The Coca

Potosi Travel Blog

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Buses in Bolivia are not like buses in Argentina. They are bus monster-truck hybrids with fat tires and loads of suspension to counteract the unpaved roads of Bolivia (I have yet to encounter any pavement here outside of a major city). The buses also have a tendency to lack toilets and space of any kind.
I put my backpack under the bus as usual and was a bit discomfitted by the lack of baggage ticket. I was half convinced that my bag would not be there when I arrived in Potosi.
The seats on the bus were tiny. My 5ft2 frame was strapped for leg room so I have no idea how the giant German man who sat next to me managed.
The drive to Potosi was beautiful. The landscape varied from sand dunes to craggy rock features to green valleys. It was Sunday and several families had driven out to a small creek near the road to do their washing. The rocks were festooned with brightly coloured garments laid flat in the sun to dry. Half way through the drive it began to precipitate a combination of rapidly melting hail and snow. Dry water channels filled with torrents of muddy water, the neatly plowed fields with their rows of green sprouts were blanketed in snow and the road became a slippery mess. The progress of the bus became a bit nervewracking and I decided it was best not to look out the window to the valley floor a hundred metres below.
The storm had passed when we arrived in Potosi but the streets were filled with puddles and water rained down on the already too narrow sidewalks from the gutters above. My backpack was under the bus but it was covered in a thick coat of road dust. I shouldered my bag hopped a puddle and headed, uphill, into Potosi.
Potosi is a fascinating city. Not only is it the highest city in the world (over 4000m) but in 1650 it was also the biggest. For over 450 years the city has relied on the silver mined from the Cerro Rico mines which overshadow the city. There is a saying in Potosi that enough silver has been taken from the mountain to build a bridge to Madrid and still have silver to carry across. That same bridge could probably be made from the bodies of the men who died mining it. The Spanish colonialism has left a distinct mark on the architecture of the city. The streets are narrow and cobbled and there are several impressive buildings, especially the former mint which has walls over a metre thick.  These streets are filled with indigenous Bolivians speaking a mixture of Quechua and Spanish selling coca leaves and steaming empanadas.
In the evening, I went to see a movie (which cost me 60 cents) in the theatre called ¨Cocalero¨about the rise to power of Evo Morales the current, and first indigenous, president of Bolivia. It was a fascinating look at the conflict between the traditions of indigenous culture and the powerful moralising of western countries (specifically the USA). The coca plant is vital part of Bolivian culture. It is not viewed as a drug here but as an essential part of life. In the mines of Potosi, the miners chew massive amounts of coca leaves to fend off hunger, fatigue, and silicosis during their long shifts underground.  
On Monday, I went on a tour of the working Cerro Rico mines and it was the most interesting and eye-opening experience that I have had on my trip so far. Our first stop was the Miner´s market, where the miners stock up on coca leaves, unfiltered cigarettes, 96% proof alcohol, and dynamite before heading into the mountain. The most experienced miners can make up to 200$ a month but the majority make barely enough to keep their families in bread. Each member of the tour bought some of the miner´s essentials to give as gifts to the miners that  we encountered. We were outfitted in rubber boots, hard hats, headlamps, miner scrubs and a mouthful of coca before heading into the mountain. Coca is chewed one leaf at a time and stored as a mass in the cheeks. The coca tasted bitter, almost like tea, and made my cheeks numb and my head spin.
The conditions in the mine have not changed very much from the colonial slave days. The tunnels are dark, small and wet. They were often too small for me to stand upright and I could always touch both copper sulphite covered walls with outstretched arms. There are no electric lights (we encountered one miner, who´s headlamp had died, working by the light of a single candle) , no carbon monoxide detection (not even the traditional canary), no elevators (the wooden ladders are a luxury. The miners´usually use a thin knotted rope to get between levels), no health or life insurance, and no emergency exits. The main method of mineral extraction is dynamite and pickaxe and the ore is moved by manual winch and wheelbarrow. The workers work 12 hour shifts in the mine from as soon as they are strong enough until God says enough. My tour guide, Willy, began working in the mines when he was 12 years old. He worked there until he was 18 when his mother begged him to quit after both his father and grandfather died of Silicosis. We met the two oldest miners in the mine (as we stood in an archway and listened to the dynamite charges they had set go off) they had been working there every day for 35 years. At the entrance to the mine the miners´s offer coca and alcohol to a statue of the devil (the owner of the mine because the mine is hell) and ask for protection and riches. Further in the mine is small chapel where the miners pray to god for health and happiness. This is the only insurance that these workers have in a job that is fraught with danger. The Bolivian government doesn´t keep official statistics but it is generally accepted that on average more than 1 miner dies in an accident every week.
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Potosi Sights & Attractions review
Take a tour of the Cerro Rico mines where silver has been extracted for the past 450 years and conditions in the mines have not changed much since the… read entire review
photo by: Biedjee