Subway in the Sky

I stumbled across this wonderful little video from the New York Times about Bolivia’s new “teleférico,” which is a tram suspended from cables, such as those you’d see in a ski resort.

Bolivia’s Subway in the Sky

This makes me happy for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a brilliant solution to a difficult transportation problem. La Paz, the executive and legislative capital of Bolivia, lies in a relatively narrow and steeply sided canyon in the Andes at an elevation of just under 12,000 feet above sea level downtown. In the following photo, looking northwest from downtown, you can see how the city rises up the sides of the canyon.

As the city grew, it spread up the sides of the canyon and onto the vast, flat plain (called the “altiplano,” or high plain) that stretches between two ranges of the Andes from the Salar de Uyuni in the south to beyond Lake Titicaca in the north.

More than a million people live in what is now the city of “El Alto,” which is at an altitude of 13,600 feet. Many residents commute to work in La Paz, and the only way to travel in the past was by road. As you can see in the following photo, the sides of the canyon are so steep that cars can get into many neighborhoods only through winding switchback roads.

There is one main highway, the autopista, that connects downtown La Paz with El Alto, and commuters can take buses or taxis, usually after waiting in a long line.

Most large cities have subways or streetcars, but the geography of La Paz makes them impractical, if not impossible. So, how are you supposed to get people up and down a steep, 1,500-foot mountainside? The teleférico is an absolutely brilliant solution. I certainly wouldn’t have thought of it, but it reminds me of the power of not limiting ourselves to conventional ideas and solutions.

The video also makes me happy because it reminds me of a city I love and once called home. I can almost feel the cold, dry wind, the piercing sunshine, the dusty, crowded streets, and the spectacular views of Illimani and the other Andean peaks. There were even a few shots of the main market in 16 de Julio, a few blocks from where I lived.

But what I love most is the ordinary Bolivians in the video. I love the way they drop their vowels and don’t roll their r’s. I love how the one woman refers to the city as “la olla” (cooking pot) and the way she says “dentran” to mean “come into” the city. I love the handmade earrings, the hats, the knitted mantas and heavy pollera skirts. But most of all I love the warmth and goodness of the people, which comes through even in a short video. They are proud of their city and their country, as they should be. Bolivians are wonderful, lovely people, and I have been blessed to know them and live among them.

I really need to go back there someday.

I also found this Bolivian news report:

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One Response to Subway in the Sky

  1. Agellius says:

    I’d never seen pictures of La Paz before. What an amazing city.

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