Go to prison of your own free will. Have a massive party. Leave the next morning. Or stay. No one really cares.
A couple of years back, I spent 12 months wandering around South America, and from the day I landed, I quickly learned about the South American backpacker’s bible, and that it was basically required reading for anyone who had headed there in search of adventure.
Marching Powder tells the story of Thomas McFadden, a British man who was apprehended at Bolivia’s La Paz airport in 1996 with five kilos of cocaine hidden in his suitcase. It chronicles his experiences in San Pedro prison, an institution located right in the centre of the city.
This book is incredible, and I’d suggest reading it whether you’re a South American backpacker or not. As soon as I had worked my way through it, I was very intrigued to see how the prison described in the book compared to the prison of today, so I packed my bags —ensuring they were 100% powder free—and headed to La Paz. Here’s what I found.
It’s a weird place
So, you’ve been sentenced to a stay in San Pedro. The first thing you’ll be asked to do is pay the entry fee. Yep, like a day at Disneyland, you’ll need to pay for the pleasure of staying. Once inside, you won’t just be handed a cell, you’ll instead have to find a cell to rent. No money? You’ll be sleeping in the courtyard. Have a drug kingpin amount of money? You can rent a lovely two-storey condo with a Jacuzzi for around $5000 a month. Wild.
How do you pay your rent? By getting a job. Perhaps you become a realtor and rent out those cells. Perhaps you become a handyman, a cleaner, or a restaurateur (you can get a beautifully cooked fillet steak inside San Pedro if you’re willing to pay for it). Or perhaps, like a large percentage of the prison population, you turn your talents to producing cocaine. It’s common knowledge that San Pedro produces the highest quality cocaine in Bolivia, which sometimes leaves the prison by way of a diaper thrown over the wall.
But what if you’re a family man with a wife and kids in need of support? No problem, they can move in too. The kids leave the prison for school in the morning and come back at the end of the day while the wife finds an in-prison job, just like you.
Officially, San Pedro is a medium-security prison, but because of its unique economy and awesome location, it sees some very high-security type offenders buying their way in. This not only increases the amount of trouble, but the popularity also means that it holds around four times the amount of prisoners that it should.
You can’t go inside
In Marching Powder, McFadden earned money by leading guided tours through the prison. If the visitors paid enough, they were also allowed to stay the night and indulge in the jail’s famous “produce”. A lot of tourists go there today expecting the same situation, but, unsurprisingly, things have changed since the book was released in 2003.
When McFadden was released, there were other inmates, generally locals, who tried to keep the tours going. But after a series of unsavoury incidents–violence, sexual abuse, even instances where tourists were mistaken for real prisoners and locked up for weeks at a time–controls on outside visitors were tightened. Even if you are offered the opportunity to go in today, you just don’t do it.
You can get a firsthand account
With outside interest as great as it’s ever been, a new kind of tour has emerged to fill the void left by McFadden. And, while it’s certainly not the experience described in the book, I found it almost as weird.
If you’re in a La Paz hostel talking about going to San Pedro, someone will probably mention Crazy Dave. He’s a 50-something year old dude from New York who apparently got sentenced to 14 years after being busted smuggling 8.5 kilograms of cocaine. You may also hear of Alex, Crazy Dave’s Bolivian side-kick who spent some time in the US before being locked up in San Pedro for an armed robbery. He brought his family in with him.
If you head to Plaza Sucre around midday or 1pm, Crazy Dave and Alex, both of whom were still on parole when I was there, will manifest out of nowhere and ask whether you’re there for the tour. You don’t need to find them, they’ll find you. What follows is an hour long walking tour that takes place outside the prison walls, but offers amazing insight into what goes on inside. Crazy Dave plays the lead role, Alex is the hype man, and the whole double act is super entertaining.
The ex-cons confirm much of what was in the book and add in many of their own experiences, everything from drug production and parties to escapes and beatings. At the start of the tour, they promise to answer any question honestly and completely, and in my experience they were true to their word. It’s a truly fascinating, gritty, and entertaining tour.
Just watch for the powdered milk
And that’s not a euphemism. The oddest bit of the whole experience comes at the end. As a tip-based tour you give as much as you feel it was worth. I handed Alex a few Bolivianos, but as I turned to Crazy Dave he said “No, no, no. I’m a junkie, man. If I get cash, I’ll just spend it on drugs. If you don’t mind, I’ll take you to a supermarket and you can buy me some groceries.” How responsible, I thought to myself.
When we got to the supermarket, Crazy Dave marched down the aisle and grabbed two huge containers of powdered milk, along with a couple of little items, maybe a toothbrush and an apple. I asked him why he’s buying so much milk. “I bury it under a bridge, just in case I need emergency nutrition,” he says. The group then get the bill…double what any of us were planning to tip. But we pay–he’s an addict trying to come good, after all–and say our goodbyes.
But when we get back to the hostel we realise that everyone who has done the tour has bought the same thing for Crazy Dave: about 20 kilograms of powdered milk and little else. And this happens twice a day, almost every day of the week.
If you’re a person who likes their glass half full, you might suggest he has the world’s largest stomach and strongest bones. If you prefer your glass half empty, you might postulate that he’s cut a sweet deal with the supermarket to ring backpackers dry. Choose your own adventure, dudes.
But even with that knowledge in the bank, I’d still recommend the book, the visit, and the tour with every fibre of my being. Bolivia is a crazy country, and San Pedro is that craziness concentrated and distilled.
Even if it’s no longer like it was, it’s still a fascinating relic of a different time. And as the cogs of progress turn, it’s one that won’t be around forever.