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El Alto – the largest indigenous settlement in South America

When visitors arrive at El Alto airport, 4000 meters above sea level, and take a taxi down into the city of La Paz, they will probably not get excited and take their cameras out for some photos: the landscape includes brick, unpainted houses of five, six or seven stories closely packed together, straight roads and crowded minibuses, overburdened people trying to reach small sales points, shoe shiners and chaotic traffic, street dogs, and a deafening concert of car horns. That is the first impression of El Alto.

But you need to see where it started and the huge influence the city of El Alto has in Bolivia. It is fascinating. 

Creation of a city with one million people in less than 100 years

One hundred years ago, the area now occupied by the city was only a huge Pampa in the Bolivian Altiplano. People lived only in the city of La Paz because it is located in a warm valley, protected from the wind. When La Paz grew and there was no more space in the valley, people began settling on the high, neighboring land.

In 1926, the military airport was established in that area, and in the 50s, the people attracted to it were hooked up to the La Paz water supply. Now, factory owners who could not expand within the limited space in La Paz moved with their businesses to El Alto. Many Aymara people came from Altiplano rural areas to live in the new settlement, hoping for a better life.

By 1952, the significant power of the Aymara settlers was notable. During the revolution, they joined the insurgent minors in blockading the military airport, and thus the city of La Paz avoided bombardment.

Due to the rural exodus from the Altiplano, the settlement grew astronomically, and by 1988 El Alto was recognized as an independent city.

El Alto residents demand constant respect due to their strong unity. In 2003, mainly movements from El Alto brought about the "gas war" and the rise of Evo Morales, who became the first indigenous president on the South American continent.

Life in El Alto

Today, the youngest city in Bolivia has approximately 1 million residents, and is the second largest city behind Santa Cruz. People mostly live in their small, independent workshops, shops and the minibuses that function as public transport. Few people have jobs.

Although at first glance El Alto seems poor and perhaps hostile to life, countless thousands and families live there who are quite wealthy.

That enriched Aymara people has developed their own architecture style: three- to seven-story houses with brightly colored facades, decorated with Andean cultural motifs. On the ground floor will be a shop, workshop or garage. The first floor is often operated as an events room and is generously decorated with stucco, crystal chandeliers, bright colors and mirrors. The upper floors are often vacant and held for the children. A classic, highly decorated house is built on the roof with a balcony and tile roof where the owners live.

At the same time, there is huge poverty in the surroundings. Many times, humble peasants arrive in the city with great hopes, but they are not prepared for urban needs. They may not speak Spanish well or may not be able to read, but they must find work to feed their many children. Since they come from small villages, they are not aware of certain requirements for health and hygiene in a large city which leads to disease, violence, alcoholism and drug addiction in many cases. Therefore El Alto is home to many Bolivian, religious and international NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

Above all, Evo Morales' government is investing special effort in improving life in El Alto. After all, the strongest base of the new movement towards autonomous indigenous people in an independent Bolivia is there.

A dynamic city

El Alto, a fascinating city, has a population that has doubled in the last 20 years, and most of them are under 19 years of age. It is the first city where indigenous people become millionaires who have created their own urban culture. It is a city which commands respect in national politics due to its unshakeable unity.


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