El Alto

Until the 1940s, there was nothing more than a train station on the barren Altiplano surrounding La Paz. Following the construction of the airport, the small poor district of El Alto sprung up and, fuelled by migration from rural areas, grew at a rate of 12% per year between 1976 and 1996 - the fastest-growing city in South America. Although the rate of growth fell to 5% during the following decade, El Alto is now the second largest city in Bolivia after Santa Cruz. Perhaps it is also the highest city of its size in the world. Its population is mostly indigenous with 74% being of Aymara extraction and 6% Quechua, according to the 2001 census.

In the 1985 El Alto separated from the municipality of La Paz and since that time has developed its own character as well as become a political force to be reckoned with throughout Bolivia. It boasts its own university, a symphony orchestra and three theatres. It is a large flat city sprawling over the Altiplano, only a number of tall church steeples break the monotony. The views of the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Real are excellent. The wind blowing off the ice contributes to making it a very cold place, the mean temperature is 7
C and there is frost at night throughout the winter.

El Alto is a city of commerce, the
Feria 16 de Julio
, where on Thursdays and Sundays you can find everything from a sewing needle to the latest model car, is the largest market in the department of La Paz, occupying 5 sq km. You will see
traders and their wares all over Bolivia. El Alto is also a transport hub and, if you are short of time, you can consider changing buses here instead of going down to La Paz.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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