(above) A feature of El Alto, Bolivia, is its open-air market, with vendors by the thousands filling miles of city streets with myriad wares. Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

El Alto Journal
A Colorful Bolivian Bastion, Floating Above It All


EL ALTO, Bolivia — Turn a corner in this sprawling, bustling, fast-growing city and the Ovando family home suddenly bursts into view, a party-colored mirage floating above the drab, brick-red metropolis like a beacon of an alternate Andean future.

(left) The elevation of El Alto is about 13,150 feet.

"We didn't want it to be just another brick house," said Karen Ovando, 26, a government customs lawyer, standing on the terrace of her parents' bright yellow, orange and red penthouse, six stories above the street. "They're all matchboxes here, all the same. We wanted to show something about ourselves, something about our family."

But the Ovando home and others like it — popularly called chalets for their size and extravagance — also have a lot to say about the unbridled energy, aspirations and political contradictions of this churning, whirligig city and its place in a changing Bolivia.

Rising incongruously above much poorer dwellings, these urban, Andean versions of the suburban McMansion reflect the economic growth that Bolivia has been able to achieve in recent years — and how unevenly it is often distributed. But rather than stir widespread resentment in this bastion of rebellious politics, these open displays of wealth are often embraced by El Alto's residents, an illustration of the city's unusual mix of leftist uprisings and capitalist strivings.

"El Alto is simultaneously the most revolutionary city, perhaps in all of Latin America, at the same time as it's the most neoliberal city, the most individualistic city in all of Latin America," said Benjamin H. Kohl, an associate professor of urban studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.

(below) Brightly colored buildings are often topped with homes for the newly prosperous merchant class.

El Alto sits at about 13,150 feet on the barren altiplano. Directly below it, Bolivia's capital, La Paz, spills down the slopes of a steep valley, with the towering snow-covered peaks of the Andes as backdrop.

La Paz has long had a clear geography of status. The wealthiest residents live at the bottom of the valley, and the poorer ones live higher up. On top of everything is El Alto, whose name means "the Heights." For years a slum appendage of La Paz, it became an independent city in 1988.

El Alto's location is also the source of its power. The airport is here, and the main highways connecting La Paz to the rest of the country pass through El Alto. In times of unrest, El Alto can lay siege to the capital. The model was set by Tupac Katari, an Aymara Indian leader who led a late-18th-century rebellion against the Spanish colonialists, using El Alto's position to cut off La Paz.

Centuries later, in 2003, a similar strategy was used by the modern residents of El Alto, who rose up against a government proposal to export natural gas to the United States through a port in neighboring Chile, Bolivia's traditional enemy. Scores of people died in the unrest, and President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was forced to flee the country.

El Alto residents then became a key source of support for the leftist president, Evo Morales, supporting him overwhelmingly when he was elected in 2005 and again in 2009. But even Mr. Morales found that he was not immune to the anger of El Alto. In 2010, when his government proposed changes to subsidies that would have led to a sharp rise in the price of gasoline, El Alto's residents again blockaded the capital and forced Mr. Morales to back down.

Still, for all its rebellious spirit, El Alto is far from being a typical bastion of the left. It is a hive of commerce, small-scale manufacturing, international trade and contraband.

"Lots of people describe El Alto as a revolutionary city, but it's the capital of capitalism," said Mario Durán, an activist who works to improve Internet access.

Home to about 220,000 residents in 1985, the city swelled as poor farmers and out-of-work miners poured in from the countryside. It is now bigger than La Paz, with an estimated size of well over one million. The population is overwhelmingly Aymara, one of the country's main indigenous groups, and the immigrants have brought with them a fierce work ethic and a laissez-faire zest for business.

The most prominent feature of El Alto is its vast open-air market, which fills mile upon mile of city streets every Sunday and Thursday. Here vendors by the thousands offer a huge array of goods: piles of used T-shirts and other clothing that arrive in bales from the United States; cars, new or used (and sometimes stolen); neatly arranged arms, legs and heads from broken Barbie dolls; electric guitars; mummified baby llamas; pickax handles; and myriad other items. Each week, millions of dollars pour through the market, which operates in an almost total vacuum of government intervention, taxes or regulations.

Residents describe El Alto as a nonstop city financed by immigrant dreams of a better life. Beyond the market, there are thousands of small businesses, including importers, manufacturers and garment shops that make knockoff brand-label clothing. The city seems to be in a constant state of construction, fueled by the commerce and, locals said, by money from Bolivia's drug trade. And there are language academies that give courses in Chinese for El Alto entrepreneurs.

"El Alto can be Hong Kong in the middle of the altiplano," Mr. Durán said. "Or it can be a slum. You're in the exact point where you need to establish the foundations for the city's development."

The other key aspect of El Alto is its indigenous character. Bolivia is a majority indigenous country, but El Alto is special, scholars say, because of the way it has developed. It has no old colonial town center with a plaza, church and government buildings, a significant departure in a country that still struggles with the legacy of conquest.

"It is the first indigenous city since the colonial period," said Félix Muruchi, a professor of pre-Columbian culture at the Public University of El Alto. "A Spaniard didn't make it. A Creole, a descendant of the Spanish, didn't make it. It was the indigenous people themselves, the Aymaras, who made it."

Now El Alto's brightly colored buildings topped with luxury chalets have become a symbol of this vibrant, dynamic city, representing a homegrown architectural style with a crazy quilt of building materials and decorative motifs, including some copied from pre-Columbian ruins.

Some have giant diamonds raised in bas-relief on the stucco facade, or plaster lions or a condor perched on a penthouse terrace railing. Some look like castles; others have slashing diagonal swaths of reflective or colored glass. Most buildings have stores or restaurants on the ground floor and often a large event hall on the second and third floors, for weddings or parties. At the top sits the chalet, often with gabled roof and many-tiered chimney.

But most of all they are oases of color: electric greens, blues, yellows, reds. Other buildings here are made from brick and concrete, and few are painted, creating a subfusc cityscape exacerbated by the dust blowing across the altiplano. Paint is expensive, and Bolivians are poor. And residents believe their property taxes will rise once a home is finished and painted. Government officials say that is no longer true, but the belief, and the lack of paint, persist.

In that context, there is no surer sign of wealth than a painted house, and the brighter the paint the better.

"We came from zero," Ms. Ovando said, recalling how her family used to live in a single room behind her parents' restaurant. The family now runs two restaurants, a cattle ranch and other businesses. Now, she said, she can drive around El Alto and see copies of her family's home popping up all around.

Mónica Machicao Pacheco contributed reporting.