I just happened to notice an interesting leaflet on a telephone pole…
Soon after my arrival in La Paz I chanced upon a notice posted on a telephone pole on tourist-central Calle Sagárnaga advertising a weekend hands-on course in eco-friendly construction techniques. The course was offered by Arquitectos Sin Fronteras (Architects Without Borders) in Navarra, Spain. They are sponsoring a 6-month program in rural Achocalla (about an hour outside of La Paz) to build sustainable superadobe homes for villagers.
I contacted the project leader, Yoanna from Spain, who warmly welcomed me and gave me all the details. So early Saturday morning, I hopped on a trufi to Zona Sur where I met the other course members in Plaza Humboldt.
There were 13 of us for the first day, mostly Spaniards and a few Bolivians. Many of the Spaniards were travelers passing through who heard about the project through friends, but a good number of them either live here — doing research, working for the Spanish foreign office, or studying or teaching.
With an unemployment rate of nearly 50% in Spain for the under-30 crowd, all of the younger Spaniards I met were happy to be living or traveling in South America for the time being. Infinitely better than being at home right now where the economic situation is dire.
We car-pooled to the construction site in Alto Cañuma near Achocalla in the hills outside of La Paz, stunningly situated with beautiful views of the Andean Cordillera Real mountains and the white-capped Mount Illumani off in the distance. I was exhilarated to spend the weekend in such an awesome setting.
My first week in La Paz has left me breathless. Quite literally. At nearly 12,000 feet (3600 m), La Paz is the highest capital in the world. The lower-altitude Sucre remains the official capital, but La Paz is the de facto power center in the country housing both the executive and legislative branches of government.
The magnificence of the setting is striking: the towering Andean peaks of the Cordillera Real to the east, crowned by Mount Illimani which soars to over 22,000 feet (6465 m). The dense city center flows downwards through the canon along the mostly covered Choqueyapu River.
The wealth of the residents increases as altitude decreases, from the ever-expanding shantytowns of El Alto on the high altiplano rim and down through the dangling Aymara neighborhoods perched precariously on the steep slopes.
Below is El Centro a.k.a. la hoyada (the hole), the crowded heart of the city and home to the government buildings and the scant colonial architecture that remains after decades of rapid change resulting from mass migration from rural areas.
The city sinks further to the upscale neighborhoods of Miraflores and Sopocachi, home to expensive apartments and a wealth of chic bars and restaurants.
Finally, La Paz comes to rest in the newly-minted Zona Sur neighborhood where most of the expats, diplomats and rich paceños live in gated communities.
Standing in the bowl of La Paz at the city center at sunset, millions of lights from the buildings and homes sprawl in every direction. At night the city glimmers and shines with all the energy of a modern metropolis.
This is my new home for the moment and in my first week I started to settle into the rhythms of my new world.