The Scandal Behind La Paz's Unbelievable Elephant Cemeteries

La Paz
La Paz | © Gary A. Valenzuela/Flickr
Harry Stewart

Bolivians love a good party, but unfortunately many people take the partying lifestyle too far and end up as homeless alcoholics. Scraping together the last few coins they can find in a never-ending quest to buy more booze, some of these destitute drunkards eventually find themselves checking into a hotel from which they will never return – The Elephant Cemetery.

Elephant cemeteries are a type of clandestine hotel/bar where alcoholics go to drink themselves to death when they have given up on life. These miserable pits of despair are the antonym of glamorous. Most offer nothing more than a dingy unlit room with cold cement flooring, bare brick walls, and a tattered old mattress for the wretched to lie on as they slowly pass away.

A homeless man in La Paz

Obviously illegal, elephant cemeteries trade entirely underground. Some Bolivians still dismiss them as being an urban legend – perhaps unwilling to accept the fact that such macabre places do exist in civilized society. But a 2014 report by Telemundo put any doubts to rest with shocking footage revealing their inner workings, and with interviews from those unfortunate enough to want to visit. The report states that alcoholics ask the proprietor to lock them inside until they have passed away. Those who change their mind can ring a doorbell and leave, only to end up sleeping on the hard concrete streets right outside. The police claim they’re doing everything they can to stop the proliferation of elephant cemeteries and frequently conduct raids to shut down the ones they find.

A short story entitled Los Cementerios de Elefantes (The Elephant Cemeteries) by Victor Hugo Viscarra describes what goes on in gruesome detail. The story is based on his own personal experience investigating this phenomenon. He explains how clients often shake so badly from decades of alcohol abuse that they’re unable to drink from cups or bottles. A bucket full of pure alcohol is offered instead, along with a large dipper to scoop it straight into the mouth. Some places reportedly function as bars with a cemetery out the back, while others are dedicated suicide hotels. Here clients can either choose a private room, or they can opt for a shared space where their final days become a communal event.

The Elephant Cemetery has even been covered in a film. A 2009 motion picture by Tonchy Antezana received widespread acclaim for its gritty cinematography and excellent performance from protagonist, Christian Castillo. The film tells the story of how a 33-year-old man, who has been addicted to alcohol since age 14, resolves to commit suicide in an elephant cemetery. Over the course of a week, he reflects on his miserable life which inspires him to keep downing more booze until the end finally comes. But dying from alcohol poisoning doesn’t happen quickly for a hardened alcoholic. Their bodies are so used to ingesting liquor that a serious binge is required for vital organs to shut down. This film has become a Bolivian classic bringing significant attention to this horrific underground reality.

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