Bolivia is the world’s third largest producer of the coca leaf, a chewable medicinal plant which happens to be the active ingredient in cocaine. Coca has been grown in the region since well before colonization as a natural medicine to help indigenous inhabitants overcome symptoms such as altitude sickness, fatigue and hunger. Its consumption is a pivotal part of Andean culture, so much so that cultivation was formally declared legal in the 1980s, while farming regulations have been further relaxed by the current president and former coca union leader, Evo Morales.
Bolivia harvests an estimated 20,000 hectares of the leaf per year, officially for traditional consumption. In reality, only 12,000 hectares is estimated to be required for domestic use, with the rest allegedly ending up in the hands of narco-traffickers who refine it into a paste and ship it off to neighboring countries for huge profits. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is well aware of these activities. In the past, they tried implementing a radical coca eradication program which used violent and confrontational methods, eventually leading to their expulsion from the country by the anti-imperialist Morales. Some accuse the Bolivian government of being complicit in the drug trade, pointing to a suspiciously large international airport in the sparsely populated coca-growing region of Chapare, as well as a damning testimony from an exiled former military general.
Despite the fact that cocaine is highly illegal in Bolivia, it’s readily available for incredibly low prices with a high level of purity. Many foreign backpackers relish the opportunity to sample the local merchandise, but buying it off random drug dealers is often too risky or complicated. The team at Route 36 saw a market opportunity and went for it, opening an illegal after-hours bar under a shroud of secrecy that caters exclusively to foreigners. Bolivians aren’t allowed inside so as to deter undercover cops and journalists, while even looking at a cellphone is strictly forbidden to avoid photos popping up on Facebook. The police obviously know about it, but receive enough monthly bribes to turn a blind eye despite how damaging it is to the country’s reputation. The lounge changes location every few weeks or months to elude discovery by nosy neighbors.
So what is Route 36 actually like? First off, the place can be pretty hard to find, if it’s open at all. Only a small number of taxi drivers actually know where it is, with those waiting outside party hostels like Wild Rover or Loki being the best bet. Upon entering through a nondescript corrugated iron door, punters are quickly ushered inside and led up a dingy stairwell to pay the BOB25 (US$3.50) cover charge. Inside is a poorly lit lounge where tourists cram into worn-out couches and take turns hunching over small wooden coffee tables, becoming exponentially chattier as more lines are ingested. In the corner a middle-aged woman, who claims to be the proprietor, stands behind a bar mixing up cheap basic cocktails and dishing out little paper envelopes of cocaine along with empty CD cases and plastic straws. A DJ plays obnoxiously loud dubstep under the dim lights of a disco ball to an empty dance floor. It’s not exactly glamorous, though understandable considering they have to pack up and move every other week.
But backpackers don’t come to Route 36 for the glamour. They come to indulge in copious amounts of cocaine for prices they couldn’t even dream about back home (BOB150/US$21 per gram). Punters start to mingle more as the night goes on, swapping travel stories, making new friends, or chewing the ears off anyone who will listen. The owners usually shut up shop around sunrise the next day, hastily shepherding the crowds out onto the cold, quiet streets to a row of patiently waiting taxis. For obvious reasons, we won’t go as far as recommending a visit to Route 36. One thing’s for sure, though, there’s nowhere else quite like it in the world.