After a long break from writing, we finally continue the ‘blog with more travels in Bolivia.
Just as after a long break from travel in Sucre, off we went bound for Potosi.
Potosi is a fascinating place. By some measures it’s the highest city in the world, at 4100m above sea level. And it’s really kind of in the middle of nowhere. No lakes, rivers or good agricultural lands anywhere nearby. The reason for building a city in such a forbidding place was Cerro Rico “the Rich Mountain,” which sits behind the city and contains one of the richest silver veins ever found. In the 16th and 17th century the Spanish conquistadors exploited the mountain to its fullest using thousands upon thousands of indigenous and African slaves. Thousands upon thousands of these slaves died in the process while the colonials took the riches of the mountain and in addition to enriching their home country, turned Potosi into one of the largest and richest cities in the world at the time.
The legacy of the colonial mines lives on in the rich ornamentation of the city, which sits scattered amongst the more modern but much less glamorous recent constructions. Meanwhile the mining of Cerro Rico continues.
A altiplano pueblito (village-ette) on the way to Potosi
We’d actually passed through Potosi on our overnight trip between Uyuni and Sucre. At that point all we saw of the city was the lighted outline of Cerro Rico. This time we approached the city in the light of day. The outskirts of modern Potosi are pretty grim. Not Uyuni grim, but still cold, dusty and windy.
The centre, however, was entirely different. Streets packed full of cars and people all on their way somewhere. Once in the city centre it took us a little while to find a place to stay (though I was actually quite pleased at this. On this trip I’ve kind of grown irritated at how easy it is to book accommodation in advanced on line. This, of course, means that everyone DOES book online, thus often making it difficult for people like us who would prefer to just show up somewhere and have a look around to find a place to sleep.) Once this was dealt with, we went out for a walk around the busy streets.
Fusball tables at a small square down the street from our hostel. Before too long kids spilled out of their schools and the tables were surrounded by players and spectators
Our brightly coloured hostel on a small side street
The stupendous wealth of Potosi was poured into its architecture, most especially churches. Incredibly ornate carved portals like this were all over the city.
That evening we went out for a bite to eat. It seemed that, if possible, the city was even busier at night. We stopped on a pedestrian street where Sarah popped inside a restaurant for a fruit juice while I got my dinner from one of a series of food carts. I ended up with a chicken schnitzel sandwich topped with lettuce, tomato, onion mustard, hot sauce and a pile of french fries. A hearty meal indeed!
Though it has a wonderfully “Bolivian” character, Potosi is still very much a tourist city. The legacy of its heyday as a boomtown is part of the attraction (it’s said that at its height Potosi’s mules were sometimes shod with silver, as it was difficult to get iron so far up and inland, but there was plenty of silver coming out of the mines.) However Potosi’s main tourist draw is undoubtedly the mines themselves. As mentioned before, the mines are still operating. In the past the hard work was done by slaves and indentured labourers. Though things are better today, working conditions haven’t improved as much as you might hope. The mines are all run by mining co-operatives. Each member of the co-op must be invited to join by the current membership. Usually young men (it’s very much a young person’s business) go to work as assistants to the co-op members for relatively low wages and, if they do well enough they may be invited to join and have a share in the profits.
How did we learn all of this you ask? We went on a tour of the mines, of course. Tours of Potosi’s co-operative mines are still its main tourist draw, and are organized by a plethora of agencies in town. Most of the agencies offer a small proportion (between 5 and 10%) of the tour price. But they also make sure that the first stop on the tour is the miner’s market, where the tourists are encouraged to buy gifts for the miners in the co-op they’ll be visiting.
Sarah inside the shop at the miner’s market. In front of her is a big bag of coca leaves. In her hands, three sticks of dynamite. Wrapped around her head, a fuse. You could also buy rubber boots, picks, drill bits, headlamps, batteries, dust masks and just about anything else a miner might want to make his job easier or more comfortable.
The outside of the shop. Drills. Ammonium Nitrate. Hand tools. Lubricating oil. And of course, more dynamite Dynamite went for 5 Bolivianos per stick, or about $0.75. Supposedly only the miners were supposed to buy it, but for tourists on a tour who are bringing it as gifts the stores will sell it. Other companies allowed tourists to buy dynamite for themselves (at double the price) and blow it up outside the mines. This is both illegal and kind of tacky in my book, so we purposely chose a tour company that DIDN’T offer this as an option.
The headquarters of the largest miner’s co-op. These buildings contain the offices of the co-op executive (elected from amongst the miners for one year terms, after which they must return to the mines for at least a year before running for office again.)
We changed into our overalls and hardhat-headlamps near the market, then took the public bus up to the mines with the miners themselves. And of course the first order of business once we arrived was for our guide Julio to have a chat with his old mates. Julio was a former miner himself, and everyone seemed happy to see him (no doubt in part because of the big handfulls of coca leaves he handed out while catching up.) The mine we visited was a small one and not frequently visited by tourists (Julio liked to pass around his visits between different co-ops) so the miners, especially the young ones, were just as curious about us as we were with them.
Inside the mine we saw that things hadn’t really changed all that much since the early days of the mines. True, the miners now used compressed air drills. But equipment is carried in and ore hauled out by hand. The carts, weighing well over 1000kg when full, run along bumpy tracks that were often completely submerged in muddy watter that filled most of the mine floor. The air was far from pleasant as well, ranging from a little stuffy near the entrance all the way up to hot and scarcely breathable from dust in the deeper areas, 500m or so in. It clearly a very unpleasant place to work. But given that it provides the opportunity for co-op members to earn five or ten times typical Bolivian wages, its certainly understandable that many people still want to.
The outside of the mine. Shafts are dug straight, horizontally into the mountain.
Tio Jorge, “Uncle George.” The devil, lord of the underworld, is respected by all of the older miners. Each mine has its how image of Tio near the entrance. Once a month each miner will come and offer some cigarettes, alcohol or coca to the Tio in return for safety and good returns in the mine
Neither Sarah nor I is particularly tall, but the mines were far from easy for us to navigate. Most of our walking was done hunched over. Lower mine roofs are safer from collapse and are faster to construct, leaving more time to extract ore
All of the visitors, including Sarah, had a chance to load some exploded ore into one of the mine carts. The miners weren’t particularly impressed with our skills… Because the mine is a complex 3D environment, sometimes two collectives will start working the same vein from different directions. Which, of course, can lead to conflicts when they meet up. These can be resolved by such delightful tactics as burning tires in your own mine (if air is flowing from yours into theirs) or even getting drunk and throwing partial sticks of dynamite at one another!
Sarah squeezing past an ore cart.
Me back outside the mine.
Cerro Rico, also known as “The Mountain That Eats Men.” Julio told us that in the first three months of the year, four miners had died in the mountain, mostly from cave-ins.
After our tour we went back to our hostel for a rest, then headed back out for another walk around and more Milanesas from the food carts, of course!
We’d been debating whether to depart Potosi that evening, veeeery early the following morning in order to make it to our next destination the same day, or leaving a bit later in the day and splitting the trip up into two days. I was feeling a bit sick with a cold, so we eventually decided that the last choice would give me a bit more rest and thus be the best.
Or so we thought. When we arrived at the bus station we discovered that there were no buses headed to our destination, Oruru, or indeed ANYWHERE to the north/west of Potosi. The reason was a transport strike that was on in Oruru. The reason? Apparently there was a new airport in town and the government had reneged on its original plan to name it after Bolivia’s first pilot (a local boy from Oruru) and decided to go with Aeropuerto Internacional Evo Morales (the current president) instead. Personally I felt for the local folks, but I also have to say that I just can’t fathom the name of an airport being worth cutting off all transport in, through and around a major city… For either side! But I guess, as Sarah pointed out, perhaps the Orururians were just picking a battle they thought they could win and/or making good use of the many unemployed in Bolivia who probably didn’t have much better to do than manning roadblocks anyway.
Finally around 14:00 we found a bus that was heading out. The blockade hadn’t been lifted, but they were leaving in anticipation of its finish late that afternoon.
When the time leave Potosi, we were a bit sad to be departing what was probably our favourite town/city in Bolivia (including, as it turned out, those yet to come!) but we certainly carried plenty of memories of a very memorable place.
A terrible photo, but I so love the bridge that I’ve got to include it
Church tower and statue in Potosi’s lovely plaza central
Fried chicken is very popular in Bolivia. As it was in Taiwan. Even so, I’m still not certain how this happened (this was the second of three Taiwan-related fried chicken restaurants we saw in the country.)
Potosi’s impressive (if slightly inconveniently located) main bus terminal. We might have been better off doing what many locals do, hanging around at an intersection a short distance along the bus’s routes, then flagging it down. This would have saved the $0.20 to $0.50 terminal tax. But in the kind of confusing situation we found ourselves in when leaving Potosi doing it this way would have been even more confusing. So upon reflection it was probably best we didn’t.