Flight from Rurrenabarque to La Paz. City sightseeing and visiting San Pedro Prison.

Travelogue Bolivia 2003
La Paz – Part 1

March 14th, 2003

Dear Friends,

After my pampa trip I had to spend another day in Rurrenabarqque as there weren’t any flights out. I wanted to use the chance to do some riding, but that is not one of the standard options the agencies offer. Ronaldo, the boss of the agency I did my tour with, promised me to organize a horse but it got later and later and whenever I asked the told me to wait a little more. Finally at four he told me that he had been two hours on his motorbike, trying to find his horse that had run away. You may have noticed that I used the time to write you another report that got quite long according to the otherwise useless time I had.

Also the next day I had do practice patience, a subject I learned to be a master in. We were told to be in the office of the flight company by nine and then they told us hour by hour that we should come a bit later as the flight was delayed due to bad weather. It got half past one till we left for the airport. hey used the same method for their prices: First I paid my ticket, then they told me, that I had to pay for every kilo of luggage exceeding 15 kilos, then there is an extra charge for the transfer to the airport and finally an airport tax AND a tourism tax. All in all none of these was expansive but after spending some days in a town without any banks or ATMs we were all quite broke.

The plane had only twelve seats and I were sitting directly behind the pilots, saw the pointers circling on the altimeter. It isn’t a long distance but some 4000m of altitude difference and the poor plane had to circle its way up for almost the entire trip. For a few minutes we even were at some 19’000 feet or 5800m, of course without a pressurised cabin. Who wanted could use one of the oxygen masks but real men will face the risk of head aches, dizziness, tiredness and death by altitude sickness.

The arrival over La Paz is spectacular, the city fills the surrounding valleys and mountains, a fantastic panorama. I like this city, it is huge but relatively clean, the classical architecture is nicely broken by some modern skyscrapers and I immediately felt home and safe (what definitely is not true after sunset). In the middle of the city is a viewpoint where you can take wonderful pictures.

La Paz
La Paz

In the evening I met with Carmen whom I had met on the Uyuni trip. We almost had also met Keith, but using the internet this is not as easy as with the omnipresence of mobile phones. For dinner we afforded a real nice sushi that was quite expensive considering local prices but incredible cheap considering European prices for the same quality.

the San Pedro Prison of La Paz
The San Pedro Prison of La Paz. Quite nice, isn’t it? Being in there is hell, at least in the main section.

But there were new adventures to face: We wanted to visit San Pedro prison, the main prison of La Paz and Bolivia. e knew that the prison consists of one whole block of 100 by 100 meters and that there were two parts, the normal one, were the situations are at least as bad as you imagine them and one part where you can go if you got the necessary money. The latter is possible to visit. We had some controversial information how to enter the prison from some guide books and Chris (also from the Uyuni trip) who had been there a week ago. We walked to the prison and saw some people waiting to be let in. Through the gate we could see a crowded court yard. That didn’t look too nice, but didn’t they say it wouldn’t be a problem?

Carmen had read that it was only possible to enter if you knew the name of one of the inmates but a first trial using a name she remembered was stonewalled by the guards. There weren’t neither any tours nor a person called John. We reread Chris’ report and found the name Richard but that didn’t help a lot, either. Bribe them, maybe? I tried showing my passport with some money bills between the pages but no success. No, no tours here. We noticed that the man sending us away had none or only one strip on his shoulders and there were a two star and a three star officer … finally the two star person led us around the corner … we had been trying the wrong entrance the one for the bad / poor prisoners. If you should want to do the tour don’t go to the eastern entrance facing the park but the northern one just around the left corner.

Here they knew Richard, yes, we were some friends of his. Richard is a thin black Caribbean with dread locks. If there is anybody matching a drug dealer cliché than it is him (though he just looks like a guy selling you some weed, compare my 2002 Belize reports). He had tried to step up in the traffic carrier, went to Bolivia, spent there ten days and then tried to fly home carrying some strange white powder. Nobody believed him as he said that he had no idea what this powder was and how it got into his luggage. The ten days soon turned into years … Richard confirmed that we were friends of his, explained that we had to pay some eight dollars each, including a fee for the guards and then guided us through the nice section of San Pedro where only some 50 prisoners live while in the main section there are more than 1000.

In the main section there aren’t any laws but the one of force, might and violence, the police enters the prison only in groups of ten or twenty, normally they don’t enter at all, leave the prisoners to themselves. Every month about two of the inmates are stabbed to death and otherwise the law of the strongest rules. Whoever has the possibility pays some 250 to 350 dollars and moves to the “luxury section”. The money is paid partly to the self organisation of this prison part, used to maintain the site, and partly to the guards, but only the important ones (stars on the shoulder?) who get paid for quite a lot, even their daily food is paid. Then you have to buy a cell, a nice room about 14sqm with own kitchen and a little but nice bathroom is available for some 4000 USD (can be resold to others after you’ve done your time), a good investment if you have to spend some years in it. If you can’t afford to buy one there are also some to rent. The best cell in the prison had three stories and was owned by a former bank manager who had stolen some 10 million dollars from the company. Chris wrote that he even had a Jacuzzi and his private chef. There are all kinds of delinquents: many drug dealers but there are also murderers.

Life isn’t bad in there, you can receive visitors 24/7 and some of the prisoners even have their family living with them which is possible for an extra fee. There are computers, mobile phones (not allowed but tolerated), two or three restaurants, a fitness studio and a pool salon. Living here you have to be 100% self-reliant, but it is not too expansive, if I understood right 100 bucks a month may be enough though there is no upper limit. Strangely enough, everything you need is apparently not bought from the outside but from the other side of the prison. On the other side literally everything seems to be available. While we were waiting in front of the wrong gate we saw some Japanese looking business man in best suits delivering a computer with all the stuff you need. I don’t want to know what else was in those boxes. Chris also wrote that one of the inmates had some ten kilos of drugs in his cell but was never caught as the officials always informed him before his cell was to be searched.

The prisoners in the nice section control the life in their part themselves, turbulence, violence or theft will not be tolerated, you can even get punished for making noise after half past twelve in the night. If someone broke a less important rule than he may be punished with some time in an isolation cell, but in the worst case they will take you back to the main part of the prison and this is about the worst thing that can happen to you. Therefore life in prison is comfortable and secure. If you pay enough you might even get vacation from the prison, but the price is that high, that you can expect, that the prisoner will NOT come back after 15 days and hopefully succeeded in leaving the country.

If you should want to visit this prison just try to smuggle some drugs or ask Richard who will be there for some more time. We definitely can recommend him, he took more than an hour for us and our questions, was friendly, funny and competent. If Richard shouldn’t be there for what reason ever (it didn’t seem to be clear how much more time he had to spent there) try asking for Anderson, a Swedish guy who also has to spent some years in La Paz. When we were there his Bolivian wife was there with their two month old baby. Anyway I had the impression that all the wives and girlfriends are there all the time. But even if you don’t know a name it shouldn’t be a problem, said Richard, just go to the gate and they will help you. Nevertheless it seems that not all of the officers appreciate the tourist tours as we had to hide in the computation teacher’s cell for a few minutes before we could leave as there was another officer at the gate who Richard did not want to see us leaving. He even said that it wouldn’t be a problem to take a little camera but we didn’t just to avoid problems. By the way, you can visit the prison everyday, not only on Thursdays and Sundays as some of the guide books say, though it might be a bit easier and cheaper on those days.

Chris had additional information for the totally crazy of you: If you pay some 250 dollars, he said, it is possible to spend a night in the bad part of the prison. The price includes personal security service, a private cell and all the drugs you want.

What a tour!

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