- Published on Friday, 20 July 2012 08:52
Feeling better after my first bout with some bad food my next stop on the trail was Potosi. I met a limey named Matthew on the Salar de Uyuni trip who is heading the same way as I am so we joined forces as we both had interest in going into the silver mine of Potosi. Potosi was founded in 1546 by the Spaniards and has an elevation of 13,420 feet making it one of the highest cities in the world. It is dominated by Cerro Rico or "Rich Mountain" and this was a main source of Spanish wealth back in the colonial times. Today Cerro Rico is still a working co-operative silver mine although the ore is much less abundant today. This was the reason I had come here. I wanted to learn the miner ways.
I did not plan to stay in Potosi long and my time here was only two days. The mine is the big draw and there is not much else to do. After the 5 hour bus ride from Uyuni we arrived high mountains to Potosi. I booked a tour for the following day and as I still was not feeling all that well I was asleep by 7pm ensuring I would be well rested for the tour the following morning.
Up early and after a quick breakfast Matt and I walked to the tour agency and were whisked away to the miners market where the strange ritual begins of buying gifts for the miners for when you enter the mountain. The miners want smokes and a 96% whiskey they drink whilst laboring underground. Who am I to argue? I purchased a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of whiskey (of which I sampled, tastes like paint thinner and I still think I have heartburn from it), and a bag of coca leaves which the miners chew to combat fatigue, hunger and altitude sickness. After I tried chewing the coca leaves soon I had a mouthful. Turns out I like them very much so I kept the bag for myself. I'll just make sure to be rid of them before crossing any borders. Here at the market I was also able to purchase a stick of dynamite, a bag of ammonium nitrate, and a fuse. All of this cost me $28 Bolivianos which is $4USD. What a country.
Going into the mines was as much as a social learning experience as it was an adventure. Typically the poorer classes go to work in the mines and here it is no different. On the tour I learned that men go into the mine as young as sixteen years of age. The miners either work for themselves, work for their families, or work for a collective group sharing the profits amongst themselves. Working in a mine that is not controlled by the government has its advantages, mainly no tax on your keep. But the drawback is that there are no regulations or safety standards. The amount of silicone dust these men breathe is very toxic to their systems and sadly many contract lung disease within ten years of entering the mines and die within fifteen. Starting at sixteen years of age, you do the math. Despite all of this the men seemed truly happy to live this lifestyle and there really is a brotherhood amongst the workers, something I can relate with and respect.
Unfortunately I was unable to detonate my dynamite due to a moratorium on explosions in the month of July. Something I wish I knew before I spent $2 on the explosives. So along with the whiskey and cigarettes my dynamite was donated to the local miners. Something they were quite pleased with.
After the mine Matt and I booked a five hour bus straight away out of town bound for Sucre, the one-time capital of Bolivia. Arriving in Sucre later in the evening we secured accommodation, showered and grabbed a bite to eat. I was asleep by 9pm after a long day of spelunking and travel. Sucre is billed as the most beautiful city in Bolivia. Keeping things in perspective (I am in Bolivia after all) it was alright. The Bolivian Supreme Court still calls Sucre home and the whitewashed buildings throughout town show its hand as a Spanish colonial town of yesteryear. I only spent a couple of days here just to relax and wind down a little. I had been moving daily for two weeks now and it was nice to stay in one spot for a few. I booked a nice private hotel room with cable TV (one or two channels in English), a hot shower, and breakfast included all for $11 USD. Sometimes you have to treat yourself.