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Friday, 30 May 2008


26th May 2008 - 28th May 2008

After over a week in Sucre we decided it was high time to move on. There is only so much chocolate gorging even the two of us can take! And besides, the first chocolate festival was coming to a close…

Potosi wasn't part of our original itinerary, but everyone we met who had visited the city on route to or from Uyuni (our next destination) had raved about the silver mines - working mines, open for viewing by the public.

Potosi is the highest city of it´s size in the world. It was founded by the Spaniards on 10 April 1545, after they had discovered indigenous mine workings at Cerro Rico, which dominates the city. Immense amounts of silver were once extracted. By the early 17th century Potosi was the largest city in the Americas, but over the next two centuries as it's lodes began to deteriorate and silver was found elsewhere, Potosi became little more than a ghost town. It was the demand for tin – a metal the Spaniards largely ignored – that saved the city from absolute poverty in the early 20th century, until the price slumped because of over supply. Mining continues in CerroRico – mainly tin, zinc, lead, antimony and wolfram.

The bus journey to Potosi was our first real experience of Bolivian buses. Fortunately the journey was a short one, just three hours and we had looked forward to the scenery we would see as we climbed from 2,700 to 4,100 meters. Despite a comfortable start, and a wise decision to move from the back seat, Sam nevertheless ended up with a boy and a young girl draped over the arm of her seat. The other five or six family members, over four generations or so had taken up residence on the back seat with another couple of travellers. What a squash!!

On arrival to Potosi we checked into the Hostal Camposine de Jesus, a recommendation from a couple we'd met in Sucre, and in favour of the place we'd already reserved, complete with heating, hot showers etc. etc… what were we thinking?! Anyway, the room was pretty nice, and rather sunny at the time. The kind landlady had provided five thick blankets for the bed, so we couldn't see we'd be that cold!!

That night in Potosi was our first experience of the harsh realities of the Andean altitude. We're not sure quite how low the temperature dropped but it was a shock after Sucre. Thankfully, at least we’d both already acclimatised after the eleven days in Sucre and the extra 1300 meters did little to affect us. The rest of the Andes gringo trail would just be a breeze!

However all was not well. Our little laptop friend wasn't made of such sturdy stuff and whined to a halt that night, whilst warming our hands on a cup of trimate. Oh dear, evenings spent typing our blog in the local internet cafes await, complete with dodgy keyboards and eeee´s that rfus to work!! Hence the reason why we haven’t posted anything for quite some time...

We had booked places on the Potosi mine tour for the following morning, and after an early start of 8am (this is like being at work!) we were driven to the HQ of Koala tours for kitting out. Despite the early hour and the still close to zero degrees we were told to remove
all but one layer of clothing, for temperatures could reach 40ÂșC inside the mine. The protective outfits we were given we rather fetching (check out our photos!) but much needed, as were the helmets, head torches and battery packs.

First stop was the miners market to buy gifts for the working miners we would meet during the tour. 15% of the admission price was given back to the miners anyway, but we were told these extra gifts would be appreciated, especially with the current rate of inflation. Laden with bags of coca leaves, soft drinks and dynamite (!) we were taken around the processing plant and shown how the minerals were extracted from the "Completo", the substance mined by the miners. We were then driven further up Cerro Rico Mountain to the mine we were visiting today. Apparently there were around 200 mines still operating, with up to 15,000 miners working at one time.

The entrance to the mine was marked with dripping Llamas blood, a sacrifice from the working miners to their god in return for protection in the mine. What had we agreed to?! Inside the entrance we followed the train tracks into the mountain. After ten minutes or so we reached what they called the museum, the only part of the mine dedicated to tourism and filled with information from past to present day. It seemed that little had changed in the last 200 years and as we found out the processes used largely today are still very manual (a pick and shovel) and incredibly archaic.

At this point a couple of people left the tour group and were taken back to fresh air. This it seemed was when the going gets tough! We continued deeper into the mine. The temperatures were definitely rising and the handkerchiefs we’d tied around our necks were needed to filter the noxious gases and dust present in the air. Coupled with the altitude (we were some distance above the town at 4100m) it was pretty difficult to breathe. The tunnels were also becoming increasingly narrow and we were required to crawl and later wriggle on our bellies through certain sections, for up to 10 minutes at a time. We dropped three floors deep into the mine,
and by this I mean we slid on our bottoms or head first on our bellies down the shafts, doing our best to avoid the gaping chasms into other tunnels. UK Health and Safety would never have allowed such a tourist attraction at home. The feeling of claustrophobia was almost overwhelming and the rising heat did little to help. Our group met a number of miners as we descended into the mountain – some of the boys as young as 13, and one guy chiselling a bore hole by hand into the rock for later exploding with dynamite – he was just 37, we thought he must have been in his 50´s. After a couple of harrowing hours in the belly of the mountain we were allowed to escape. We had to crawl/clamber back up though, there were no lifts here! It was staggering how we had spent just a couple of hours inside the mine and yet the miners were spending 12-14 hours (some round the clock) a day here, without a single break. It really brought home how fortunate we all were.

The grand finale to the tour and in order to end the tour on a lighter note we clustered outside the mine and lit the dynamite…well the guide and his assistant did and we all kept a safe distance. Lets just say that the explosions were pretty impressive, the ground even shook!! Check out the film clip (when we get round to uploading it!)

The rest of the day was spent recovering from the exhaustion and preparing for Uyuni and the salt flats, our next destination…

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