Thursday, August 7, 2008
View of La Paz From El Alto
La Paz sits in a massive canyon in the Andes mountains (the longest mountain chain on earth) created by the Choqueyapu River. It's nearly impossible to get lost in the city, as the main thoroughfare, the Prado, runs over the Choqueyapu: Just walk downhill, and you'll eventually end up in the middle of the city. (And Illimani, the 21,122-foot-high snow-covered mountain peak that is easily visible from many city streets, makes an easy landmark--just like the twin towers were a handy southern compass hand for Manhattanites before the 2001 attacks.) But due to the staggering altitude (11,942 feet), it's best to catch a lift back uphill--if you don't want to arrive gasping and covered in sweat--in one of the many combis that prowl every street, whose young conductors shout out their destinations from the side door: "Prado, Perez, San Francisco--un boliviano! Ceja--dos bolivianos!"
Ceja refers to a neighborhood in El Alto, a city (pictured right) that sits on the rim of the canyon 2,000 above La Paz on the altiplano, the largest high plateau on earth after Tibet. Because of its elevation, La Paz is a chilly city, but it's sheltered from the frigid altiplano winds by the canyon walls. El Alto, though, is at the mercy of the winds; combined with the even greater altitude there, it makes for a harsh environment.
El Alto is a new city, sitting on land that was uninhabited as recently as a hundred years ago. In the 1950s the area exploded with growth, mainly from Aymara Indians moving from the countryside, who now make up nearly 80% of El Alto's population. (El Alto is also a stronghold of President Evo Morales, himself an Aymara Indian whose family moved from the altiplano to the Cochabamba region in the 80s after an El Niño caused a crop and livestock die-off; there, he moved into coca cultivation, the farmers' union, and eventually into the history books.) In 1987, El Alto was officially incorporated as a city, and it is now Bolivia's fourth-largest, after Santa Cruz, La Paz, and Cochabamba. With over 700,000 inhabitants, El Alto is a mishmash of mud-brick buildings thrown cheek to jowl with myriad markets and combi-congested streets. It's utilitarian, and with the only aesthetic imperative being "more": more buildings, more people, more commerce.
A center of indigenous resistance to earlier presidential administrations, El Alto is a figurative and literal weight on the rim of the canyon, whose citizens peer down on the skyscrapers and stadiums of La Paz, eying the wealth which accumulates, and occasionally lashing out in spasms of resistance: In October 2003, after a general strike and roadblocks of La Paz that led to severe fuel and food shortages during the Gas War, the army killed more than 60 citizens in El Alto. This led to the resignation of then-president Sánchez de Lozada (or "Goni the Gringo," so named for his bad Spanish, light skin, and U.S. accent--see Our Brand Is Crisis for a fascinating look into Goni's Greenberg Carville Shrum–run presidential run) and Morales' eventual ascendancy.