go-to intoxicants are cannabis, whiskey and tequila, but rumblings on the South American backpacker trail suggested that La Paz, Bolivia, had a speakeasy that openly sold cocaine. The Guardian wrote about it the previous year, but the blow bar known as Route 36 was still relatively new in 2010, and it stayed one step ahead of the law by changing locations every few weeks. I’d enjoyed a few bumps in years past but never purchased the powder myself. Arriving in the Bolivian capital, I knew this was about to change.
At 12,000 feet in elevation, La Paz is, after all, the world’s highest capital city. But we had to find Route 36 first, and it wasn’t exactly listed in Lonely Planet.
My Colombian fiancée and I arrived in La Paz on a bus from Lake Titicaca and stayed at the hostel chain Loki. For most travelers, the main attraction in La Paz is riding a bike 40 miles down the Death Road, a nickname earned from its high rate of fatalities. We wanted to ask the Loki staff about Route 36, but a crowd encircled the front desk to book Death Road adventures. Impatient, I squeezed through the X-Games wannabes to ask my apparently impertinent question.
“Excuse me, I have a quick question,” I politely stated. “How do we get to Route 36?”
Both men working at the front desk froze like a photo and glared in disgust. Their obvious disdain hushed the would-be Death Roaders who wanted to see what was happening.
“You know it is illegal,” the Loki staffer said coldly. “And you hurt the country by supporting these drug producers. We won’t give you any information, and we don’t want any of that here.”
“But you are happy to send tourists down the Death Road and risk their lives as long as you get your cut,” I didn’t have the balls to say. Instead, I slowly slinked backwards through the crowd feeling as welcome as Jared Fogle in a Disney World parade. Still, I was undeterred, especially considering Bolivia’s complicated history with the illicit crop.
of years, the indigenous Andean tribes of South America chewed on coca plant leaves to lift their energy levels. Though initially overlooked by European colonists, German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke isolated a stimulant alkaloid in coca in 1855. A few years later, a student at the University of Göttingen in Germany earned his Ph.D. with a historic dissertation that better isolated the alkaloid he named cocaine. In the early years, so-called medicinal applications included treating flatulence and whitening teeth, and Parke-Davis (now Pfizer) sold cocaine in cigarettes, powder and injectables. Due to recreational cocaine abuse, the U.S. government severely restricted the drug in the 1920s, but it made a comeback with the 1970s disco scene.
Colombia is the most famous cocaine exporter, but right now Bolivia and Peru lead the world in production. When the U.S. government financed attempts to eradicate the plant in Bolivia, a coca leaf grower named Evo Morales helped organize other cocaleros and lead the Movement for Socialism (MAS) to preserve the plant and the farmers’ livelihoods. This cocalero, who became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006, is still in power today. President Morales expelled the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from Bolivia in 2008, and the Huffington Post broke the story last week that the DEA secretly retaliated with Operation Naked King to undermine his democratically elected presidency. Route 36 and cocaine are both illegal and affect international aid, but the political games and entrenched poverty make it easier for the speakeasy to pay off the police, politicians and the locals.
not know the location, but we assumed a cab driver could help. Meticulously dressed like we had dinner reservations at Gustu, we hailed a taxi on the street in front of Loki. My fiancée chatted with the driver for about a minute, nodded her head and turned to me saying, “The driver knows where it is, and he will take us, but if the police are out front, he is going to take us right back.” Fair enough.
After we squeezed into the backseat of the taxi, the driver sped off, and we reached Route 36 in a matter of minutes. Ironically, the speakeasy was located on a quiet street up the hill from the main boulevard only about six blocks from the hostel. Two well-dressed gentlemen in suits stood before a nondescript door. As we approached, my fiancée asked in Spanish, “Is this Route 36?”
“Where are you from?” replied one of the gentlemen in Spanish-accented English.
“New York City,” I responded.
“Where are you staying?”
I almost expected a comment about the Loki staff, but we clearly were not Bolivian police officers or DEA agents, and he nodded to the other man standing outside. He proceeded to open the door and motioned for us to follow him down a long hallway that felt like a robbery setup. When we arrived at another door, the man took out his cell phone, hit speed dial and said a few words in Spanish. The second door opened from the inside. Another man appeared from behind the door and looked us over for a moment before opening the door wide. I thought, “This is what alcohol prohibition must have been like.”
We passed through the door and walked inside to a large open room that seemed surprisingly stylish. It was around 10 p.m., an early hour by coke-use standards, as Route 36 is considered an afterhours that does not get jumping until well after midnight. An attractive hostess walked us to a large comfy booth with a black glass-like tabletop that reflected visuals like a warped fun house mirror. Only two other tables were occupied. In the corner, a large group of sharp-dressed Spanish speakers encircled an oversized glass table, and another couple sat in a booth on the far side of the room. At the larger table, someone occasionally lowered his or her head for a line, but no one ever let out a post-bump battle cry like Americans might do following a shot at TGI Friday’s. The vibe was unexpectedly chill for a coke bar.
A waitress arrived, warmly greeted us and left menus. I knew I’d have the chance to do blow, but the current menu only featured drinks. We opted for coca leaf mojitos, and after we ordered, a gentleman approached the table and politely spoke in Spanish. My fiancé listened and translated.
“They have two options,” she explained. “The normal stuff costs 100 Bolivianos a gram, but the good stuff is 200 Bolivianos. What do you want to do?”
The exchange rate as of September 2015 sits just south of seven Bolivanos to the dollar, but in 2010, the dollar actually netted eight bills. That put the prices near $12.50 and $25 per gram, respectively. Recent reports suggest that the good stuff now runs 150 Bolivianos, but at double the price at the time, we took the 100-Bolivianos option knowing my novice nose probably couldn’t tell the difference.
later, the server brought the mojitos, followed closely by the blowtender carrying a silver tray, cut straws and a small piece of thick paper folded several times. I unfolded the paper to find the white powder inside. In the movies, coke-inhaling actors cut the lines with razors, but I had neither a razor nor a clue what to do. I attempted to make straight lines with the straws, failing miserably, but the black reflective tabletop still made the lines look enticing.
“It is all you, baby,” my fiancée said in a quasi-judgmental tone.
The current space was elegant—a hit or miss attribute depending on the location the organizers can secure at any given time—but openly snorting lines still felt wildly dirty and invigorating at the same time. And the backpacker-grade blow did the trick. We later learned that the pricier option was more potent, which this relative novice did not require.
In my hometown of Los Angeles, everyone cringes at house parties when two girls go into the bathroom at the same time. The move often suggests the girls will do blow and proceed to chat for what seems like hours as the bladders waiting outside try not to pop. Route 36 did not have a bathroom problem, but cocaine’s chatty Cathy effect was clearly on display. Several times during the night, a girl stopped by our table and proceeded to speak in NASCAR-fast Spanish for several breathless minutes at a time. I never knew what they said, just as they never realized I did not speak Spanish. When I asked my fiancée to translate, she just rolled her eyes with dramatic Colombian flair.
I was the only North American there that night, but recent reports suggest that English-speaking tourists now make up the majority of the clientele. Likewise, security does not always wait outside on the street, and sometimes the taxi driver must knock on the door first and verify that the passengers are legit. Some accounts also talk about board games and warehouse spaces in seedier neighborhoods, but such details are a roll of the dice depending on the location.
After a few hours, we paid our bill and exited the space knowing it would likely be somewhere else the following week. From this location at least, we could easily walk back to Loki, and the cocaine gave me the energy to do so. If you personally make the trek to La Paz and want to visit Route 36, allow the adventure to unfold without expectations, and take twisted pride knowing you visited the first official cocaine bar of the modern era.
Photo: ullstein bild/Getty Images
deGeneration X columnist David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.