Mi Teleférico: La Paz, Bolivia’s Aerial Cable Car Network

Second in a series about Bolivia

Mi Teleférico's red line connects the area northwest of downtown La Paz with the heights of El Alto
Mi Teleférico’s Red Line connects the area northwest of downtown La Paz with the heights of El Alto.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Shortly after arriving in Bolivia on Tuesday, August 11, 2015 (during the taxi ride from El Alto International Airport) I was surprised when we passed under an aerial cable car system.  It was a modern looking line that connected downtown La Paz (which is built in a canyon) with the city of El Alto (built on the plain above).  My Lonely Planet guidebook (published in 2013) didn’t mention the system, which was understandable given that it didn’t begin operation until 2014.  The harrowing roads we experienced leading down from the heights of El Alto to La Paz underscored the very reason the system was built in the first place: to reduce the horrendous traffic congestion and resulting pollution affecting the roads between the cities.  I imagine the cable car is considerably faster than the average commute by car as well.  The best reason for for the system, however, is a ghastly sight that we later observed on the cliffs below El Alto.

The topography of La Paz explains why the cable car network was constructed; traveling between La Paz and the heights of El Alto is tricky by road
The topography of La Paz explains why the cable car network was constructed; traveling between La Paz and the heights of El Alto is tricky by road

In operation for just over a year, the system’s three lines constitute the world’s longest aerial cable car network at a total length of 10km (6 mi).  There are as many as six additional lines in the planning stages.  The Austrian company Doppelmayr built the three lines completed thus far: Red, Yellow, and Green.  I’ve also seen the firm’s work in Las Vegas and Venice.  The existing network is designed primarily for the use of local commuters.  Although certainly the views from the cable car are superb, the lines don’t really connect La Paz’s top tourist sites.

Government buildings of Plaza Murillo
Government buildings of Plaza Murillo

Wednesday, August 12, 2015 was a dreary day in La Paz.  Although the Southern Hemisphere winter is the dry season in Bolivia and La Paz averages just four rainy days in August, we managed to beat the odds with precipitation in two out of three days there!  After a late start (altitude sickness sapped us of motivation), we took a taxi from our hotel to Plaza Murillo.  We found a bank with an ATM that dispensed US$ and converted them to Bolivianos at a money changer.  (I’d heard this was preferable to withdrawing Bolivanos from an ATM, as you will be hit with lackluster conversion rates by both your home bank and the local one.)  We came across a shop selling salteñas, a Bolivian empanada.  Rachel asked the clerk working the register how it was different from a normal empanada.  The way he explained it, salteñas are baked rather than fried.  We tried chicken and vegetable versions; the chicken was particularly good, the sauce perfectly balancing sweet and spicy.  (At least, in my opinion… Rachel found it too sweet.)

La Paz's train station is in great shape, even if it no longer hosts any rail traffic
La Paz’s Central Station is in great shape, even if it no longer hosts any rail traffic

We walked uphill to the Estación Central/Taypi Uta (each station has a name in Spanish and one in Aymara, a native language) for Mi Teleférico’s Red Line.  It appears the “Central Station” name refers to its proximity to the old train station (none of the other cable car stations have “estación” in their names) although it does happen to be the closest cable car station to downtown La Paz..

Ticket booth at the former train station
Ticket booth at the former train station

By the way, the train station is a beautiful building in excellent condition.  It’s possible to walk through the station on the way to the cable car terminal.  The old ticket booth is visible.  There’s a sign for a railroad museum on the back side of the station, but it was closed (with no hours posted).  I didn’t see any rails or ties out back, and I’ve been unable to determine just how many years have passed since the station last was in operation.

Update on November 3, 2015: Professor John Kirchner of California State University Los Angeles advises that this was a station on the Ferrocarril de Antofagasta a Bolivia, a British-owned railway that connected the Chilean port city of Antofagasta with destinations in Bolivia including La Paz.  According to Professor Kirchner, train service to La Paz’s station ended in 1995.  He also referred me to Robert Morris, who has photos taken around the station back in 1966 when it was in service.

Update on November 12, 2015: I found a Spanish-language website that appears to indicate that the station was built in 1930 by Bolivian architect Julio Mariaca Pando and was declared a city cultural heritage site in 1999.

Looking back at the Red Line's Estación Central, with the old train station behind it
Looking back at the Red Line’s Estación Central, with the old train station behind it

We entered the Red Line station and purchased our tickets.  Each trip is a flat rate of 3 Bolivianos (about $0.44, competitive with the local bus and taxi rates) regardless of distance.  As best I can tell, there’s no day pass or roundtrip ticket.  The tickets aren’t directional either, so unless you’re planning to make your way back by taxi or something, it’s wise to just purchase two tickets per person so you don’t have to wait in line again.  The system runs continuously with a car departing every few seconds.  We didn’t ride during the peak commuting hours and there was never a wait.

The cars have two benches facing one another and are rated for ten passengers (although they look like they’d fit six comfortably).  Passengers board the cars while they move through the station.  When we had a car to ourselves, the station staff asked one of us to sit on each bench (rather than side-by-side) for balancing purposes.  The cars go very slowly through the stations.  Once the cabin doors close and the car reaches the end of the platform, the car accelerates sharply “up, up, and away”.  The ride is smooth and quiet.

La Paz's cemetery
A small portion of La Paz’s cemetery

Not long after leaving the central Red Line station, the route passes over an enormous cemetery.  I read that the local custom is to bury the dead initially but after ten years to disinter the remains, cremate them, and inter them here at the large cemetery.

Streets of La Paz
Streets of La Paz

It’s an interesting experience seeing La Paz from the bird’s eye perspective.  At times, though, it was a disquieting one.  Downtown La Paz is filled with clean, modern, colorful high rises.  As the Red Line soars towards the heights of El Alto, however, the desperate poverty of many city residents becomes evident.  In general, the higher the elevation, the more ramshackle the buildings.  Their rusting corrugated metal roofs in some cases appear to be held in place only with large stones.

An impoverished area of La Paz
An impoverished area of La Paz

Encapsulated in a sleek, modern transportation bubble floating above the poverty, I couldn’t help but feel guilty at how privileged I was in comparison to those whose lots in life I was observing.

Gloomy La Paz
Gloomy La Paz

Although the rain had stopped before we boarded the cable car and there had been a few glimpses of sunshine, the view was certainly less scenic than it would have been on a clear day.  I suspect the cable car would have provided a good view of the massive nearby mountain known as Illimani, which was obscured by heavy clouds during most of our visit to La Paz.

Cementerio/Ajayuni, the second of three stations on the Red Line
Cementerio/Ajayuni, the second of three stations on the Red Line

Approaching the cliffs of El Alto, I spotted a bird of prey coming in for a landing on the hillside.  I later identified it as a mountain caracara, an amusingly-named raptor related to falcons.  A couple were perched near the entrance to a small hole or borrow in the hillside.  Then we spotted something that made my blood run cold.

And this is why I'm glad we were on a cable car instead
Vehicle crushed in the cliffs below El Alto

There was a car wedged and crushed into a crevice in the cliff.  The odds against a car finding its way into the narrow gap seemed astronomical, although the outcome would hardly have been better if it had simply free fallen the 35m (115′) or so to the ground instead.  Although not visible from the cable car, zooming in on the photograph made it clear that the vehicle was a taxi.  I hope against hope that the car ended up there as a result of a prank or insurance fraud and not the fatal accident it appears to be.  I couldn’t help but think it was about the best form of advertising available to passengers on the Red Line, underscoring why the cable car was a good alternative to commuting on such torturous roads.

El Alto's Red Line station, known as 16 de julio/Jach’a Qhathu
El Alto’s Red Line station, known as 16 de julio/Jach’a Qhathu

We arrived at El Alto after a roughly 12 minute ride.  Due to its altitude, it was quite chilly in comparison to downtown La Paz.  I measured the platform of 16 de julio at an altitude of 4,151m/13,619′ (compared to 3,729m/12,234‘ at Estación Central).  Since there weren’t any good views of the city due to the clouds, we lingered only long enough to photograph a hardy purple flower growing outside the station before boarding the line for the return trip.

One tough flower
One tough flower
Map of the Yellow and Green Lines
Map of the Yellow and Green Lines, and a self-portrait to boot

The following evening was also rainy.  We took a taxi to Libertador/Chuqui Apu, hub for both the Yellow and Green Lines.  I was hoping to get a look at a set of three bridges known as Puentes Trillizos (Triplet Bridges).  These beautiful cable-stayed bridges are illuminated at night by lights that change color regularly.  Although it should have been a short drive and was fairly late, traffic was quite heavy.  Our driver was quite friendly and helped pass the time.  He’d worked for three years in Manassas, Virginia, about an hour from where I grew up.  He sheepishly admitted that he’d had a work visa during the first year but remained illegally another two before he was caught and deported.

Libertador/Chuqui Apu
Libertador/Chuqui Apu, a shared station serving both the Yellow and Green Lines.

We took the Green Line first.  Not long after we started, the car came to a sudden stop.  The locals aboard our car didn’t appear overly concerned.  When Rachel asked them, they explained that the system often stops temporarily when it rains.  Indeed, the break was fairly brief.

Cool building (I'm not sure what it is) visible from the Green Line
Cool building (I’m not sure what it is) visible from the Green Line

The ride provided a nice view of the lights of downtown La Paz as well as the surrounding canyonside.  Towards the end of the line (at Irpavi/Irpawi, in La Paz’s Zona Sur), the route climbs and descends a hill very steeply, emphasizing how well suited the network is for the terrain; a road would surely have to switchback up a similar route.

Puentes Trillizos
Puentes Trillizos

We reversed course on the Green Line and then switched to the Yellow Line.  The views of the Puentes Trillizos were quite good from the Yellow Line.  I’m afraid the photos of the bridges didn’t really turn out, although the sharpest one is above.  Shooting from a moving cable car at night through rain-obscured glass, I should be happy I got even that one.

Just after Buenos Aires/Quta Uma, the Yellow Line’s third station, the temperature dropped enough for the rain to turn to snow.  Like the Red Line, the Yellow Line terminates in El Alto.  The Yellow Line’s station is known as Ciudad Satélite/Qhana Pata.  Visibility at El Alto was even worse than it had been the day before.  The snow-laden clouds obscured all the city lights below.  We re-boarded the cable car and headed downhill back into the rain.  We got off at Sopocachi/Suphu Kachi, one stop before the terminus, which appeared to be more conveniently located for the return taxi trip to our hotel.  We snagged a radio taxi from the Columbia company (decorated with an illustration of the ill-fated space shuttle) that had just dropped someone off.

Our rides on all three lines were quite pleasant and marred only by the weather.  I’m curious about how the cable car network will evolve in La Paz.  Will the ambitious nine line plan see fruition?

Further Reading

Largest urban cable car soars over ‘desperate’ commuters of La Paz, Sara Shahriari in The Guardian, April 9, 2014: Excellent article about the project but written prior to the announcement of the fare.

Mi Teleférico, Wikipedia: Overview of the network, its technical aspects, and plans for future expansion

Series on Bolivia

Obtaining a Bolivian Tourist Visa

Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (introduction)

La Paz, Bolivia: Basílica de San Francisco

Mi Teleférico: La Paz, Bolivia’s Aerial Cable Car Network

Stuck in the Snow en Route to Chacaltaya, Bolivia

Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), Bolivia

Across the Altiplano to Lake Titicaca: La Paz to Copacabana, Bolivia by Bus

Introduction to Copacabana, Bolivia

Ascending Cerro El Calvario (Calvary Hill) in Copacabana, Bolivia

Copacabana to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) by Boat

Hiking from Challapampa to the Sanctuary on Isla del Sol

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part I: The Sacred Rock, Titikala

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part II: Chincana and Nearby Sites

Hiking from the Sacred Rock to Yumani on Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Scenic Tour of Lake Titicaca: Copacabana, Bolivia to Puno, Peru by Bus

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