After leaving the salt flats it was a 1 hour drive to Uyuni, where we discovered there was a bus leaving for a city I‘d been wondering about visiting as a way of avoiding the bus from Uyuni back to La Paz. In the end only Carol and I took that bus, so made quick goodbyes to the others and set off on a 4 hour journey to the mining city of Potosi.
I slept about an hour of the journey due to an unnaturally smooth road for Bolivia, but it‘s incredibly hard to sleep with so much great scenery to admire, so I dozed the rest of the way. We made it in at about 5:30 and checked into a pretty nice hostel, but much to my dismay were given a double room. I sucked it up and decided I‘d been sleeping in the same room as her for the past three nights so it wasn’t so bad, if a little weird. While Carol went off to do something I chilled out at the hostel, eventually getting chatting to a guy who had been in Utila, Honduras, where I had done my first bit of volunteering all that time ago. It was a strange coincidence, and I only noticed because he was wearing one of the tank tops you get from doing drinking challenges at the Utilian bars. It turns out he was a bit of a hardcore traveller, having completed 10 months of an 11 month trip, and was now on the final leg. Generally the people you meet will either be doing 2 or 3 week trips, 4 to 6 month ones, or epic worldwide year adventures. Basically if they’re over 28 or so, and are pretty clean cut, still in work mode, they’re probably just on holiday. If they’re younger than that then they’re more likely to be doing the mid-range trip, and if they’re any age but have a big beard, are pretty tanned, have tonnes of bracelets and have stopped caring about their appearance, they’re more hardcore people. This is obviously a general statement, and doesn’t apply to everyone, and obviously you’d hope most of the hardcore women don’t have big beards. Plus in South America it’s also mostly an older crowd, so it varys, but the rules still apply I think.
Anyway after this Carol returned and we went out to eat. The choice near our hostel was pretty limited, there being two pizza joints, probably owned by the same people, with the same name and same advertising outside. We picked one and by coincidence inside were two of the French girls from the other car in the Salt Flats tour. As their food took longer to arrive (our pasta took half an hour, their pizza an hour and a half) the other French girl and Kelly, the Dutch girl from our tour, arrived. We chatted to them and I tested out some French for a bit, but as there isn‘t really much going on in Potosi at the best of times, we decided to turn in and get some sleep after what had been a long day.
The next morning Carol went off while I went off and sorted through some of my phone photos of the trip, and after she‘d left for Sucre in the afternoon, I went to take a tour of the mines. Potosi, actually a UNESCO World Heritage City, was founded by the Spanish in 1545, although the hill under which the town was based (Cerro de Potosi) had been known about for many years by the Incans. When the Spanish arrived however, they realized its potential in and quickly began exploiting its seemingly never ending Silver reserves. As a testament to this, mining still goes on in Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) extensively today, only now, after a turmoiled history with the government, the miners run things. This doesn’t mean it’s a good life. The average miner is lucky if he makes it past 45, as the air, injuries and cramped conditions make life hard. However, as our guide, a funny bilingual ex-miner called Pedro, told us, the miners accept their lives, and are actually happy with it. They seem to have a strange guide of gallows humor, as well as the obvious comradeship involved (although they are meant to start at 18, most start from between 8 to 14, so will have worked with their friends almost their entire lives in there). If someone complains about being tired, they‘ll say, “Tired? You’re tired? I’m not tired. I could work for the rest of the week in here and still not be tired,” or, “you’re hot? Boy I could really do with putting on some more clothes, I’m freezing!” I guess it’s a way of keeping spirits high and remaining optimistic about your work. They generally arrive between 8 and 10, and leave when they feel like it, as some of them may have other jobs, or have a target of an amount of money they want to make in a month. The way he described it made it feel like they did enjoy their work, and maybe many of them accepted it it as a neccessary evil, but it’s most definitely not the kind of work conditions you’d say would be ideal for working such a strenuous job. Firstly it’s at a very high altitude. Potosi is the second highest city in the world with over 100,000 inhabitants at 4,050m (El Alto, the barrio/city beside La Paz is number 1), and Cerro Rico towers above it. I don’t know how much it affects the miners, but we were huffing doing very minimal exercise up there, and they pack coca leaves in their mouths throughout their whole work session. Coca leaves may taste bad, but they are pretty incredible, and help so much whether you’re doing Machu Picchu or just on a coach going through the mountains. They also eradicate feelings of hunger or thirst, so the miners don’t need to eat while working. Probably therefore a good way to diet as well.
Before we were taken to the mine entrance, our group, mostly made up of Argentinians, but with one other Brit, who had actually also been to Utila, and two French guys who had been on one of the other Tupiza to Uyuni tours, was taken to a shop. There we were told to buy a small gift for the miners and were given a choice between coca leaves, Coca Cola (used to be made from coca leaves, now it‘s synthetic) and dynamite. For some reason everyone else chose to buy the two coca products, but of course I was always going to buy the dynamite. When you have an opportunity to buy dynamite, you should always take it, is what I’ll say to my grandkids.
Once we were kitted up, we were taken inside the mines. They‘ve got pretty low ceilings (most Bolivians are pretty small people), and a vast network of tunnels of varying sizes and widths that without light would probably end up like the film The Descent. All I was thinking about when I was in there.
Eventually, after squeezing through holes and climbing ladders, we reached an enclave where a strange statue greeted us. It was a large man who seemed to be Spanish origin, with wild hair matted with streamers and two horns poking from his head. One hand was resting on his knee, open for coca leaves, the other clasped round his giant fallus, meant to represent masculinity, apparently. His mouth was open in a kind of a snarl, but the miners used it to place cigarettes in as an offering. See below for a picture. Apparently some miners have said that, while working late, or lost deep in the mines, El Tio (the devil) has visited them and guided them out. Although they‘re catholic there, and very devout, some elements of the old religions can never be lost when it comes to superstition, and El Tio, a God that will protect you if you give him fags, booze and coca, is one of those elements, and seems to be a pretty cool guy.
As it was the day before Easter there were no miners working, so I couldn‘t give away my dynamite. However once I got back to my hostel room I realized that trying to get dynamite on an eventual plane journey home wasn‘t going to be easy, so when Kristian the Norwegian arrived, I gave them to him. It would come to good use after all.
That evening I went for dinner with Kristian and the two French guys are we reminisced about the tour, then of course the conversation came to football, as it almost always does when guys get together.
The next day I made my way by bus to Sucre, Bolivia‘s official capital, and one of its most beautiful cities.
Potosi and Cerro Rico in a rare moment of sunshine. Ominously there always seem to be storms there.
Pedro, our guide, leading us through the mines.
A tight fit through one of the smaller tunnels.
And here you are. What you’ve been waiting for. El Tio:
And of course the dynamite.