Mi Teleférico: La Paz’s brilliant urban cable car network
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The world’s highest and longest urban gondola system has transformed the way people commute in Bolivia’s capital.
At 11,913 feet, La Paz is the world’s highest capital city. Clinging to the sides of a natural depression in the Andean escarpment, it really is one of the most stupefying cities on earth. Endless shanties and skyscrapers hang from ochre cliffs and canyons, with snow-capped Illimani an ever-present backdrop. But its dramatic location, coupled with decades of poor urban planning, meant that, for decades, it was also a commuter’s nightmare.
When I lived in La Paz, the thought of crawling through the steep cobblestone alleys in a perpetual traffic jam of overcrowded minibusses often persuaded me to walk to my destination instead. But for residents of El Alto (aka The High One, altitude 13,600 feet), the rapidly expanding city on the plateau just above downtown La Paz, this was not an option. Through the 1990s and 2000s, rapid urbanization of Bolivia's indigenous rural population caused El Alto to mushroom...and the traffic problem to explode. For these poorly paid commuters, the 7-mile road journey could easily take an hour each way.
That’s all changed with the introduction of Mi Teleférico, a network of fast, silent cable cars built by the Austrian firm Doppelmayr that crisscrosses the city and connects La Paz with El Alto. When the first three lines were opened in 2014, the network instantly became the world's largest urban cablecar network. Since then the network has expanded to include 10 lines (and counting) covering a total of 20 miles. Between May 2014 and March 2018 over 120 million trips were taken on the network - an average of 163,000 trips per day!
Perhaps the most resounding proof of the project's success is the fact that the Red and Yellow lines which connect El Alto and La Paz are far and away the busiest lines. These two lines alone account for more than 75% of trips taken, saving users an average of 16 days per year and reducing the city's daily fuel consumption by 7,000 gallons. Such numbers have been made possible by two major factors: the incredible efficiency of the system (the network's 1506 gondolas depart stations at 12-second intervals!) and the low cost of tickets - at 3 Bolivianos a pop ($.40) the Teleférico is 40% cheaper than minibusses. The project, which has cost the government more than $700 million, has already reached economic sustainability.
While the network was, obviously, developed to benefit residents of La Paz and El Alto, it has also transformed the tourist experience. The highly-efficient network means you can easily visit the Valle de La Luna (in the Zona Sur), the Cementerio General (downtown) and the cholets of El Alto in a single day - an itinerary which was previously unthinkable. And, of course, the Teleférico is an attraction in its own right. I could try to describe what it feels like to whizz above one of the world's craziest cities in an air-conditioned, wi-fi enabled and blissfully silent 10-seater cabin. But you'll have so much more fun finding out for yourself. Despite it all, road congestion remains an issue in the city - even more reason to take to the sky!
The Teleférico is extremely user-friendly, and we'd highly recommend taking at least a few trips on it as part of your Bolivia adventure. Alternatively, speak to one of our Destination Experts about including the full-day Cable Cars and Side Streets tour which takes in six different cable car lines and includes visits to El Alto, the bohemian neighborhood of Sopocachi, the Andean Textiles Museum and the picturesque colonial buildings of Calle Jaen.