There are a few things to know about landing in La Paz, Bolivia, as my family and I did recently. One is that La Paz is the highest capital in the world, so when you land at the airport at 13,300 feet above sea level, you feel it. Breathing is harder. The air is so thin that for departing planes to get airborne, the runways are built 40% longer than standard. International flights lighten their load by taking off only partially fueled and then stop in the nearby low-altitude city of Santa Cruz to complete refueling.
The next thing to know is that you don’t actually land in La Paz, but in the adjacent city of El Alto, now Bolivia’s second largest and rapidly growing city. El Alto is known for its proudly indigenous Aymaran population – but also for poverty, pollution and dangerous neighborhoods (foreigners are advised to exercise caution in El Alto and to avoid it altogether at night.) Many houses do not have electricity or running water, so if you arrive in the wee hours before dawn like we did, you’ll go through some eerily dark streets with battered, half-done construction and roaming wild dogs. During the day, however, the streets come to life with bustling commerce, chaotic traffic and colorful “cholitas,” or Aymaran women in traditional dress and bowler hats.
Finally, when you do catch sight of La Paz from the edge of El Alto, you’ll find a view to behold – a densely packed city tumbling dramatically into a deep bowl and surrounded by the magnificent snow-capped Andes. The vista from the top is spectacular, but many visitors find La Paz itself unattractive. The first impression is of steep hillsides filled top to bottom with roofless hovels and crumbling brick. On closer inspection, there are a lot of interesting and highly contrasting neighborhoods.
Bolivia is landlocked, mineral-rich, economically poor and steeped in a history of division, bias and misfortune. Perhaps its greatest sorrow was losing its Pacific coast in a war with Chile in the late 1800s – a blow to both economic development and the hearts of Bolivians, who to this day hold out hope of getting the coast back and still maintain a navy.
While nominally a democracy, Bolivia has had one president since 2006 – Evo Morales -- and it doesn’t look like he’s leaving soon. In spite of citizens recently voting against an amendment that would allow him to run again, Morales seems to have found a loophole to stay in power. He’s a divisive figure for sure, but as the first indigenous president in Bolivian history, he’s done a lot to help Bolivia’s poor indigenous population. Indeed, the pro-Morales graffiti (Si Evo!) seems to increase the higher you go as you leave La Paz’s wealthier low-lying areas and ascend to the poorer neighborhoods above.
For all its challenges, Bolivia does have something the rest of world wants and that holds economic promise: lithium, a key element in the batteries that run our mobile devices and electric vehicles. It’s been reported that Bolivia holds somewhere between a quarter to more than 40% of the world’s lithium – and some say it could be much more. But most of it still lies in the ground unexploited. Bolivia doesn’t have the technology to extract it, and it hasn’t attracted the kind of foreign investment needed to get mass production going. In addition, most of the lithium lies under the salt crust of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s biggest salt flats and a major tourist attraction. That’s made the government wary of disrupting the spectacular landscape.
It turns out that the Salar de Uyuni was our main destination in Bolivia, and I will say it is magnificent -- over 4,000 square miles of white salt, strangely blue skies in thin air, unearthly perspectives, and snow-capped mountains shimmering in the distance.
See it, and you’ll feel glad about the reluctance to disturb the land for lithium. And yet -- it’s hard not to root for Bolivia to find an economic path forward. Lithium is likely to be one of Bolivia’s best opportunities.