I told a good friend I was planning to visit Bolivia sometime soon, mostly to see the famous Uyuni Salt Flats and the North Yungas Death Road. He suggested I plan a stay at the San Pedro Prison.
San Pedro Prison is one of the biggest in Bolivia (LaPaz) 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.
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.
Until the 1990’s, outside of Bolivia at least, little was known about the ongoings in San Pedro and travelers 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 travelers. 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-fueled parties.
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 travelers 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 travelers 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.
Two other prison hotels I have considered are in Boston (formerly the Charles Street Jail) and Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul (formerly the Sultanahmet Jail). Both are rather pricey.
So, the real question, would I tour the prison, and would I stay overnight if given the chance? Probably not.