The Skaters of La Paz
A sport takes hold in the highest capital on earth.
A common weekend route for skateboarders in La Paz is a precipitous 10-mile chute of highway between El Alto, a city 13,600 feet above sea level, and the jagged canyon of Bolivia’s capital, more than 1,500 feet below. For most of that journey, the highway hugs a cliff, providing views of La Paz’s skyscrapers, pinkish brick apartment buildings, and nearby snow-capped peaks. Skateboarding came to La Paz ten or so years ago, and in that time, local skaters — often sourcing secondhand boards and relying on YouTube videos for guidance — have made it their own. Steep, traffic-choked roads that most Americans would never dream of driving are treated like public skate parks.
Part of the reason for La Paz’s burgeoning skateboarding scene lies midway down that highway: a gleaming concrete skate park surrounded by eucalyptus and overlooking the city. Pura Pura, the highest skate park in the world, was completed in 2014 with the help of 130 volunteers, many of them skaters from around the world. In the years since, the local skate community has grown from several dozen to several hundred, and DIY parks are cropping up in other Bolivian cities as far away as Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.
Skating has always been a communal sport, but skaters in La Paz are particularly close. Though Bolivia has become more prosperous in recent years, nearly 40 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line. When resources are limited, siblings or neighbors might share a single board. Or extended families might come together to raise a couple hundred dollars to buy one. Some high school kids even pool money for the bus fare to send a friend to compete in another city.
“Once in a while, we’ll go straight down in a small group,” Kenneth Dávalos says about skateboarding the highway. “But usually there are enough of us that we’ll stop here and there to wait for everyone to catch up, make sure no one’s had an accident. None of us owns a helmet. The style we have here, it’s about sticking together.”