Bolivian Adventures: When the Sky is the limit (and then some)

Disclaimer: Under most circumstances, it would be a toss-up between my spontaneously gushing about Bolivia or trying to act nonchalantly enthusiastic with a “don’t even get me started on how much I love that place”, with the odds firmly in favor of the gushing.

I lived in La Paz back in 2005, enjoying a life I had barely dreamed of before taking six months to volunteer there and get to know my roots, staying on for almost three years of sheer adventure and happiness. I left because it was that or stay forever, and my mother’s declining health made going back to Switzerland a no-brainer – but a piece of my heart and soul stayed behind. As such, it is always a pleasure to be reunited and feel whole again.

This time, Bolivia was our second-to-last stop before flying back to Europe; the beginning of the end of our around-the-world honeymoon. We had a month penciled in, which I knew was too short but had been unable to convince Francois of (three days in, he admitted he should have listened to me #win).

Hydroponic lettuces growing at La Huerta

We stayed with family, reconnected with more family, and caught up with old friends in both La Paz and Santa Cruz. Francois got to work with my uncle on starting mushroom production at his hydroponic lettuce farm, we gorged ourselves on amazing Italian food at my cousin’s restaurant Propiedad Publica, we danced the night away to afrobolivian rhythms at good old Malegria, and I got to ride horses with my friend Nico, flying over jumps almost as if I had never left.

Along the way, I was stunned by how much the city had changed.

We visited the first communal garden to be established, Huerto Organico Lak’a Uta, run by Maria-Teresa Nogales. They address food security and community building in ways that had never yet been considered at such altitudes, without greenhouses, for starters.

I rode a new type of bus, Pumakatari, barely more expensive than crowded minibuses but where I could stretch my legs, everything was orderly, older and pregnant travelers got priority seating, and everyone could enjoy free wifi. Mindblowing.

Another element that stood out was the cable car network (the “teleférico”) that was being developed to address the increased traffic jams, taking public transport to the skies as every futuristic movie has been predicting since as far back as I can remember.

One sunny Sunday afternoon, steeling ourselves against the pasta-induced food coma just waiting for us to let our guard down before it settled in, we went for a ride.

The plan was to go up to El Alto and back again, a trip that would normally take at least three hours but took us merely a third of that round trip.

Stepping into the first cable car (our trip involved one change-over from the green to the yellow line), it felt odd. I was, after all, used to cable car trips up in the alps, weighed down by snow gear and balancing the cold with the fun of whooshing down the slopes on my snowboard. Here, frequently boisterous groups of skiers and snowboarders were replaced by low-key locals, sometimes a family on a special Sunday outing made possible by the novelty and ease of access of the cable cars.

I was struck by how quiet it was. Up there, gliding above the city, sounds were muted and all I could hear was the soft symphony made up of birds chirping, crowds cheering sporadically during a football game, a dog barking here and there, marching bands practicing, and the laughter of children – all of which apparently cared nothing for the distance between us or the thick walls of the cable car. It was… peaceful.

As you can imagine, the views were breathtaking. To me, the city of La Paz has always defied imagination, located snuggly in the heart of a bowl-shaped valley and laughing in the face of laws of physics with its buildings colonizing not just the floor of the valley but also its walls, lights sparkling like stars as soon as night comes. The cable car provided a unique perspective, that elusive birds eye view normally limited to 30 seconds during two turns of the highway coming down from the airport located up in the altiplano.

What we could see was a study in contrasts, including beautiful houses with gardens alongside humble brick buildings with laundry hanging to dry on rooftops (a space which may well be devoted to advertising as soon as a first clever mind hones in on the opportunity!).

The cable cars were modern, sleek, with advertising on their sides and two solar panels on each roof. The embodiment of modernity, a smart application of existing technologies to a unique space and city, and a sure way to take La Paz into the future of smart (hopefully also green and resilient) cities.

Ask anyone about the cable cars and you will get either absolute enthusiasm or utter denial of their value, nothing in-between. Investing in such development was not an uncontroversial decision, nor is the network of cable cars being implemented without some challenges along the way – but the vision of complementing traditional public transport methods with an affordable and accessible alternative making use of previously unclaimed space? Inspiring.

Next time we come back, there will be eleven cable car lines forming a network across the city and connecting La Paz to its sister city of El Alto, and prices should have been revisited so as to ensure accessibility.

I can’t wait to see what my beloved city will continue to evolve into, and look forward to a next visit to find out what new ways it will have devised to blow me away and seduce me all over again.