Would You Go On an Illegal Tour of a Bolivian Prison?

By Lloyd C | Updated November 1st, 2010

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barbwire peru prison

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 a Bolivian 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 that 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.

a south american prison

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.

Would you Dare?

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.