At the opposite extreme in every sense from the Zona Sur is El Alto, the huge urban sprawl that has grown up over the last few decades around the airport, on the rim of the Altiplano overlooking La Paz. At over 4000m above sea level and some 5km from the city centre, El Alto enjoys beautiful views along the length of the snow-capped Cordillera Real, and the views of La Paz from the rim of the Altiplano are spectacular, even if they contrast sharply with the physical ugliness of the city itself. Populated largely by Aymara migrants from the surrounding Altiplano, when it was officially recognized as a separate municipality from La Paz in 1986, El Alto instantly became the fourth biggest, poorest and fastest growing city in Bolivia. With a bigger population than La Paz, and rapidly approaching one million (sixty percent of whom are under 25 years old), the place resembles a vast, impoverished yet dynamic suburb, its endless stretches of tin-roofed adobe shacks and often half-finished red-brick buildings broken only by the strangely minaret-like spires of churches and an increasing number of shops and businesses, industrial warehouses and endless lines of scruffy garages. Much of the population has no access to running water or electricity, employment is scarce and freezing night-time temperatures make it a desperately harsh place to live. Alteños nevertheless take pride in their urban-rural identity, their collective struggle against adversity and the challenges of urban life in what they refer to as the biggest indigenous city in the Americas, and denigrate La Paz, where many of them work, as la hoyada – “the hole”.

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