Days: 315-316 (6 May 2015 – 7 May 2015)
Total distance travelled: 59,851.36 kilometres (37,174.76 miles)
One good turn deserves another, and after making both of those suggested turns, we realised we had no bloody idea where we were!
That pretty much sums up the start to our time in Potosi, at least once I’d finished checking out the old station and the relics of railways steam age that rusted there.
We wandered a little further, still finding no familiar streets to match our map… at the time we had no idea we’d been walking away from the city centre!
Ultimately, with us both a little frustrated (read pissed off with each other and our stupid mistake), we jumped on board a local colectivo headed for the main market.
Finally having our bearings, it was an easy task to now make our way tour our hostel and begin to think (as usual) about lunch!
I think in this task we lucked out, as although we dined on crap, albeit tasty chicken and chips (fries), we must have picked the only eatery in town that wasn’t screening the Barcelona vs Bayern Champions League match…
At just shy of 3,900 metres, the air was cool, fortunately at least, the afternoon offering up a little sun which was great when you were in its rays, although these too became more and more feeble as the day wore on.
We’d come to Potosi with a specific purpose in mind, and that was to check out its famous silver mines, a serious source of wealth for the Spanish crown from around 450 years ago.
Now this was not to be our first visit to a silver mine, after an excursion to El Eden back up in Mexico’s silver city of Zacatecas.
In another twist, it was also our second visit to a city by the name of Potosi, as another of Mexico’s silver cities, San Luis Potosi was actually named after this very place in Bolivia back in 1592 (interestingly, they are both also now UNESCO World Heritage sites)!
Randomly we wandered into ‘Big Deal’, a tour agency we later found listed in our guidebook (run by ex-miners) which after a long chat, and some refreshing honesty (we were told there was a chance that the miners may be on strike the following morning, so we’d likely not see any in the mine itself), we opted to sign up anyway, eager to move on sooner rather than later.
The following morning, after meeting back at the tour office, saw us and two others, a Canadian girl and a Swiss guy, pile into a van where we attempted to make our way across town… only we didn’t get that far.
We found our passage blocked by a long boisterous crowd (many firecrackers were let off at random intervals) of marching miners, on strike!
Eventually we were ushered out of our van, lead through the crowd… and into yet another van for what was really a journey we probably could have walked.
Here we got changed into some protective gear, rubber boots and donned safety helmets complete with head lamps.
As you can imagine, we four did indeed look like dickheads, but that’s part of the experience!
First up we were to ‘experience’ the local market for the miners and their families, where by experience, they truly mean guilt you into buying goodies for the local workers.
But none are working today we cried!?
No problem said our guide, you can get something for the workers at the processing plant… little wonder the miners love to see tour groups rolling through!
Still, I got to handle my first stick of dynamite… which I’m pretty sure kids are able to buy!
That was pretty much our cue to pile back in the van, and make our way to the aforementioned processing plant.
Here we were told a little more about the extraction techniques, where chemicals are used to separate the ores (for in fact not only silver is extracted, but also lead, nickel, zinc and copper) from the rock.
My queries as to how the now chemically laden waters are then disposed of were conveniently misunderstood, or possibly ignored…
We’d earlier caved under the pressure of expectation, so it was as we were leaving we were asked if we had any ‘gifts’ for the workers, so we dutifully revealed a bag of Coca leaves we’d purchased, expectant that they’d at least share them amongst their small group.
Instead it was reminiscent of scenes from my childhood, where Santa Claus might roam the town on the back of a fire engine, tossing lollies (candy) from above, and amongst the kids at ground level, it was a scrappy free-for-all!
I’m sure there was a thank-you from them as well…
Finally it was time to head on up the mountain, and in fact through it.
It was time to delve into the depths that were once carved by hand using forced indigenous labour (the Spanish got ridiculously rich through such human rights abuses), then aided by black powder, and today, with the aid of pneumatic drills and dynamite.
Initially we were traipsing through water, so whilst our feet felt a little cold, the benefit was there was little dust to concern ourselves with, so therefore no need for us to wear the face masks we’d been so kindly provided with.
Soon however, the water was left behind and we were in drier parts, where each step would stir the dust making things a little harder on the lungs… in truth, it was a relief the place was devoid of miners, as with all their activity, we could only imagine how horrible it might have been!
What was a little sobering was to think that apparently conditions for workers are now so much better than they have been in the past.
As we looked around at rusted machinery, tried our best not to inhale the horrible dust or touch anything toxic, we couldn’t quite comprehend how horrible it must have once been…
We wandered further, before taking some time out to rest and meet one to whom the miners give thanks and present offerings (in the hope of striking a rich vein I guess… or possibly simply in the hope that there are no cave-ins).
Slapping the title of Tio (Uncle) on board makes him sound a little more affectionate, but in truth, he to whom they give offerings of cigarettes and alcohol that is almost 100 proof (which the miners also drink), is simply a horny dude with a big dick!
Apparently alcoholism is quite a problem amongst the people of Potosi, as for the equivalent of a couple of dollars, this firewater (which we all had a tipple of) can be purchased by the litre… or even larger if you’d like.
Given that it gave us a buzz off just a couple of shots, and given how poor conditions remain in the mines, at least to our western eyes (although possibly to local eyes as well given the strike action), it doesn’t seem all that surprising that such a cheap form of escapism is popular…
Emerging from the mines into dazzling sunshine, some of the miners had by now begun to trickle back towards their various work sites.
A twenty year or more veteran was happy to chat some more, his broad smile revealing a mere three teeth towards the front of his mouth, possibly a reflection on too much soda from the many generous tourists!
Back down the mountain we returned our gear and retrieved our shoes.
We followed it all up with a cheap local lunch and the following morning slunk out of Potosi nice and early, as our future adventures lay elsewhere…
* Our mine tour with ‘Big Deal’ (run by former miners) cost us $150.00 Bolivianos each, and ran from 8:45am until about 1pm.