The city of El Alto (Spanish for The Height) is a suburb of La Paz, Bolivia, located on the Altiplano highlands - while La Paz is constructed in a canyon. As of the 2001 census, the population was 649,958. The city contains La Paz's El Alto International Airport. El Alto is one of the highest cities in the world, up to 4150 meters (13,615 feet) above sea level. It has a cold climate, reaching the maximum temperature of 17 degrees Celsius (62°F) in summer. It is the fastest growing city in Bolivia, due to a trend of movement from Bolivia's rural areas to the La Paz region that started with the rural reform of 1952 and increased in the last 10 years. 79% of its inhabitants are Aymara, 6% are Quechua and 19% are European descent. El Alto is known as La Paz's dormrooms, though recent growth of commerce and industry has made local authorities to claim the title of "Bolivia's Economic Capital."
The dry and inclement plain above La Paz was uninhabited until 1903, when the new built railways from Lake Titicaca and Arica reached the rim of the canyon, where the La Paz terminus, railyards and depots were built along with a settlement of railway workers (a spur line down into the canyon opened in 1905). In 1925 the airfield was built as base for the new air force, which attracted additional settlement. In 1939 El Alto's first elementary school opened. El Alto started to grow tremendously in the 1950s, when the settlement was connected to La Paz' water supply (before that all water had to be transported from La Paz in tank vehicles) and building land in the canyon became more and more short and expensive. In an administrative reform on March 6, 1985 the district of El Alto and surroundings was politically separated from the City of La Paz (this date is officially referred to and celebrated as the city's "founding day"). In 1987 El Alto was formally incorporated as a city.
From 2003 to 2005, access from La Paz to the international airport, as well to oil and gas supplies, was frequently blocked by protesting El Alto social leaders, who have become some of the most powerful players in the politics of Bolivia. El Alto was - and remains - one of the major centers of the Bolivian gas conflict, during which 70 inhabitants were killed under police repression ordered by President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.