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Highest Cable Car in the World Unites La Paz, Bolivia

The slogans, images and energy deployed by the communications team of the Bolivian Government tell of the symbolic importance of the emergence of the cable car, a strangely contemporary pop-up in the old Andean city of La Paz. An unlikely urban carcass, minutely interwoven, ossified in the rock, encapsulated in traditions that never cease to reinvent themselves in order not to disappear.

La Paz, Bolivia

The cable car is the principal feature of a restructuring of the pathways and modes of transportation in the Bolivian administrative capital, where two twin cities coexist, and three classes are socially stratified in inverse proportionality to the altitude. There is El Alto, a popular new town that grew at the mercy of the rural exodus. It is outstretched like an oil splotch on the Altiplano. The Centre, was built in the middle of the valley, in each of its vertiginous crevasses. Then, there is everything below it, the Zona Sur, a bourgeois neighborhood that nestles all the way to the bottom of the fault – there where it is the most narrow, and where we arrive after having zigzagged between the mounds of land eroded by the rains of the Cementario Jardin. Starting from El Alto, we lose almost 900 meters of ground and gain – this is far from just a detail – a considerable number of degrees.

Connecting these entities to one another without the cable car would require hours of trips, endless trancaderas, using a mix of old vans that have run out of steam, fixed-route minivans, and trufis, or shared taxis, which could allow themselves to take shortcuts, if all of the five to seven passengers who pile in had the intention of going from one "level" to the other quickly.

The cable car was not alone in its arrival. Another event that was also as important for the pacenos preceded it: the implementation of the Puma Katari, [consisting of] a few more than eighty brand-new King Long buses, having come from China and adapted to the Andean differences in altitude. These new Puma Katari lines launched relentless blockades by the van line unions. And to think, they had the audacity to ask for the construction of bus shelters; to be prioritized, and then lay claim to it on the large banderoles placed across the roads, to monopolize bus stops, and even to refuse to stop anywhere else, at a time when up until then, one could hail any kind of transport, at any street corner, and likewise, get off from it – thus contributing to the perfect and traditional anarchy of Bolivian circulation.

During the first weeks of the implementation of the Puma Katari, the driver-instructor also took on the role of giving the passengers a brief urban education course, so that they could learn to push the red button in order for the doors to open automatically, learn to pay upon entry, go through the turnstile, and meanwhile, the ticket agent, equipped with a laptop, distributed the connection codes via WiFi.

Ultimately, after four months in their circulation, passenger use really increased, and there was no unfair competition to point out. As unexotic as it was for the tourists and European residents, yet fascinating for the Bolivians, on the surface, the Puma Katari was cleverly chosen in order to show how modernity and tradition become compatible – all the way to the radio spots that did not fail to advertise them in Aymara.

The three lines of the new bus soon connected the cable car stations, in such a way weaving a strategic mesh between each of the zones of La Paz.

"Uniting of Lives" States the Cable Car Slogan

The red line is the first of the three cable car lines – which will be the colors of the Bolivian flag – and was inaugurated on May 30, and as we could have imagined, it connected the town of El Alto to the historic city center. [It took only] three stations and just a few dozen minutes of travel to fly over 400 meters of height, from the old railway station and by the cemetery, in order to get to the Avenue 16 de Julio in the center of El Alto, where a big fair is held on Sundays.

Palacio del Congreso Nacional, La Paz, Bolivia

The amusing paradox of this success that we can attribute to the first Socialist government of Bolivia – whose electoral base is found precisely in El Alto, at the core of the working classes, which have made a habit out of creating blockades in order to make themselves heard – is that one can no longer block off El Alto (It's easy to block off the ground-level of El Alto's workers). About a hundred cabins, mechanically timed, soar above the contestation in numerous clusters of travelers, endlessly renewed. Another symbol of the union between the popular city and the administrative and historic city is the strike-breaker, whom all the previous Bolivian governments would have dreamed of – all of the mayors of La Paz. It remains to be seen how the cable car could be blocked …

The trips only costs three bolivianos, and among the passengers, there are dynamic, young people who are used to it and have an electronic pass, as well as families supporting a very old grandmother in a pollera, who will only come here once, and who believes she will be making the most of a plane trip she will never [actually] be taking. [There are] lovers who take pictures of each other on their cellphones, intertwined in the cabin with an unobstructed background view; those who are curious, excited children; babies in aguayos, amateur photographers; experts who measure the time the trip takes; young people who try to get in line in order to climb into the soccer cabin – the World Cup demands it. Everyone is enchanted by the view of the basin, the beauty of the peaking nevados, the technical prowess as we pass the steepest section located just before the El Alto stop. To have finally sat through the "longest and highest cable car in the world," built in the beautiful midst of these poor Andes, austere, and which in such a way weave their first link with a still distant modernity!

La Paz, Bolivia

The world changes here also, and the most important [changes] nest, perhaps, in the unexpected details that emerge when the wind jolts a red cable car cabin:

  • Two rooftops made of sheet iron were painted in vivid blue, the colors of Tigo, a telecommunications company; the rooftops will soon be changed, rented, sold, and become stakes in advertising;
  • The terraces, invisible from the roads, are on display, and another face of the city emerges; they are full of wool that is drying, children who play, women bustling about, sun and elements built there in order to gather heat; the aluminum plates alternate with orange, transparent ones;
  • Passing above the cemetery, a somewhat crazy idea is born in the traveler's mind, "Now we can see the dead during nighttime!"

How do modes of urban transportation reveal otherwise invisible urban fabrics?

Original article, originally published in French, here.

Credits: Data and images linked to sources.