El Alto & The 'New Andean' Mansions

A famous billboard in El Alto once announced: ‘El Alto is not part of Bolivia’s problem. It’s part of Bolivia’s solution.’ Not all would agree, but visiting here is certainly an experience. Having once been a humble melting pot for campesinos (subsistence farmers) and people from all around the country, it now boasts a population of 912,900, and a 5% to 6% growth rate per year. A city in its own right, it's considered the Aymará capital of the world.

The recent economic boom in Bolivia has resulted in property values in El Alto often surpassing those in the city below, and building projects are sprouting like new rows of corn. Of particular note are the psychedelic cholets of Aymará architect Freddy Mamani, which can cost up to US$600,000.

Mamani has spent the last decade singularly transforming the architectural landscape of El Alto the way Antoni Gaudí once did with Barcelona. The angularly erratic buildings of his 'New Andean' style dazzle like diamonds in the rough, giving this once monochromatic satellite city a sorely needed identity, all while helping the world’s highest major metropolis emerge from its Andean shadow. Thanks to the new cable cars (per ride B$3), tourists, too, are finally taking notice of El Alto as they trickle in and discover its chaotic charms.

Taxis to El Alto charge around B$70 from the center of La Paz. Micros (small buses) marked ‘Ceja’ or ‘El Alto’ will get you here for B$3. For a peek inside one of the cholets, book a tour with HanaqPacha Travel or La Paz on Foot.

Marina Núñez del Prado

Bolivia’s foremost sculptor, Marina Núñez del Prado, was born on October 17, 1910, in La Paz. From 1927 to 1929 she studied at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (National School of Fine Arts), and from 1930 to 1938 she worked there as a professor of sculpture and artistic anatomy.

Núñez del Prado's early works were in cedar and walnut and represented the Andes: indigenous faces, groups and dances. From 1943 to 1945 she lived in New York and turned her attentions to Bolivian social themes, including mining and poverty. She later went through a celebration of Bolivian motherhood with pieces depicting indigenous women, pregnant women and mothers protecting their children. Other works dealt largely with Andean themes, some of which took appealing abstract forms. She once wrote, ‘I feel the enormous good fortune to have been born under the tutelage of the Andes…my art expresses the spirit of my Andean homeland and the spirit of my Aymará people.’

During her long career she held more than 160 exhibitions, which garnered her numerous awards, and she received international acclaim from the likes of Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Alexander Archipenko and Guillermo Niño de Guzmán. In her later years the artist lived in Lima with her husband, Peruvian writer Jorge Falcón. She died there in September 1995 at the age of 84.

Choking on the Río Choqueyapu

The Río Choqueyapu, which flows underground through La Paz and opens up in the Zona Sur, might as well be shortened to the Río Choke. It’s the most contaminated river in all of Bolivia, containing high levels of industrial waste, urine, garbage and excrement. The industrial toxins include cyanide from tanneries and a cocktail of chemicals and dyes from textile and paper industries, which cause the river to flow bright orange in places, or red topped with a layer of white foam. The river also receives about a ton of heavy metals a day from upstream mines; despite environmental protection laws, most of the contamination comes from illegal industrial dumping.

Further downstream, the water is used by campesinos for washing, consumption and agriculture. Most people heat the water before drinking it, but even boiling wouldn’t eliminate some of the chemical pollutants from industrial wastes.