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San Pedro Prison

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On the southeast side of Plaza Sucre rises the formidable bulk of San Pedro Prison (Cárcel de San Pedro), for years one of Bolivia’s most infamous tourist “attractions”. Critically overcrowded, structurally precarious, rife with tuberculosis and increasingly a scene of desperate protest, it nevertheless exerts a morbid fascination for the stream of foreigners who continue to find their way in despite it being officially illegal to do so, despite the obvious personal danger (no one will help you if trouble arises) and despite the negative effects it can have on the prisoners and their families when authorities periodically decide to clamp down.

Those whose curiosity gets the better of them will find what seems to so endlessly fascinate Europeans: a self-governed microcosm of Bolivian society, with shops, restaurants and billiard halls; prisoners with money can live quite well here. Comfortable cells in the nicer areas change hands for thousands of dollars, and many inmates have cell phones and satellite televisions. Like the city on the other side of the walls, the prison is divided into rich and poor neighbourhoods, with the most luxurious area reserved for big-time drug traffickers, white-collar criminals and corrupt politicians: the most high-profile resident in recent years has been the ex-Prefect of Pando, Leopoldo Fernàndez.

Those without any income, however, sleep in the corridors and struggle to survive on the meagre official rations. Family visitors come and go regularly, and some children live inside with their fathers; when the riots erupt, it’s the families who are often caught in the midst of it. If you’re intent on a tour against all advice, it’s worth thinking long and hard about the consequences it may have for both yourself and these families, even as you may feel your entry fee is financially assisting them. With the presence of guards minimal and cocaine widely available, moreover, some gringos are foolhardy enough to try taking some out with them; you can be assured that this is the best way to make your stay considerably longer than you intended.

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