Few cities in the world have as spectacular a setting as La Paz. Glimpsed for the first time as your bus or taxi crawls over the lip of the narrow canyon in which the city sits hunched, it’s a sight that will leave your lungs gasping for oxygen they can’t have. At over 3500m above sea level, amid a hollow gouged into the Altiplano, it’s a scene of stunning contrasts: a central cluster of church spires and office blocks dwarfed by the magnificent icebound peak of Mount Illimani rising imperiously to the southeast.
On either side, the steep valley slopes are covered by the ramshackle homes of the city’s poorer inhabitants, clinging precariously to even the harshest gradients. With a population of around 835,000, La Paz is the political and commercial hub of Bolivia. Though protected to some extent from the tides of globalization by its isolation and singular cultural make-up, La Paz feels very much part of the twenty-first century, with its historically rooted melting pot. Founded as a centre of Spanish power in the Andes, La Paz has always had a dual identity, with two very distinct societies – the indigenous and the European – coexisting in the same geographical space. Nowadays, this is becoming increasingly and mutually contaminated: hi-tech international banks and government offices rub shoulders with vibrant street markets selling all manner of ritual paraphernalia for appeasing the spirits and mountain gods that still play a central role in the lives of the indigenous Aymara.
At the opposite extreme in every sense from the Zona Sur is El Alto, the huge urban sprawl that has grown up over the last few decades around the airport, on the rim of the Altiplano overlooking La Paz at over 4000m above sea level.
Populated largely by Aymara migrants from the surrounding Altiplano, when it was officially recognized as a separate municipality from La Paz in 1986, El Alto instantly became the fourth biggest, poorest and fastest growing city in Bolivia. With a bigger population than La Paz, and rapidly approaching one million (sixty percent of whom are under 25 years old), the place resembles a vast, impoverished yet dynamic suburb, its endless stretches of tin-roofed adobe shacks and often half-finished red-brick buildings broken only by the strangely minaret-like spires of churches and an increasing number of Cholets. Here, private houses, shops and rentable party halls coexist into an extravagant architectural compound, whose aesthetics is inspired by identitarian motifs of Aymara visual culture. Much of the population has no access to running water or electricity, employment is scarce and freezing night-time temperatures make it a desperately harsh place to live. Alteños nevertheless take pride in their urban-rural identity, their collective struggle against adversity and the challenges of urban life in what they refer to as the biggest indigenous city in the Americas, and denigrate La Paz, where many of them work, as la hoyada – “the hole”.