Route 36: A Bolivian Enigma

Route 36 is a moveable feast where cocaine is the aperitif, main course and dessert. Situated everywhere and nowhere within La Paz, the pulse of South America’s poorest country, it has for several years, attracted hordes of tourists through word of mouth alone.

Whenever travelling, it is has always been my pipedream to begin an adventure inspired by the near-unintelligible whisperings of a fellow backpacker, made moments before his dubiously early death. This takes a lot of luck, coupled with an insatiable yearning to explore. As such, Route 36 inevitably found its way into my consciousness.

My particular experience with the bar was not quite as exhilarating as Alex Garland’s most famous of all travel yarns, manifested in the form of his semi-autobiographical novel, The Beach, but was nevertheless unique.

It began with an obnoxious American who legitimately helped himself to my beer before striking up a conversation. He proceeded to ask me through an array of hand gestures and colloquialisms, hilariously reminiscent of Sean Connery’s espionage techniques in early Bond films, whether I liked to snort cocaine. Repeatedly urging me to scribble down the name ‘Ruta treinta y seis’, despite my gentle reminders that Spanish was lost on me, the message was eventually delivered.

The night I actually attempted to find the bar, I’d spent twenty minutes in a cab with my brother and three newly-made friends from the Wild Rover hostel before the panicky resignation that we were on a wild goose chase began to wash over me. Eventually however, the cabbie pulls up outside what appears to be an abandoned warehouse, with its shutters pulled down. Drunkenly gazing out the window, basically waiting for the situation to unfurl and resolve itself, a burly local, dressed to the nines, rolled up the shutters before opening the car door and announcing in near-perfect English, “Welcome to Route 36”.

After leading my motley crew of curious but unassuming tourists up a flight of stairs cloaked in darkness, the surrogate concierge then passed us on to the bar’s ‘waiter’. This sweet, mousy woman, who couldn’t be further from my predetermined incarnation of the cocaine industry, considered the number of our party before designating us a small table. Time was provided for us to pore through the drinks menu, order beers and settle in before our waitress returned.  Then, with the pretence of legitimacy ceased – she bluntly asked us how much cocaine we wished to consume.

Aside from its primary commodity being cocaine, Route 36’s other well-known trait is it’s constant change in location – roughly every month to be precise. There is a surprisingly innocuous reason for this. It is neither because of moral ambiguities (reconciling living crack-den adjacent) which the neighbours might suffer, nor any pressure whatsoever from the police. Instead, it is due to the inevitable noise complaints, alas, because celectro-pop, favoured by the owners, incessantly permeates their walls.

In terms of the drug itself, cocaine is of course officially illegal in Bolivia. However one simply needs to examine the political history of their President, Evo Morales, to realise the paradoxical relationship the nation has with cocaine.  Dropping out of high school to join a coca farm in the late 70s, Morales shot to fame by leading the Coca Farmers’ Union resistance against America’s attempt to eradicate the coca crops during their ‘War on Drugs’ in the 80s. Furthermore, a 2009 UN Office of Drug Control estimation determined that Bolivia was the world’s third highest producer of the coca leaf, just behind Columbia and Peru, while coca leaf sales alone amounted to a whopping 2% of the nation’s GDP. Therefore, while the incumbent President has signalled his intents to ramp up the eradication of coca farms, so as to assuage international pressure, it is difficult to imagine a Bolivia without the sprawling fields of its coca farms. One can be forgiven for taking Bolivia’s array of drug laws with a grain of naughty salt.

I guess it is because of the bar’s itinerant nature and for the fact that it readily serves a drug, which is ostensibly illegal, that Route 36 has developed such an alluring mystery. This has in turn meant the bar has entrenched itself in La Paz’s cultural identity, making it an unorthodox must-see for tourists (much like the women of Bangkok who possess the enviable ability to shoot Ping-Pong balls from their vaginas).

However, while Route 36 made for an enjoyable novelty, even to my near-virginal nose the quality of its cocaine was highly dubious. Furthermore, one couldn’t help but feel upon departure that they had simply bought into another kitsch product consciously manufactured for the consumption of tourists. Therefore, in terms of fully experiencing South America, the “last twist of the burrow” would probably only have been reached through trying Ayahuasca, a natural psychedelic compound which contains the base element of DMT and was touted by many travellers as the “trip” of a lifetime.