“La hoja de coca no es droga” was the slogan on t-shirts and posters everywhere when I was in Bolivia back in 2004. “Coca leaf is not a drug.” Judging by the plethora of barrels and garbage-bags filled with the stuff everywhere in stores, on street sides, and the little green pieces stuck in locals’ yellowing teeth, it was true. Bolivians chew coca leaf and drink coca tea (simply put a few leaves in a mug, add hot water, and there you go) like the Chinese smoke cigarettes. Alot. It’s crazy how often you see this medium-size, round, darkish green leaf. It’s supposed to help with digestion, aid altitude sickness (and if you’re not used to the altitude, you will need help in Bolivia), and overall be good for your health. If nothing else, it will leave you with annoying shards of plant in your mouth that do not go away.
This being said, while the coca leaf-which is not a drug- is seen left and right, that finely granulated white powder- which is a drug- known as cocaina, or cocaine, is hardly ever seen in Bolivia. Or at least when I was there. Apparently, some things have changed. I recently stumbled upon an article about Route 36, Cocaine Bar. It’s the world’s first bar where you can order your rum & coke with a side of coke, and it’s located in La Paz, Bolivia. Like your morning coffee, you can even request your lines to be extra strong for a few more bolivianos.
I was excited about this discovery for a few reasons, even though I don’t plan on going back to Bolivia any time in the near future. First off, it means that things have changed. While in Bolivia, one of the wonderful and horrible things about the country was that they were largely ill-equipped for the presence of tourists. This was mainly in their attitude toward foreigners and general lack of hospitality. It was wonderful because I hate generic tourist destinations for all the falsity and destruction of culture they entail. It was horrible because, honestly, I was treated worse than shit on several occasions. I don’t know if it was because I was a woman, an American, or a backpacker. Maybe it was a combination of all three. So I’m glad that Bolivia has started to get its act together in terms of using what they have to draw in tourism- and they have ALOT. Llamas, rolling mountains of lush greenery, ancient Incan ruins, landscapes that make you think you’re on Mars, salt flats, flamingos, the biggest lake in the world. And cocaine.
I’m not going to advocate or condemn the use of drugs, but the plain fact is that people are going to do them- especially if they’re away from home. In this way, Route 36 is an ingenious idea. Countries need to use their resources in order to make a profit, plain and simple. And since Bolivia is still the third poorest country in all of Latin America (after Haiti and Nicaragua), it’s important to be creative and seek out sustainability any way you can. Cocaine is still illegal in Bolivia, but the owners of this bar have paid off the officials. Neighbors don’t like all the illegal activity going on close to home, so Route 36 is constantly on the move. Despite the challenges, the bar has remained open for at least three years (I’m not sure when it opened, but the first media about Route 36 appears in 2009), and as long as the officials can be placated, I don’t foresee it going away.
To learn more about Route 36, here is an article written about it in “The Guardian.”
What do you think about drug tourism and the concept of a cocaine bar? Would you ever visit? Have you been there, and what did you think about it?