I decide to go back to my table.
After some small talk, Marco gets down to business. He takes our drinks orders, and goes through the beers and spirits on offer. Water is the biggest seller, it costs nearly as much as what he offers next: “100 Bolivianos a gram for standard, or 120 Bolivianos for strong.” It’s about £9.
“What’s the difference?” Quincey asks eagerly, sitting forward and wiping his sweat-tipped fringe to the side.
“Not much,” Marco signals with his eyebrows and a wink, hinting at a business move that plays on the need for some to appear experienced in front of their friends and the roomful of strangers.
“Strong, please,” come the responses from around the table, “a gram each.”
The waiters and waitresses are chatty, amiable types. It’s their prerogative to be as personable and friendly as possible, and they let us in on some of their esoteric knowledge of the scene in La Paz. “Don’t try picking up on the street, you’ll get baking powder or worse.” Quincey lowers his eyes; he already knows.
After a few hours of serving and introducing strangers to strangers, Marco returns to our table and takes a seat. He offers us a tour around some of Route 36’s quieter areas for a chat. He tells us tired anecdotes of some who stay days at a time, with minimal sleep and maximal intake. “People coming out of Britain, America, Ireland and Australia are the most common, where cocaine costs a lot more. It’s a need to take advantage of the here and now – not just for the price, but for the transcendent experience,” Marco explains.
As he shows us the vacant disco room, reserved for weekends and lunch breaks, he speaks eloquently of his experiences. “I’m an autodidact; I’ve just been reading Moksha by Aldous Huxley.” He lifts his copy from his table, “You know it?”
I murmur in recognition. He seems surprised. “Huxley hates cocaine though, doesn’t he?” I ask. “He’s all for hallucinogens: acid, mescaline and mushrooms. The moksha-medicine.” Marco smiles a wide Cheshire and leads me away from the chatter to the other side of the room.
As we cross the floor he admits he indulges heavily in what Route 36 is known for. When we’ve found an isolated spot, he demonstrates with zeal by carving a thick streak of white around the corners of Gloria Estafan’s Greatest Hits ’84 to ‘91. He is from Peru, he tells me, where they have a similar drug culture. He’s seen the dangerous effects of cocaine – and this bar – first hand, on travellers and locals both. “I call it death row,” he says. He points back across the room to someone who has been drinking and loading heavily all night. The man talks incessantly about his newborn son, Seraphim. “Angel of Fire!” he shouts as tears well in his eyes.
“His wife has kicked him out,” Marco explains. “And they’ve moved to another city. But he still comes here every day, always talking the same shit.”
During a small break in conversation about Ayahuasca and Peyote, a laughing customer jumps up and starts dramatically punching the wall. I sit back, wary of the sudden tension. “What happens if things get out of hand in here?”
“We rarely have to ask someone to leave; people generally seem to behave quite well.” Marco delivers a sharp look to the table in question, gesturing with his hands to quieten down. “Even the ones that take too much, all they do is talk or joke. Usually it’s the drunks that give us more hassle. If we don’t like what they’re doing, we call them a cab and say goodnight. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves here.”
At times it seems as if Marco has been hardened by the things he’s seen. He talks unemotionally of the countless reformed coke addicts who have relapsed to excess in here, and the fresh faced gap-year students who cane it day and night, bouncing between sessions in the bars and lengthy bouts in the tombs of ’36.
I tell him that even Bolivia’s President is painted up as a coke fiend in the Western press. Marco nods. “They vilify Morales because he’s a man of the people,” he says, smoking his American L&Ms. “Don’t listen to that bullshit you read about him. He chews coca leaf, just like everyone else. It’s an ancient tradition going back thousands of years. It’s the ones that don’t know anything about it that want it criminalised.”
“Yeah, it’s the same thing as the War on Drugs in the US, they criminalise all the poor people and they throw them in jail.”
“It’s completely different here,” Marco tells me. “Cocaine is derived from the coca leaf in a lengthy and complicated process that makes–”
“Cocaine hydrochloride,” I interrupt a little ungraciously, eager to impress, perhaps.
He smiles. “Yeah, but it’s in a completely separate ritual that the normal folk of South America use it, and unfortunately many confuse that traditional act of growing coca leaf with the relatively new business of making cocaine.”
Morales made a similar argument when he stood before the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in 2009, chewing the leaf to underline his point. “It is an important symbol of the history and identity of the indigenous cultures of the Andes,” he told the Commission. “Today, millions of people chew coca in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and northern Argentina and Chile. The coca leaf continues to have ritual, religious and cultural significance that transcends indigenous cultures and encompasses the mestizo population.”
According to Marco, the locals believe the US government exploits this confusion to sabotage the democratically elected governments of Latin America. He shakes his head as we take a last look around the hollow chambers of Route 36. It’s been a fast night; the morning is beginning to break through the one uncovered window.
As Marco leads the way toward the exit, he tells me it’s the rejection of these Old World values that the new democracies of Latin America are marching for. He paraphrases Morales as he explains: “For the first time in South America’s history, the countries of our region are deciding how to resolve our problems, without the presence of the United States. The increased support from his 2005 election win made the US-backed elite opposition turn violent. They assassinated a load of peasant supporters of Morales’ government. But you probably didn’t read that in the papers, did you?” Marco says finally.
A cab has been called, and we wait together by the door. “I guess we’ll see what new horrors Western democracy has in store for South American dictatorships,” Marco finishes, with a wry grin. The door swings open and we exit through the front garden, leaving behind the rising chemical heat and the sparkly noses of the death row inmates.