La Paz has made its way into the Guinness Book of Records for being the city with the highest seat of government in the world. However, La Paz is not the capital of Bolivia. That title is held by Sucre, 416 kilometers away. La Paz is not a rich city, but rather a social melting pot. Those who can afford it live in the south of the city in the valley basin. There at an altitude of about 3200 meters there are the best stores and the most beautiful houses. Numerous international embassies are also located here. Those who can’t afford it have to move to higher areas. Especially the thin air and the aggressive solar radiation, however, leads to health problems in the long run for many inhabitants of the high areas. Poor settlements stretch up the entire valley basin of the city. Every year after the rainy season, entire neighborhoods slide down the mountain with giant landslides. This usually results in fatalities. At the upper edge of the valley basin at 4200 meters, the community of El Alto declared itself independent of La Paz in 1985. The administrative burden was too great to organize both communities at the same time. Although El Alto is one of the youngest cities in Bolivia, it is already the second largest city, after Santa Cruze, and according to the last census, even surpasses La Paz by about 100,000 inhabitants.
Because of the location in the valley basin and the strong geographical social imbalance, there was a threat that whole neighborhoods and also the region around El Alto would develop more and more in the direction of slums and become impoverished. But fortunately there was already a good role model to stop this development – Medellin in Colombia!
There, work had begun in 2004 on the expansion of a public transportation network that included gondolas. This had led to the upgrading of entire neighborhoods.
Stations of the La Paz cable car
In 2012, the construction of the cable cars was officially announced, in 2014, the first three lines were opened. There are now a total of 10 gondola lines in La Paz, with another currently planned for 2020. Currently, the route network includes 36 stations and a total length of over 30 kilometers. A ride costs 3 bolivianos, 1 boliviano more than the colectivos commonly used in La Paz.
The stops of the cable cars are equipped withnumerous guards. All gondolas and stops of the cable cars are under video surveillance. The technology and construction of the system come from Austrian supplier Doppelmayr. Therefore, the gondolas are considered La Paz safest means of transport.
We decided to visit the cable cars of La Paz with a tour. On Tripadvisor we found a tour for 7,50€ per person. The duration was set at about three hours . Our tour guide was Alfi. Alfi is Bolivian, migrated to the USA when he was 5 years old, worked there as a nurse and then came back to Bolivia because of the illness of a family member. Accordingly,a Alfi spoke excellent English and was one of the most caring guides we have had.
Our tour started at one of the city’s central squares in the early afternoon. First wetook a colectivo to the first gondola station to get a comparison between the two modes of transportation. Then it was up to El Alto on the red line.
Red line and city lore
On the way we learned a lot about the problem oflandslides and the question of why most of the houses in La Paz look so terrible was settled. Blame is namely the taxes. From completion one pays for a house in La Paz property tax. If you don’t finish a house, for example if you don’t plaster the facade and leave steel struts out of the roof, you can avoid the tax for up to 10 years. This popular tax loophole is what gives the city its shabby appearance. In Sucre, the capital, however, the principle has been reversed and there are tax breaks for quick completion and neat facades. Just before the top station, Alfi points out to us a car stuck in the hillside. It fell over the cliff a few years ago because the driver was drunk. Fortunately, all six occupants could be rescued. The car, however, was not salvaged for fear of a landslide. It is now sinking further and further into the clay-sand-stone mixture of the mountain.
The Silver Line in El Alto
We get off the bus in El Alto and are told by Alfi about the numerous Ssecurity guards and cameras. Often there are also events in the stations, he said. One could visit these as a tourist without doubts. In El Alto we take a group photo with Babylamas, then we go to the witch market. To become a witch or a sorcerer, you have to survive a lightning strike, through which Pachamama chooses the witches. Afterwards one would have to make an education. Countless witches live here at the witch market under poor conditions in corrugated iron shacks. Many of them are the spiritual caretakers of entire family dynasties. However, they do not get rich. Between 1,5€ and 350€ they get for ceremonies and the competition is strong.
Now continue on the silver line, which also runs along the crest of El Alto. From here you have a great view over the street markets of El Alto and you can see the houses built right on the hillside that will have to be deconstructed one by one over the next few years, or will come crashing down.
The yellow line at the landslide
At the end of the silver line we change to the yellow line. We see a rockslide that destroyed an entire street just a few months ago. Many of the survivors are camping in tents next to the site. Excavators are currently removing debris and paving the ground. Whether this hillside can ever be repopulated is questionable.
The Blue Line and Politics
We change trains again and ride the Blue Line for one stop. We learn a little about the politics of the country. Alfi is worried, because the current president is now running for the fourth consecutive term, although he is only allowed two terms by the constitution. The first term he could by a state reestablishment relative, but at the latest with the next election in August, it could come to a constitutional crisis . If the current president loses, there could still be an economic crisis. Either way, our guide is afraid of another economic downturn in the country.
The white line, soccer, earthquakes and cemeteries.
After just one stop, we change to the white line. We learn some more about the architectural style of La Paz. Fortunately, there are seldom earthquakes here, because most of the houses here are not a bit earthquake resistant. Built of single row brick, a little steel and styrofoam. Then we glide past a stadium in the gondola. dIe most clubs hate playing games in La Paz because they have to stay 2-3 weeks to get used to the altitude. Only Brazil flies in and straight out for such a short time that they are spared altitude sickness.
Now we are gliding over a cemetery. It is the homeless cemetery of the city. The graves are tiny and often not deep enough. After heavy rains, bodies are sometimes washed out. All the graves are crisscrossed. Actually the small place has been full for a long time. It is the third cemetery we see from above. The bourgeois cemetery looks like a big shelf warehouse, with above ground cabinets. Only in the cemetery of the well-to-do are there ground graves with plaques and a neat lawn. In no other places are the city’s social differences so apparent.
The orange line and the history of the city
We transfer to the orange line one last time. In the station hang photographs from the beginning of the last century. The city of La Paz is unrecognizable on them. At that time it was still very small and located exclusively in the valley basin. The growth is remarkable. Now one does not wonder about the social problems and the traffic chaos.
The end of the La Paz gondola tour
At the end of the orange line we get off and walk a few more meters through a colonial style neighborhood. it is very pretty here. At the end of the tour we have a small drink in a pub, then the tour is over. We learned a lot about this city today and now feel like we understand it a little better. It was one of the best tours we’ve had so far.