We’d been told to get there early. But the line was still long. Everyone wanted to try it.
Where there’s a queue in Bolivia there are vendors. Men, women and teenagers paced and hawked. Ice-cream men did a roaring trade, pushing hand-carts, and handing out cones. Ball-point pens seemed to be the hot item of the moment. ‘Boligrafas, uno peseto’, shouted a man holding out a display of splayed biros in his hand. Curious. The line moved forward, past road-side ‘tiendas’, crammed with bottles of soft-drink, sweets and toilet rolls. People ate at hamburger stands under sun umbrellas. There were chocolates on sticks and toffee apples; comic books and toy aeroplanes. All the fun of the fair. La Paz had just got a new ride, a brand new cable car.
This was a try-out. For free. As yet the system isn’t officially open to the public. When it is it will transform the lives of commuters between La Paz and El Alto. Although only a few kilometres apart, a journey between the two cities can take anything up to two hours. At the moment commuters suffer smoke-belching buses, blaring horns, and crammed micros. The teleferico promises to be different. Behind us a bowler-hatted cholita clutched her husband’s arm. The sixty-year-old man in front of us moved forward patiently. Kids jumped, sat in the shade when they got tired, and clung to mum or dad. Everyone was happy. As we approached the entrance of the old railway station, we were given a form to fill in. Name, age, address, passport number. Ah, that’s why so many people were selling pens. And we got our first glimpse of the cars, swinging high above the cityscape, pillar-box red, rather menacing, like alien space-craft advancing on an unsuspecting public.
People ran from the fenced-off area to the station, so keen were they to get inside. Posters proclaimed ‘you’ll be enchanted’ and told citizens they were taking a jump into the future. The president’s face beamed on the crowd from above, like a kindly uncle. But for nearly all these people this was a huge deal. The great majority, if not all, could never have been on a cable car before, could never have had such a bird’s eye view of their city before. Excitement mounted as we drew closer to the platform. We were counted out into groups of ten, and given instructions – stand by this mark, get in now…. and we were away, rising over the city. La Paz is full of miradors, but this beat them all. ‘Que lindo, que bonita’, (‘how pretty, how beautiful’) murmured our fellow passengers. The cholita sitting next to Jim giggled like a school girl, then grimaced as the car bumped over a pylon. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. And then we laughed some more.
We soared up 500m, over red-tiled rooftops, looked down into courtyards, and onto roof terraces; saw women washing clothes in plastic tubs, bed-clothes hanging over brick walls, and dogs stretching out in the sun. Micros moved on city streets far below like matchbox cars, and in the cemetery Lowry-like figures strolled with bunches of flowers to pay respects to their dead. La Paz looked like toy-town, half-built houses tumbling down steep hillsides, rusty corrugated-iron roofs and the occasional splash of colour against jagged brown rock. And when we got tired of looking at the mortal world, we raised our eyes to the peaks – in the south, highlighted against a blue horizon, the three-peaked Illimani; and to the north Huayna Potosi, standing sentinel over the city.
What a city, topsy-turvy crazy, ugly buildings in spectacular surroundings, odd and strangely appealing. The ride was over in fifteen minutes, but it was fifteen minutes of pure bliss. So good we did it twice. This time in a carriage full of little kids, who were shouting and pointing, staring and twisting trying to take it all in. Infectious joy.
No one knows yet how much it will cost to travel in the cable car – but when all three lines are running they will be able to transport 18,000 passengers an hour over nearly eleven kilometres, making it the longest urban cable-car system in the world. La Paz has something to be proud of.
This blog was written in 2014 during our trip to Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.