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Review: El Alto and the Thursday Market



The largest market in Bolivia

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2445 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon

  • Apr 2010
  • Husband

135 people found this review helpful

We flew into La Paz Airport which is built on the high Plateau at 4016m. We could see La Paz sprawling along a narrow canyon with the newer and much bigger town of El Alto on the plateau.

We had ready horror stories about the shanty town of EL ALTO which was where the indigenous population lived and which was unsafe for tourists. Cost of accommodation in La Paz means that many of the non native population are moving there to live. In fact it was much nicer than we expected.

The streets were wide but always full of traffic and mini buses. These stop without warning to drop off or pick up passengers. Shops sprawled onto the pavement and into the street.

The Bolivians are great traders. Anyone can set up a stall and sell things. Gradually as they make money they buy a shop with living quarters above. There is plenty of space around the buildings to allow for a yard and expansion as the business grows. Everyone does a year’s military service where they learn a trade and more important building skills. As trade improves the shop and house gets larger. This can take a long time as it is all self built. We saw many half built houses which would gradually be finished off when time and money allowed.

Most houses were 3-4 storeys high but some grew to 6 storeys. Houses were built from bricks and the standard of bricklaying varied tremendously. Some houses were painted outside but many were left unpainted as we were told the owner had to pay extra tax if the house was painted.

There are two big markets in El Alto. The most important market is on a Thursday; the Sunday market is smaller.

We had planned a full day tour of La Paz with our guide on a Thursday and knowing we were interested in getting away from the usual tourist attractions and were interested in markets we changed the itinerary to spent the morning around El Alto market.

The Thursday market is huge and is the largest market in Bolivia. As we drove up the side of the Canyon from La Paz we could see the market stretching the length of El Alto as far as the eye could see. It is purely a local market. We were the only Gringos, but attracted little attention. Mini buses loaded with passengers and goods were parked everywhere. Stalls filled the streets.

We left the car and walked. We started in the furniture section selling everything from tables to beds, wardrobes and huge cabinets plus also specially commissioned pieces. All of these are made in small workshops. The workers learn by doing as apprentices in a bigger workshop. As they gain experience they open their own small shop/workshop with living quarters above. As business expands they open a proper shop, start to employ apprentices and build a larger house

Young people setting up a home buy all their furniture from places like this. Getting some of the larger pieces home would be an interesting sight. Wooden furniture was gradually replaced by soft furnishings and upholstery (chairs and sofas), then textiles.

There was a large area with mock designer clothes and fashions as well as gorgeous traditional party skirts with vast quantities of gathered material.

There was a big area selling housewares and a huge food area with fruit, dried goods, spaghetti, corn, meat, fish, live chickens, guinea pigs, rabbits (bought either to fatten and eat or to breed.) In fact everything you could possibly want, and a lot more too.

There is a very popular second hand car market. Cars are parked along the side of the street and prices are haggled over until agreement is reached by a shake of hand. Transactions are usually cash as few Bolivians have bank accounts or pay tax. There were also stalls selling spare parts for cars.

Old rubber tyres are not wasted and are made into shoes, soles for mending shoes and cauldrons of all sizes. These had considerable style and would have graced any patio.

By now it was getting near lunchtime and the fast food stalls were doing a roaring trade. Stall holders were eating lunch by their stalls. This is the main meal of the day and is huge, which may explain the square shape of many of the women.

This was a well worthwhile morning and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Our only regret was that we hadn’t been able to take as many photographs as we would have liked. The Bolivian Indians do not like their photos being taken as they believe it takes away part of their soul. We felt we should respect their views.

The pictures we took start here and the following nine pictures:

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