The city of La Paz is one of the most unusual places I’ve ever been simply given its unimaginable geography. Built within the deep walls of a canyon La Paz snakes and sprawls down preposterously steep, narrow and congested streets making mass transit an absolute nightmare. The only way to get around is on foot, by cab (which is expensive for most Bolivians) or to ride in one of the city’s 40,000 over-packed minibuses.
High above Zona Sur and central La Paz, lies El Alto, a city within itself that has exploded over the years as Bolivians migrate from the countryside into the city. Today, El Alto has over a million people and getting from El Alto to the center of La Paz and Zona Sur (way down below at the bottom of the canyon) can prove to be a long affair especially at rush hour.
Understanding the great need for a better mass transit system, the Bolivian government set their hopes high on a rather unusual solution: The construction and implementation of one of the largest urban cable car systems in the world to be used for transportation.
As an avid skier, I have experienced the luxury and ease of riding a Swiss-made gondola high above the snow-covered peaks of the Alps. But I had never in my wildest dreams imagined the same kind of gondola would be used in a huge, chaotic city like La Paz.
When I first saw the cable cars in the sky I was stunned. Little dots were everywhere floating graciously up the mountains. I asked the cab driver if they were for sightseeing but he said no. They were for transportation. Instantly I knew I had to take a ride for myself and experience an urban gondola. I grabbed my camera knowing there would be many amazing views from above, and was off.
The first line of the Teleférico de La Paz (La Paz cable car) opened in May of 2014 to much fanfare and media hype. The project was and still remains a big gamble on whether or not such an enormous investment will pay off and solve some of the capital’s transportation woes. With an estimated cost of over $ 234.6 million, the government is betting that the investment will pay off despite highly subsidizing it. The cost for a ten minute ride on the yellow line from the bottom of La Paz to the top at El Alto costs about 40 cents compared to roughly 35 cents for a thirty minute ride by a crowded minibus to the same location.
Currently three lines are in operation (red, yellow and green), and the construction of five additional lines by 2019 will make it the largest urban cable car system in the world. One thing for sure, the views of La Paz and the Andes behind floating high above the sky are utterly breathtaking.
We decided to try the yellow line which would bring us all the way from the bottom of La Paz to the top of El Alto at roughly 14,000 feet, a distance of 3.9 kilometers, in 13.5 minutes flat.
I noticed that when we arrived at the newly built station, there was no one in line. Despite the official website that states the system transports 6,000 passengers per hour, there was hardly anyone there.
The infrastructure to date is rather astounding. With three lines complete, there are 11 stations, 74 towers, 427 cabins with a capacity of 10 passengers, and 10,377 linear feet. One cabin leaves every 12 seconds during continuous service from 5 am to 10 pm. It is rather amazing.
The further we rose up, the more interesting the ride became. Not only did we get to enjoy the sensational panorama view of the snow-capped Andes, we also got to see the entire sprawling town of La Paz from above. It was pretty darn cool.
All three lines were built by the Austrian company Doppelmayr and of course were in tip top shape. The cars were clean, had huge windows and were a much better, more peaceful option than dealing with the madhouse on the streets of La Paz.
I tended to take way too many pictures but I couldn’t help myself. It was pretty amazing seeing a city from above.
We passed over big houses, large skyscrapers and little tiny shacks built atop the steep walls of La Paz. In less than fifteen minutes, you could get a pretty good feel for the city and its separation by status, wealth and class. Whereas Zona Sur is for the elite, El Alto is still known for most of the poor.
As we neared the top at El Alto I was amazed at how far we had come. We began all the way down at the bottom of Zona Sur and rose up in less than fifteen minutes flat to the top. You can see in this photo where we started by looking way down to the righthand side at the bottom of the bowl. (The yellow station is one we passed through and didn’t get off at).
And then we were there. Once we got off, we realized that what goes up must go back down. Our hotel was in the center of La Paz, about halfway down from where we started. Unfortunately there was no close access to the cable car line near our hotel so we opted for the more expensive, longer taxi cab ride.
It will be interesting to see if Bolivia’s gamble pays off. There are some strong skeptics like our hiking guide who thought it was a big waste of money especially when other perhaps more important services are lacking. Like many things, only time will tell.