Overview: Urban High Plateau Bolivia
The sister cities of La Paz and El Alto, with a combined population of 2 million, dominate Bolivia’s urban high plateau.
As recently as 30 years ago, El Alto was a sleepy suburb of cosmopolitan La Paz. Today it is a booming slum town of ramshackle houses for hundreds of thousands of indigenous Aymará families. The Aymará came from the rural highlands where they worked in silver and tin mines until widespread closures forced them to head for cities in search of work. The Aymará brought to El Alto (“The Heights”) their hopes for a better life along with their traditional Andean customs, including a native language that keeps them economically and socially isolated from neighboring La Paz.
La Paz is a bowl-shaped city ringed by towering, snow-capped Andean peaks. At 12,000 feet, it is frequently labeled the highest capital city in the world. In actuality, the Bolivian capital lies in Sucre, 260 miles to the southeast. La Paz, nevertheless, is home to Bolivia’s executive and legislative branches and is undeniably the pulsing commercial and cultural heart of the republic.
La Paz is known for its churches, skyscrapers, museums, festivals and open-air markets where indigenous culture is on display. Aymarán Yatiris — traditional healers who use incantation and herbs such as the coca leaf — make for a colorful sight on market days in their bowler hats and shawls, selling curios and remedies.
The mountains and glaciers that ring La Paz-El Alto — long a source of pride — have become cause for concern. Water taps in urban areas are running dry and population growth is just partly to blame. The disappearance of several majestic glaciers, which Bolivians have long depended on for water, electricity and crop irrigation, is thought to be the culprit. The towering Illimani, which locals call the “guardian” of La Paz, is the most visible snowcapped peak in retreat.