I can’t believe it’s already been nearly a month since the beginning of the New Year. 2015 certainly ended with a bang. In the couple of days leading up to New Years, I hung out with a couple of ex-convicts from San Pedro Prison, biked the deadly road linking La Paz to the Amazon and tried to catch my breath while strolling around Bolivia’s capital. Sometimes it trips me out to think how bizarre my life has gotten since my travels commenced.
Here’s my Top 4 from La Paz, Bolivia:
[Unofficial] Tour of San Pedro Prison
Where do you go if you want to get your hands on some of the best cocaine in La Paz? San Pedro Prison, of course!
It sounds absurd: How is it that one of the largest production facilities and suppliers of cocaine in La Paz operates out of none other than the city’s main correctional facility? This is just the beginning of many absurdities of the infamous and paradoxical San Pedro Prison.
When inmates are admitted to San Pedro, they must purchase or rent their own cells. Their wives and children are permitted to live inside the prison walls with them, and they can freely enter and leave the facility as they please. Inmates have jobs, they can dine at one of the prison restaurants. More fortunate convicts can retire to their private cells (of which they even possess their own keys) after a hard day’s work in the cocaine lab. They can call their family on their cell phones and maybe even flip on the television to check out the latest reality TV show.
Tours inside of San Pedro Prison are illegal, but it wasn’t always that way. The authorities started cracking down on visits around 2010, but prior to that, convicts like British drug-smuggler Thomas McFadden were conducting group tours daily. The novelty of touring a third-world prison, hanging out and partying with convicted inmates and snorting the blow produced within the walls was a huge draw for many tourists. If that wasn’t enough, some intrepid visitors even opted to pay to spend the night to for additional thrill.
There was a book written by Rusty Young about this particular inmate, Thomas McFadden. Young became fascinated with the inner-workings of San Pedro Prison after meeting McFadden on one of his infamous and illegal prison tours. They collaborated on a book, Marching Powder, in which McFadden details his experience over his six years as a San Pedro inmate. The book is pretty poorly written but the story is interesting. Word on the street is that there is a Hollywood movie based on the book that is coming out in the near furture.
I decided to read Marching Powder after going on a tour around the prison led by former inmates Magic Mike and Crazy Dave. External prison tours are technically illegal as well, but the guards and police officers surrounding the prison didn’t seem to blink twice at the large crowds congregating around the ex-convicts.
Magic Mike is Bolivian but lived in California in his earlier days so he speaks English pretty well. Here is the low-down on Mike: When he was young, he moved from La Paz to Los Angeles with his father. His old man had anger and jealousy issues and murdered his step-mother after suspecting she was cheating on him. After that, young Mike and his younger step-brother lived in orphanages around Los Angeles for several years before turning to the streets. When Mike was a young teen he became involved with a gang and shot a guy as part of his initiation. He later was chased down by the cops and denied killing the guy, but was shocked to learn there was video footage of him committing the murder. They locked him up in a California prison for a brief stint before deporting him back to Bolivia and sending him to San Pedro. He was pleasantly surprised to learn how relaxed San Pedro prison was compared to U.S. penitentiaries. Magic Mike is now a freeman who supports his wife and 3 kids (one of which he conceived in San Pedro) through tips from his tours and by dealing coke produced within the prison to tourists and the local community. He claims he is clean and doesn’t use. I have to admit, he looked like quite the prosperous businessman with his sleek black suit and tie.
Contrarily, Crazy Dave looked like a homeless junkie who easily fit the part of an ex-convict. Dave is a 50-year old New Yorker who was caught trying to smuggle $70k worth of cocaine, of which was packaged in beer bottles, through La Paz airport to distribute in Miami, FL. He claims the U.S. was keen on making an example of out him when sentencing him to 14 years in San Pedro Prison. Ironically, he started using and partying even more than before he was incarcerated. At one point, he even was involved in the prison’s internal cocaine production before transitioning to a tour guide just as Thomas McFadden had been. Dave said that he had met Tommy and had he been in San Pedro Prison a couple years earlier, would have definitely made an appearance in Rusty Young’s book.
Crazy Dave still loves his cocaine. Just like Magic Mike, he makes money by leading unofficial prison tours and selling coke on the outside, but can’t get his act together due to his drug addiction. He is currently homeless and told us he lives under a bridge not too far away.
Crazy Dave explained there is a new, high-security prison being constructed outside of La Paz. Once completed, San Pedro Prison will close and its inmates will be transferred. According to Dave, San Pedro will be re-opened as a museum. This is all said to take place in the next 3 years, so Dave and Mike’s short-term plan is to give as many unofficial “walking tours” around San Pedro while it’s still operating as a correctional facility and rake in tips and dirty money.
Tours run from San Pedro Square at 12pm and 1pm. If you go, you can’t miss Crazy Dave and Magic Mike. They’ll be the two animated men enthusiastically acting out and telling stories to an attentive crowd of gringos.
There are quite a few tourists who have been on Crazy Dave’s Tours. I met an Aussie couple in Bariloche, Argentina with an entertaining travel blog. They wrote a detailed post on their San Pedro Prison Tour experience – Look What We Done – San Pedro Prison. And if that isn’t enough, here are additional posts from different bloggers here and here.
Ride the Teleferico
Mi Teleferico in La Paz was just completed in 2014 and is currently the largest urban cable car in the world. It’s modern, beautiful, and high tech – a stark contrast to some of the impoverished communities located below aerial path linking La Paz and El Alto.
The view from the top of the Mirador:
Once at the Mirador, a young local pointed us in the direction of a nearby park where we were able to enjoy the views without crowds of tourists. It was a great people-watching spot.
If you’re an adrenaline-junkie like me, I highly recommend cycling Yungus Road, more popularly known as Death Road. Death Road was once the only road connecting Bolivia’s Capital to the Amazon region. In 1995, the Inter-American Development Bank named this 40-mile narrow stretch the “world’s most dangerous road” because it had claimed between 200 and 300 lives each year due to falls off its steep cliffs. In 1997, a new and safer road was constructed for automobiles which significantly decreased the death toll. That said, the original Death Road is a popular activity for thrill-seeking cyclists and several bikers still fall to their death here each year.
*I used Altitude for biking Death Road and had a positive experience. The general rule seemed to be the more you pay, the better quality bike you will receive. Most everyone (myself included) opted to pay more for a high quality Specialized mountain bike with many gears.
The Witches Market
The Witches Market is a popular street lined with shops stocked with amulets, strange potions, powders and unconventional remedies. Local witch doctors are happy to explain the voodoo traditions behind each good, whether it be crushed plants serving as a stimulant and aphrodisiac or a dried baby llama fetus meant to be an offering to Pachamama (Mother-Earth) for fertility and good fortune.