Vale de la Luna and San Pedro Prison

Trip Start Sep 28, 2006
Trip End May 04, 2007

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Monday, November 20, 2006

I forced myself out of bed early this morning, so that I could ensure a spot on tomorrow's bike ride with Gravity down the World's Most Dangerous Road. After another breakfast of 3 bread rolls, a banana, and a chocolate bread, I headed down El Prado and booked my ride for $73, the deluxe special gear and full suspension bike package. Gary had been there five minutes before to book as well, and returned a little later so we got to chat a bit. Rick, an Australian ER doctor I met last night, came by shortly thereafter to pick up a CD of photos from his biking trip yesterday, as did Jo and Will, Gary's friends.
After I received the details for my trip, we all decided to share a cab to Valle de la Luna around 11:30 am. The ride was only 20 minutes and very cheap between the five of us, and there was a 15 bol entrance fee to get into the park.   We spent the next hour or so leisurely walking around the very strange and moon-like (hence the name) landscape. Here is a close up:   This terrain used to be underwater 30 million years ago (as much of the world was, I suppose). It was cool to see and I am glad I went, although you really don't need more than 20 or 30 minutes here. Here is a group shot we took before heading out.
We walked through a very ugly ghost-like town for a bit in search of a lunch place, and finally came across a random Swiss hotel with terribly slow service. Well, not a huge surprise in Bolivia I suppose! We finally caught a cab back to town around 3 pm. So yet again, I was distracted from my internet intentions, but obviously it is far more important to sight see than sit in an internet cafe!
We spontaneously decided to get dropped off at the gates of San Pedro Prison rather than in the center of town after Rick started talking about "Marching Powder," a book written about the experiences of an English drug smuggler in this very unique and disturbing prison. The English guys from wrestling had mentioned wanting to go on a tour of the prison, but I had never heard of this book until today. This prison is of interest because it is essentially a small city/community within La Paz. It is the only prison in the world wherein the prisoners have to pay for everything themselves (food, property, etc), are not locked in their cells, and can live with their family members. In short, if you don't have any money you will die, and if you have a lot of money (ie rich politicians) you will live a fairly normal and comfortable life. Ever since the book was published, the prison has been a huge tourist attraction, particularly among Australian and English people it seems.
Apparently tours used to be possible (I have a friend who did one before the book came out), but now they are somewhat hard to arrange and may or may not involve bribery, knowing the right people, simply having good timing, etc. I have heard many different stories--including having to hire body guards when you enter so you won't get killed or raped, not actually getting to see anything other than the children of the prisoners because the whole thing is a scam and you enter as a volunteer, etc. I really don't know what is true and honestly I really don't care. I am sure the book is interesting and perhaps I will even check it out at some point, but I had no desire to enter those gates.
The prison occupies one large block of a nice plaza, and as you can see in this picture the building is very plain and inconspicuous looking. Despite its relatively small size, the prison contains TONS of people. We wandered up towards the gate, which was slightly set back beneath an arch way. Several guards were hanging out near a metal detector and did not seem to be paying much attention to anything--to the pedestrians walking by, tourists gawking from the sidewalk, or the hordes of prisoners hanging onto the bars of the gate and yelling out in Spanish and broken English to anyone who would listen. Every so often, various men, women, and children would pass through the metal detector and enter the gate, presumbably family members of the prisoners returning "home." It was quite strange seeing all of the prisoners running around freely, so close to the street. It was also strange to see food stands and other small businesses in the prison courtyard. Apparently if you do not have money to pay for food and your cell, you have to work.
When we arrived, there were only two other tourists hanging around, a young guy and girl from Australia. The guy had received a note from a Spanish prisoner, a cry for help begging for food, cigarettes, and anything else he could gather including a phone number at which to reach him so that he could come to the gate to meet him. He had just given him a large bag of bread, and was about to go get some other things. Jo, Will, and Rick all became eager to adopt this prisoner as well and quickly gathered crackers, cigarettes, and other snacks to give to him. Meanwhile, Gary and I were standing there somewhat intrigued but simultaneously bewildered by what was going on. The prisoner definitely was at the bottom of the social ladder within the prison, and we wondered whether others would beat him up and steal his food if we gave it to him. His appearance certainly indicated that it was likely.
After Rick returned from the gates (all gifts were handed through the bars, since the guards would not let us in), I asked him why he and so many others were so obsessed with San Pedro prison. He said that by bringing these gifts he was able to talk to the prisoner for a few minutes about his situation, life inside the prison, etc. I can understand that, but the whole prison-as-tourist-attraction thing still sparked all kinds of conflicting feelings within me. Yes, on a human level of course I feel sorry for these people, particularly the foreigners (there are loads of Americans and other westerners in there) and those prisoners who cannot afford food or lodging. As the Spanish prisoner made clear, they were suffering. At the same time, he and all of the other people in San Pedro are in PRISON for committing a CRIME!!! It is their fault that they are in there! Yes, I realize that perhaps some are innocent, and I am not going to address right now all the debates regarding how the guilty were driven to smuggle drugs (a large percentage of the crimes are drug related) or do whatever they did because they lacked education and opportunity or because of general misfortune. The whole situation, particularly watching my companions as they ran around the square gathering things for the Spanish guy, just really put me off for some reason and I will leave it at that.
Gary and I were relieved to get out of there and walked down El Prado to an internet cafe. I stupidly lost track of time and stayed there until 7:30 pm, forgetting that the laundry place closed at 7 pm and had all of my warm clothes that I needed for my bike tour the following morning. The place didn't open until 9 am, and I was supposed to meet my tour group at 7:30 am. Great. I flipped out and sprinted for fifteen minutes up El Prado, which is the equivalent to attempting to run on the sidewalks in Times Square, and then up the massive hill on Sagarnaga street (keep in mind La Paz is at a very high altitude) and of course it was closed. Thank GOD the laundry place is an extension of Hostal Maya Inn and thus my clothes were waiting for me at the front desk, where I practically collapsed. I couldn't breath, it was awful. Then I realized I somehow lost my hat, a dorky looking but very practical hat that belongs to my sister (sorry Anna!!). Very annoying. I retraced my steps along the busy avenue back to the internet place but it was pretty hopeless. Oh well, such is life. I got back to my room feeling like a wreck and decided that I need to SLOW DOWN and chill out! And hey, if a hat is the one thing I lose on this trip, I think I will survive. I grabbed a mediocre dinner at Yussef, a Lebanese restaurant near my hotel, and passed out by 11 pm.
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