The World's Weirdest
Tourist Attraction: San Pedro Prison
San Pedro Prison is one of the biggest in Bolivia and the common destination for people convicted of breaking the countries drug laws. It is found in the heart of the countries administrative capital, La Paz on one side of one of the city’s most attractive plazas. Its fame amongst backpackers grew in the 1990’s when English inmate Thomas Mcfadden started offering tours of the prison. It quickly became an essential part of the backpacking scene in South America.
How does San Pedro differ from normal prisons?
San Pedro is not a normal prison by any stretch of the imagination. For starters prisoners must buy their cells when they enter the prison, that’s after they’ve paid the entrance fee! There are many different sections ranging from terrible conditions in the poorer parts where inmates are crammed in 3 or 4 to a tiny cell to parts which are more like posh apartment blocks and house convicted businessmen and politicians. The wives and children of many of the inmates actually live with their husbands inside the prison. Every inmate must earn their living as nothing comes for free so many run shops, restaurants and most famously cocaine laboratories. Unlike most prisons, guards rarely enter the main part of San Pedro, so prisoners are for the most part left to look after themselves.
Backpackers in San Pedro Prison
Thousands of backpackers have entered the prison since the tours first started, intrigued by what is unquestionably one of the oddest tourist attractions in the world. Even Lonely Planet at one point included San Pedro in its South America guides. Many visitors are shocked and fascinated in equal measure by the tour which normally includes visits to the different sections, the cell of the guide and the infamous swimming pool where many inmates have been murdered. Another draw for some travellers is the opportunity to take cocaine which is ridiculously cheap and perhaps what the prison is most famous for. Many inmates are coke addicts and given that is produced onsite, the cocaine in San Pedro is amongst the purest in the world. In the 1990’s many visitors would stay overnight in the prison which hosts some pretty wild parties!
Isn’t it a Bit Dangerous?
Not really because bodyguards are employed by the guides to protect you and if anything bad ever happened to a backpacker then word would quickly get out to the hostels and people would stop coming which would be bad for the prison economy. It’s a good idea to buy something from the shops or dine in one of the prison restaurants which are often better than what you get on the outside anyway. It is rare for visitors to be allowed to stay overnight when the prison is more dangerous but some backpackers have in the past chosen to do this. As far as we are aware there have been no serious incidents involving people on the tours.
Do the San Pedro Prison Tours Still Exist?
There are conflicting reports about the current situation with the tours. Backpackers in San Pedro Prison are certainly a less common sight than 10 years ago but like many things in Bolivia, if you’ve got money you can make things happen. There are recent reports of a total ban thanks to a Hollywood movie due to be released about San Pedro. The authorities don’t like to admit that the tours ever take place (they definitely do) so any sort of publicity like this tends to make it harder to visit.
Your best bet is to talk to fellow travellers in Bolivia and especially La Paz and try to go as a large group if you are in any way concerned about the safety of it. Head to the San Pedro Plaza and hang around for a bit. You may well be approached about tours but be wary of conmen. If that fails head to the main gate of the prison where there is a steady flow of comings and goings and see what you can do. Tours are likely to cost in the region of $25 (which includes a bribe to the guards to get you in).
Read Marching Powder by Rusty Young for a fascinating insight into life in the prison through the eyes of Thomas Mcfadden, an Englishman convicted of drug trafficking at La Paz Airport in the 1990’s.
Photos of San Pedro in 2009 and courtesy of Brenski on flickr.