Travel Story 

Bolivia's Altiplano

The tin roof of South America

It's billed as the world's highest developed ski area. By Whistler standards calling Chacaltaya "developed" is a bit of a stretch but it does have a lift of sorts, and at 5,260m (17,257 feet) above sea level it is undeniably high.

As I puffed up the last few hundred metres from where our minibus was stuck in the snow the climb reminded me of an earlier slow-motion struggle across the 5,380m Thorong La pass in Nepal. Just thinking about running moguls at that elevation is enough to make the most dedicated ski-bum gasp for oxygen.

We began our trip to Chacaltaya in La Paz where our small group of travellers joined guide, Marisol, for a tour of the local Altiplano, Bolivia's High Plateau. The city of La Paz is nestled into a deep depression on the edge of the plateau, its one million residents sheltered from the storms that frequently rage across the Altiplano. Our minibus, spewing a cloud of blue exhaust, labours up the endless switchbacks from the city centre, lurches onto the edge of the plateau, and grinds to a halt in the chaotic snarl of El Alto traffic. Marisol takes advantage of the delay to tell us something about El Alto. This is her home. Somewhere in the littered, poverty-ridden sprawl of El Alto is where Marisol lives. An attractive, soft-spoken young woman of mixed Aymara-Spanish heritage, she is a graduate anthropologist. Much better off than most of her neighbours, Marisol hopes to someday travel and work abroad.

Once a suburb of La Paz, El Alto has burgeoned into a separate city of more than 800,000 inhabitants. Sometimes referred to by its more affluent neighbours as "the slum in the sky," El Alto has become a refuge for people no longer able to wring a living from the harsh environment of the Altiplano – unemployed miners, disillusioned farmers and herders. An influx of people seeking a better life has made El Alto the fastest growing city in Bolivia. Ramshackle adobe homes, many unfinished, line the muddy streets where unkempt kids play in potholes. Women congregate on the banks of a sewage-choked stream to pound their laundry and chat. In the commercial area, car repair shops and junk yards spill onto the littered, unfinished streets.

But despite the poverty and ugliness the citizens of El Alto are coping and gradually improving their lives. Some, like Marisol, have found good jobs in La Paz. Others, the entrepreneurs, have lined the streets with stalls offering all manner of merchandise at discount prices. Remarkably the mood in El Alto is more one of hope and optimism than one of despair – a tribute to the tough and resilient spirit of the folks who have moved here.

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