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Would You Join an Illegal Tour of a Bolivian Prison?

by Globetrooper Todd | 36 Responses
San Pedro Prison Tour La Paz Bolivia

For years we’ve heard stories of the infamous tours of San Pedro Prison in Bolivia. By law, tourists are strictly not allowed in the prison, but there’s a well-worn path of contacting English-speaking inmates to take you in as their relatives for an illegal tour. (Yes, you actually have to call a number inside the prison and ask for a particular person.)

Being on the other side of the world, my answer to whether I’d do this would be quite different. But now, only a hair’s breadth from La Paz, I’m not so sure. What about you? Would you join an illegal tour of San Pedro Prison? Let me tell you a little more first.

UPDATE: We went inside and wrote all about the experience (click here). Even 6 months later, this is the story we tell most about our travels. Highly recommended.

It’s No Secret When It’s on Wikipedia

Firstly, this is what Wikipedia has to say:

El penal de San Pedro is the largest prison in La Paz, Bolivia, renowned for being a society within itself. Significantly different from most correctional facilities, inmates at San Pedro have jobs inside the community, pay or rent their accommodation, and often live with their families. The sale of ‘cocaine base’ to visiting tourists gives those inside a significant income and an unusual amount of freedom within the prison walls. Elected leaders enforce the laws of the community, with stabbings being commonplace.

If you didn’t work it out from that blurb, there are no guards inside San Pedro; it’s really a free-for-all with guards on the outside only. Also, you may have read that the prisoners generate income from selling cocaine base (pure cocaine) to tourists.

When in Rome…

To me, it sounds like those tourists (buying the cocaine) are taking adventure travel to a whole new level. Here I am a little apprehensive about going into an unguarded jail, and there they are within the very place they could end up, buying drugs from convicted criminals without a care in the world. Maybe they’re just adhering to the whole  ‘When in Rome…’ philosophy.

First-hand Accounts of San Pedro Tours

To read one of the best first-hand accounts on the web, check out Vicky Baker’s story in The Guardian. She says Brad Pitt’s production company is making a film about the prison and infamous tours. Apparently once the film launches, the tours will certainly be stopped. Also, for another great first-hand account, check out this blog post on World Nomad‘s website. The author specifically mentions watching an English couple happily snorting lines of cocaine, which they purchased for about $1.50 per gram, and smoking joints in the main courtyard.

So, would you?

So would you seek out an ex-prisoner running a clandestine operation from the nearby plaza to join one of the hottest ‘non-tours’ on the planet? This is adventure travel after all.

Posted in Adventure Travel, Bolivia | November 1st, 2010

36 Responses to Would You Join an Illegal Tour of a Bolivian Prison?

  1. I wanted to do this so badly when I was in Bolivia, but ran out of time. I hope you do it and blog about it!

    • Considering there’s a bit of luck involved in getting invited in… not sure if it will happen but I think we’re going to try ;)

  2. My thoughts on this? – it sounds a fascinating social situaiton but in reality its a bunch of people who have done probably lots of hideous things and are still on the black market – why would you risk yourself in a situation like that out of some curiosity about them. On the other hand, if I was one of those prisoners I would so despise people coming in to poke around and look – like being in the zoo- would make me a tad angry I think though I guess if you could make money out of the tourists that might even things up a bit.
    so on the whole I think its a bad idea to do it – you’re travelling the world – see other things – not sure prisons are the go.
    I would also be very cautious of doing things that are illegal in another country – you dont know what the consequences are if you get caught and the legal systems are usually not as lenient as ours –

    • Ok ma, I can see your perspective but we’re also trying to push past our own comfort zones and do things that are off the beaten tourist track. But there’s a big risk with this one… so still contemplating but I think it will be a spur of the moment decision and hoping to gather other comrades for safety in numbers :)

    • Oops, I forgot you read this Heather :) My dad isn’t too keen on us doing it either. But what’s the worse that can happen? Actually, probably best not to answer that. Don’t worry, Lauren will protect me.

  3. Yeah, I’m with Heather on this. It’s one thing to be adventurous, it’s another to knowingly break the law in another country; that’s just asking for trouble. I also don’t really have any desire to see the inside of a prison, let alone one with no guards to keep the peace. Sounds like that Panamanian prison in Prison Break. Shudder.

  4. I would have to do more research. We don’t make it a habit of breaking the law in other countries:-) Especially South American countries that are known for their notorious prisons. I wouldn’t have a desire to end up in one of the them if I got caught.
    On that note, Dave instantly said yes when I read him the title of the piece. So there you go.

    • High 5 Dave! :)

      We’ll see what the word on the street is when we get there. But I’m with you Deb, not too keen on prison, especially in South America.

  5. That sounds fascinating. Might be too depressing for us… but like someone said above, once we’re there and hear stories from other travellers who’ve done it, maybe that will change our mind. Will definitely keep this in mind if we ever find ourselves in Bolivia.

    • Hey Jill, we’re the same, now that we’re closer, it’s seeming for attractive. I think we’ll wait until we’re in La Paz to decide.

  6. Wow, it sounds interesting. Is it safe though? To walk around inside a prison? What’s the consequences of breaking the law there? Intriguing…

  7. You should go!
    I went inside a small prison in Honduras a couple months ago. I was invited by a friend of a friend who did some releve work with the inmates, so I reckoned it was quite safe. Inside it was a bit surreal. As is the case in Bolivia, there are only (heavily armed) guards outside the prison. Inside, there is just the law of the prison.
    Before we went in, we asked to see the chef of the prisson. He is the main boss, and what he says goes. So if he tells you it is safe to come in, it is (kinda). We first entered the woman section, which had a gate to the male section. That gate was guarded by inmates, very weird, but appearenedly that worked out. The male section was a big courtyard with 4 sleeping quarters. All the man where outside on the courtyard, some where cooking food for the lot of them, others where doing laundry and others where just hanging around. You could feel that there was a organisation among them. Very cool!
    The inmates themselves where all gangbangers, so murderers, thiefs and drugoffenders. But they where quite nice and curious. Some came to talk to us and told us their stories.

    All in all, it was very impressive and if you have the chance, you should go!

    • Just between you and me, I’m certainly leaning towards it. We’ll be there in a week, so fingers crossed. :)

  8. I don’t know. The adventurer in me says go for it. However, the whole cocaine thing is a real turn off for me. Is their primary reason for allowing tourists inside to sell cocaine? I had a family member die from crack cocaine abuse, so drug dealings of any sort leave me cold.

    • Hey Nancia, I’m not really sure how much they sell. But I imagine the inmate taking you on the tour is mostly concerned with the entrance fee you provide. I image (but have no evidence) that the drug dealing is a way for other inmates to profit from the tours. Or maybe it’s one big integrated operation… really not sure. But completely understand your position. Here in Peru Coca is so engrained into the culture (not cocaine, but chewing leaves and whatever else), yet it also seems the root of most of the evil in South America. What do you do hey? We were stopped yesterday by police who were trying to control Coca farming, so they are serious about the problem. Or so it seems.

  9. I went inside the San Pedro prison in 2002.

    I went in with Rusty Young who wrote the book Marching Powder and also made a documentary on life inside the prison. He was finishing off the documentary when I went in with him and the book hadn’t been released at that point. If you want to know what you are in for see if you can find the doco online or get your hands on the book – its a great read.

    It was totally fascinating. The atmosphere inside was like a little village with shops and families.

    Prisoners have to buy everything whilst inside – including their cell! You aren’t even given a cell – it is amazing. The tours are business that generate revenue for those who run them and help them survive on the inside. For the foreigners in there it is really the only way to make money unless their families send them cash to live. They make about a tenth of what you pay (or spend) when in there. The rest goes to the power brokers to make sure nothing happens to you in there.

    If something happens to a tourist – the tours are stopped – like they were for a while after Marching Powder came out and the powerful people stop getting revenue so from that standpoint it is safe BUT there are some loose people in any prison and if they decide to snap the day you are in there well…… that is the risk you are taking.

    For me it was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had.

    • Wow, can’t argue with that testimonial (that it was one of your best travel experiences) :) Did you read the book or see the doco? Hopefully we can report on how thing have changed. Let’s see in a week or so…

      • Yep – read the book and saw the doco. Both great. here is quick taster for those never likely to go.
        Bolivia is full of dicey stuff that creates great memories. Cycle the most dangerous road on Earth. Catch Anacondas in the Pampas. Blow up some dynamite in Potosi. It is full on – but really the most dangerous day I had there was when our driver in the Solar got on the drink all night and then fell asleep at the wheel the next day. I took over the driving from that point…. Sorata is well worth a look. Look up Herman the German in the house on the way out to the waterfall. Great guy. Amazing cook.

      • Wow, I didn’t realise “Rusty” was a relatively young guy from Sydney. We’re finding so many people from Sydney in South America. Thanks for the link and tips, will certianly make the most of them when we arrive. At the moment our trip is delayed because there’s a strike in between Cusco and Bolivia. No matter, we’ll be there soon.

  10. I think I would be very tempted to have a go at this one. Should put a heart rate monitor on to see what it gets up to when you first walk in……

    • Hey Tim, great to hear from you. We’ll have to Skype again soon. We spoke to Freddy the other day too. We’re heading for Bolivia by bus this Friday, so we’re going to check it out and see if we can do it. Bolivia sounds pretty cool; very cheap ($5/night for accommodation), lots of adventure (jungle trips, etc), and of course the prison tour. Anyway, we’ll let you know how it goes. I think the hardest bit will be getting in contact with one of the prisoners. But apparently the people that work at the hostels have all the info.

  11. Having read Marching Powder, I reckon I’d have to go in if I were in La Plaz. However, I reckon the upcoming Marching Powder film will either make it so popular that the process is shut down for good, or it’ll become even more institutionalized.

    • I though the same way before going in… however, I got the feeling that everyone knew about it and the tourists paid so much money that no one would ever change it. Tourists are probably bringing in 10,000 Bolivianos every visiting day. This money wouldn’t enter the country otherwise. It absolves the govt of some prison spending, it pads the pockets of the guards, it helps the prisoners lead higher quality lives, it helps the families, etc. I’m still not certain of my stance on the ethics of it all, but looking at it from their side, I don’t think that money would enter the country otherwise. It would end up in much more expensive Argentina. So I’m not sure of the impact the movie will have.

  12. A mate of ours went to San Pedro recently. He is a pretty big guy and even he felt very uncomfortable when offered drugs by one of the inmates. He told us he felt under a lot of pressure to buy something and ended up buying a couple of beers and a hand drawn picture.
    Definitely not for the faint hearted….

    • Hey Michael, thanks for dropping by.

      Sounds like we were lucky to get someone who didn’t believe in pushing the drugs. Even if you wanted drugs, I can’t think of a worse place to buy them than in a South American prison on an illegal tour. :)

      Best to go with one or two other people to ease the nerves. I was certainly a little nervous until I left that exit gate. Or maybe 100m u the road even.

  13. It might be safe safe 99% of the time and you will have a good story to tell. But if something goes wrong, the police authorities will not come in and help you.
    The British government specifically warns people against doing these tours. You are risking violence, mugging, exposure to drugs and possible arrest by the legitimate police. Don’t do it !

    • The consequences are definitely worth considering Brian, no argument there, I guess the opportunity was just too good to miss for us. Horses for courses I suppose. Still almost a year later, it’s our favourite travel experience yet.

  14. I am pretty sure Shawna would never let me get away with going, but the intrigue is definitely there…I am worried I would wet myself with fear once inside, and then I could be in trouble…. :) I have heard prison is a very bad location to show weakness!

    • Hey guys, I thought the same thing before arriving, but once there, I was really drawn to it. :)

  15. I will be traveling through Bolivia in November this year and am extremely curious about experiencing all of this. Are the ‘tours’ still going as far as everyone is aware? And what is the best way of getting in contact with one of the inmates?


    • Hi D. Wow, what a story.

      We ended up going into the prison and wrote all about it here:

      You know, travel is relative. You say people should go to a nicer place, but what doesn’t that mean? A beach? A resort? A city like New York? For many of us, we can’t think of anything more boring. Travel is about experiencing something different. I guess if you spent your youth in a Bolivian prison, than a nice beach would be nice. But for me, who grew up in Australia, one of the ‘nicest’ places on Earth, I’d rather do more adventurous stuff, like illegally visit prisons.

      Horses for courses, as they say :)

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