San Pedro Prison is located in central La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Approximately 80% of the inmates are imprisoned for drug related purposes; the remainder have often committed more serious crimes, including murder.
The exterior of the prison is unremarkable. In fact, it looks roughshod and decaying. What makes San Pedro Prison unique, however, is what lurks inside. The outer perimeter is secured by armed guards; inside, the prisoners run riot (sometimes literally). Guards do not step foot inside. The prison is controlled by the prisoners.
The result is fascinating. It functions as a microcosm of society – a Capitalist one at that – with each prisoner having to find and perform a job for money. With this money they purchase cells and food live on. If they are unable – or unwilling – to work, they starve.
I did not visit the interior of San Pedro. There was a drug heist the week before I arrived in La Paz with Georgie; somebody trying to gain access for a tour attempted to smuggle in cocaine, so the ´unofficial´ tours which operate (by way of a bribe to the guards) were temporarily barred.
However, I did visit a prison of sorts whilst in La Paz.
Ladies and Gentleman, what could be worse than being mugged by the police, á la Caracas? Perhaps having shit thrown over you, as in Quito. Did something similar happen in La Paz? Fortunately not, but there was an ordeal. And guess what: it involved being mugged.
As it happens, I remarked to Georgie on that fateful day how safe I felt in La Paz. How droll. That day had already began with a brief panic over our travel plans as the south of Bolivia was ostensibly undergoing a minor revolution of sorts (more on that below). Sometime around midday whilst walking down La Paz´s main thoroughfare a woman tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at the unzipped pocket at the front of my bag. As a felt through the contents to see what was missing, she informed a nearby police guard. As I discovered that my mobile phone and diary had been diary, he told Georgie and me to wait.
So we did. And five minutes later he came marching back down, with reinforcements, and three people sullen looking people. The vagabonds had been arrested. On to the station we went.
One of the thieves – yes, I took a photograph of them being marched to the station
Down to the station we went, and the three tyrants were taken into a separate room as Georgie and I were told to wait outside. A farce then ensued. Phone upon phone was brought out from the room, but none were mine. Over eight must have been produced before finally, the chief policeman had an epiphany. He recruited three people and ventured outside to the streets. Soon afterwards, they had arrested another person. They took him into the small and damp room; minutes later, my phone appeared.
Great. Ready to go then? Not quite.
To retrieve my phone, we needed to go to the main police station to fill out a disclaimer form. The policeman also explained to Georgie (and thank God she was there throughout this to translate for me) that they needed this to formally arrest them, otherwise they would be let loose on the streets again without repercussions. So, in other words, we had a civic duty to perform for Bolivia. Viva!
We were in the main police station for around six hours. Bureaucracy prevailed as we were forced to wait. And wait. And wait. It was tedious. Moreover, there was a small-scale riot going on outside as some people were protesting over a tax rise. Tear gas was fired at one point. An array of bedraggled arrested people were fluctuating in and out of the station.
Three points made this whole saga infuriating. First, I scarcely cared about the phone. It cost me £10 from China and I only used it as an alarm. Second, my diary was never retrieved. The police did not care about it; a diary hardly has the same allure as a consumer item. The diary was inexplicably more important to me than the phone. Third, Georgie and I felt less like victims than prisoners. Once we were inside the station, we could not leave until the form was signed. Moreover, it did not help that there were actually prisoners locked up in cells in the floor below us.
The good news is that, eventually, the phone was handed back to me. Thank goodness for that.
So, what happened before and after this incident?
In Peru, we travelled by bus from Ayacucho to Cusco which is the country´s cultural heartland. The views of the landscapes outside were stupendous. Unfortunately, a single song was played on repeat. Again and again. Over and over. And this was no normal song. Why no, it was no other than Sonia Morales!
“Who is Sonia Morales?” I hear the uncouth asking. Listen, lament and languish:
We spent our first few days visiting nearby inca sites. This was a nice preamble to the Inca Trail.
The Inca Trail itself was four days long. We were fortunate to be grouped with a fantastic and diverse array of people. The first day was simple; the second arduous as we stooped up steep inclines – and note that Georgie and I carried our own rucksacks; the third simpler; and the fourth euphoric. There is little point in describing the views. Have a look at my photographs, but even they do not do the trip justice; Machu Picchu in particular is a different sight to behold in person.
There were two slight setbacks to the trip though. The first involved Georgie: she was sick on the second night. The second involved me: I was sick on the third night and fourth day. It probably did not help that on the third day I carried a bulk of Georgie´s clothes in my own rucksack. If the law does not work out for me, there may be some work as porter as there…
The illnesses were not mild; for me at least, it was debilitating. Nevertheless, the phantom plague which almost certainly came from the food (or perhaps the quantity of it) did not mitigate the trip.
Following the Inca Trail we travelled down to Puno and Lake Titicana. The sheer immensity of the lake was impressive, although my sea sickness prevailed on the boat out to the islands. In Puno we also bumped into two people from our trip on the Inca Trail; that night for dinner I ate Alpaca. It was tepid and took about ten minutes to chew into a digestible format.
Then, from Puno we went to La Paz. Apart from the mugging incident, the city was thriving and much nicer than we had anticipated. It did not help though that Bolivia´s independence day lurked around the corner.
Our plan was to travel south to a city called Potosi, and then onwards to Uyuni for a tour of Bolivia´s Salt Flat, also known as Salar de Uyuni.
There was, however, a problem.
A spectre was haunting Potosi, the spectre of Socialismo. The residents there were up in arms – quite literally – over a myriad of issues and they had instituted a roadblock. Nobody was going in or out. Passing buses were having bricks thrown at their windows, and, according to one account I read, all of the hostels were closed down to show their solidarity to the protesters (or fear of it). The Foreign Office is now advising against travelling there: That´s great and earnest advice, apart from for those already trapped there.
What were the people from Potosi demanding? Oh, only a few minor things including an international airport, new municipal borders and the nationalisation of the mining industry. Believe it or not, the conflict has yet to be resolved.
To fast-forward even further, once I had split from Georgie in Argentina, I hoped to visit the Salt Flats by entering the southern point of Bolivia. The day before I intended to take my bus to the border though, the protests had spread to Uyuni and an akin situation was taking hold there. Great.
More harrowing, the Mayor of Potosi had finally come out and declared that the roadblocks are the work of right-wing forces. How terrifying. How ominous. I can only imagine the type of thing he has in mind:
So, in short, I did not re-enter Bolivia.
Rewind again, and Georgie and I decided to travel to Chile instead. This was a safer route where there was no risk of being scorched.
We travelled to San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile via Arica. The latter was only memorable for how unmemorable it was. In fact, my most vivid memory of the place – and I am sure it is the same with Georgie – is of how many banks there were, and how none were allowing Georgie to withdraw money. What place. It may be the world´s next Capital of Culture.
San Pedro, on the other hand, was superb. The town itself is a dusty outpost in the desert, but the surrounding scenery is salubrious. On one night we went out into the desert to stargaze. It was like being trapped in a dome as stars engulfed the sky in an uninterrupted arc. The tour had been organised by a French astronomer who has set up seven telescopes amidst the arid landscapes; to see thousands of stars clustered together has the effect of making life feel (paradoxically) transcendingly diminutive. Eat that Wordsworth.
The following morning we also visited the El Tatio Geysers from San Pedro. It was -15 degrees outside and I felt like an icicle. Fortunately, hot springs were around the corner which provided a welcome respite.
Down from San Pedro we went to Santiago and Valparaiso. Both were interesting cities – with the latter adopting more bohemian streetscapes – which would have been even more enjoyable in the sunshine. Remember: The further south we travelled, the further we are plunging into the depths of Winter. It is not that cold though.
From Santiago we crossed the Andes (in what was another memorable bus journey) into Mendoza, Argentina´s wine region. Unsurprisingly, we went wine tasting there – On a bike. Literally, we cycled around and visited three wineries, becoming progressively more inebriated. As Georgie had to travel onwards to Buenos Aires to catch her flight home, we also indulged on a munificent meal in Mendoza. The steak was the size of my plate. It spoke to me and said: Welcome to Argentina.
So, I took a bus to Cordoba, alone for the first time in four weeks. Cordoba is supposedly Argentina´s second City with a thriving nightlife, but it was fairly insipid. I had been told that this was due to the Winter season. I had a great time there though: one night, when walking to fill up my hot water bottle for bed (yes, I have a hot water bottle and it is the best investment I have made on this trip), the owner demanded I sit down next to him. Why was I so cold he asked? He then produced a bottle of Bolivian rum and insisted I drank a glass. More people joined including a guy from Buenos Aires who knew more about the Manchester music scene than Morrissey – not that anybody would want to talk to Morrissey, that miserable bastard.
After Cordoba I went to Paraguay via Salta in Argentina. Salta looked like (to use a lazy metaphor) salt. I climbed a hill there during my seven hour stopover and the city was shimmering in its pristine whiteness. I decided not to stay for longer though as I would have been required to take a tour, and I feel as if I have seen enough superlative scenery already to not be able to justify spending more money.
Arriving in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, was a shock. The buses looked familiar. And this is what I thought: Welcome back, to Caracas.
But I was wrong. Asuncion was more akin to a tranquil La Paz. The downtown area is walkable and pleasant and I have had a great time here. Arguably, I also saw the most beautiful sunset of the trip this evening as I took a bus to Lambare where there is a hill which overlooks Asuncion.
So, that is it for now. I have bus this evening to Enarcion and will probably be in Paraguay for two or three more days. The end of the trip is beckoning as I have a clear idea of each and every destination I will be visiting.
Here is to hoping that I do not get mugged again!
P.S. My pictures have been updated up to San Pedro de Atacama. I should be updating the rest by Friday.
P.P.S. Comment if you want, please, by clicking the topic or HERE
An idea of what is going on in Potosi
Inca Ruins at Sexywoman (or at least, that is how you pronounce the name)
The future of the Labour Party starts in…Cusco?
Protest in La Paz