San Pedro Prison is one of the biggest in Bolivia and the common destination for people convicted of breaking the country’s laws. However this is no ordinary prison. San Pedro has gained an infamous reputation with all the bizarre stories that have come out of it through the years. This includes everything from tales of cocaine labs, wild parties and wealthier inmates renting fancy cells equipped with hot tubs and king-size beds. There was even a period when backpackers in La Paz would take tours of the prison and sometimes end up, quite voluntarily, staying for days or weeks in their crazy new surroundings.
Dark Tourism: Bolivia’s infamous San Pedro Prison
How does it differ from normal prisons?
There are all kinds of ways in which this place differs from a regular prison. Firstly, rather than being hidden away in some distant suburb or outside the city altogether, it is found right in the very heart of the administrative capital La Paz. Indeed El Penal de San Pedro overlooks a pleasant plaza of the same name, just a couple of blocks from Avenida 16 de Julio, the city’s main thoroughfare.
Inside, things only get weirder. San Pedro’s notoriety mostly comes in that it is one of the few prisons that is essentially run by its inmates. For starters, prisoners must pay for their cells when they enter the prison, that’s after they’ve coughed up the entrance fee!
Essentially, the prison has its own little, corrupt economy, and as in any other having a bit of money helps a lot. There are many different sections ranging from terrible conditions in the poorer parts where inmates are crammed in with up to 10 prisoners sharing a small 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 also 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, as has widely been reported, even 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. Unsurprisingly, there have been numerous tales of brutal violent acts between fellow inmates.
Thomas Mcfadden, Rusty Young & Marching Powder
Until the 1990’s, outside of Bolivia at least, little was known about the ongoings in San Pedro and travellers to La Paz came and went, most likely without even knowing the place existed. That all changed when British-Tanzanian Thomas Mcfadden started offering tours of the prison after he was incarcerated for drug trafficking in 1996.
Travellers passing through La Paz along the typical South America backpacking route (known as the Gringo Trail), quickly started to take notice and before long a visit to San Pedro, was high on the to-do lists of many adventurous travellers. Despite the apparent dangers of being a wealthy foreigner inside a prison in South America’s poorest country, many came back multiple times after the tours, to spend time with Thomas or enjoy the cocaine-fuelled parties.
One of those was Australian backpacker Rusty Young, a law graduate in his 20’s at the time, who went on to spend several months inside San Pedro, speaking to Thomas and writing a book about the place. Marching Powder, published in 2003, offers a fascinating insight into life in the prison through the eyes of Thomas Mcfadden and documents some of the crazier experiences he had. It’s an excellent read and still a popular companion for anyone travelling around South America.
Will there be a Marching Powder Movie?
There had been talk of a Marching Powder movie with plans seemingly gathering speed in 2014 when Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment production company optioned the book and even got an actor in place to play Thomas Mcfadden. However as of 2021, there have been no further developments and there is still no movie.
There is though a 2017 film called Wildlands – a documentary by Marching Powder author Rusty Young on Bolivia and the brutal reality of the cocaine trade. This can be watched on Amazon Prime.
Backpackers in San Pedro
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. Given how lucrative and popular they had become, other inmates continued to offer tours, even after Mcfadden’s release, and they remained popular with travellers in La Paz throughout the 2000’s.
Even Lonely Planet at one point included San Pedro in its South America guides. Many visitors were shocked and fascinated in equal measure by the tour which normally included visits to the different sections, the cell of the guide and the infamous swimming pool where many inmates have reportedly been murdered.
Another draw for some travellers was the cheap cocaine on offer and that’s perhaps what the prison is most well known for. Many inmates are coke addicts and given that it is produced onsite, the cocaine in San Pedro is reportedly amongst the purest in the world.
What is San Pedro Prison like today?
San Pedro Prison today is much less accessible than it used to be when many of its darkest secrets would come out. That’s partly because the Bolivian authorities don’t like to admit the reality of the situation in San Pedro and its corrupt system, largely brought about by a lack of funds to properly police the place.
They are certainly against the kind of global publicity a potential Hollywood movie would bring, but word in La Paz is that the prison still operates in much the same way as it has done since the days of Thomas Mcfadden.
The impact of the global pandemic in 2020, means we don’t have any accurate recent reports of life in San Pedro. The above report comes from late 2019 and documents extreme overcrowding with the prison operating at over seven times its capacity. The going rate for a private cell/flat is now supposedly in the region of 1000USD/month, far beyond the means of most inmates.
Can you still do tours of San Pedro?
There are conflicting reports about the current situation with the tours over the past few years. Backpackers in San Pedro Prison are certainly a less common sight than 10 or 20 years ago but like many things in Bolivia, if you’ve got money and the contacts, you can make things happen.
However it is certainly harder to visit now than it used to be and there are wide reports of scams with people taking money off travellers at the gates and in the plaza. You also reportedly have to pay to get in and even more to get out so be very wary if you try to visit and do your research.
Your best bet is probably to talk to fellow travellers in South America and especially La Paz and try to go as a larger group if you are concerned about the safety of it. Hostel staff may also have up-to-date info but will most likely advise you against trying to go.
Alternatively, you can go to the plaza next to the prison where former inmate ‘Crazy Dave’ gives lively daily talks about his experiences inside (in English).
This article was last updated in January 2021