El Alto – the name is as matter of factly descriptive as it is enigmatic. It literally means The High.
El Alto is a suburb turned city which sits about four hundred metres higher than La Paz’s valley floor. It now houses about a million people and a market that beggars belief. It sits on the edge of the altiplano or high plain, a bleak and desolate plateau that surrounds La Paz. A tongue of Gobi-like desert comes right out and licks at the edges of El Alto. Snow covered mountains loom as a constant reminder that you’re actually really high. Higher than Mt Cook high.
There’s a rule of thumb I’ve been told to use on ski fields which says you lose a degree of temperature for every 100m you ascend. That squares reasonably well with our experience today. If you need a jersey in La Paz you’ll probably need a jacket in El Alto. There was even a little hail to punctuate our stroll through the market. In fact El Alto’s climate is officially deemed to be ‘alpine’ because the temperature averages less than ten degrees every month of the year.
The market we visited was amongst the most comprehensive we’ve seen anywhere in the world. There was even a large amount of fresh produce though we’re yet to see much evidence of its use in Bolivian cuisine.
The cholitas were out in force, peddling their wares even if they didn’t have many wares to offer. We saw several vendors that only had three of four pairs of shoes to sell and other older women who only had a handful of candies. We were reminded by the Poor Economics analysis that talks about how it is hard for poor shop owners to scrape together enough capital to get a decent range of stock. On that, Bolivia is easily the poorest country we have visited so far. Things are silly cheap here and there are clearly a lot of people doing it tough.
In the coming months, following in the fine footsteps of Medellin, a cable car will open connecting El Alto with the commercial centre of La Paz below. It seems a great initiative to connect a significant and somewhat marginalised community with the country’s capital. But I’ve a feeling that the wild wind and landscapes of El Alto will help it maintain a rougher, tougher feel than the city below.