Potosi and a lucky escape

Potosi Travel Blog

 › entry 29 of 48 › view all entries

Back in La Paz for a morning to buy supplies before continuing south to Potosi.  Woke up to find I´d made an ample meal for the local insects with about 25 bites down my left leg.  Itching to hell.  Went for food myself and the pancakes as good as ever in the Adventure Brewers.  Unfortunately had to share it with a London girl who was the stereotypical druggy who´d clearly got carried away with the cheapness of hard drugs in Bolivia and stayed too long - she´d been here 2 weeks having fun and left herself 3 days to get to Rio for a friends birthday.  Easily found a better padlock for future shared dorms but unable to get a new USB cable or better travel guide.

10 hours on the bus to Potosi through winding roads out of mountains and into very US like wide prairies framed by distant mountains. Journey accompanied a 3 hour DVD of pan pipe music which quickly got very repetative.  Thankfully it got replaced by the slightly better Eiffel 65 and a dance version of "What can we do with a drunken sailor? !!"

Potosi is the highest city in the world at 4200m. Not an attractive place but famed for its mountain Cerro Rico. Couldn´t get into 1st choice hostel so asked taxi driver to take me to Hostal Central. Suprised at the ludicrously cheap price (15 Bol = US$2).  I quickly saw why as the room was awful. Slept in my sleeping bag for fear of what else was sleeping in the bed and kept awake most of night by a bloke snoring in the room on my left and a couple having sex most of the night on the right.


Up early to get over to Koala hostal and book tour into mines.  Left my main rucksack to collect later. Just early enough to make morning tour.  Cerro Rico has been a working mine since the 16th century and was once the main source of wealth in the Spanish empire due to the concentration of silver.  The mine made Potosi the most populous city in the world during the 17th century (240000 population).  It is estimated that 9 million workers/slaves have died in the mine in 500 years (400 workers died last year) with more dying through related illnesses (even today the life expectancy of a miner is 15 years from starting work, with some workers being as young as 12).  Tour guide another real character speaking very good English.

Ended up in back corner of bus with 3 people (2 of whom went to University in Liverpool and the 3rd from St Helens!). After getting kitted out in overalls for mine, went to miners market where it is tradition for tourists into the mine to buy gifts for the workers (coca leaves, drinks, dynamite) before going to silver extraction plant where our guide showed us how the silver is filtered from the rock - very interesting in itself.  With 4 levels of the mine open to tourists, level 1 was hard enough bending over double to walk with the air full of particles making it hard to breathe.  Popped into the museum which 1 interesting slide showed that of the 20000 miners working today, only 400 did it through choice with the rest working the mine through lack of others options.
Move from level 1 to 3 not a pleasant experience and crawled on hands and knees down mine shafts, slipping on several occassions and struggling to breathe.  However level 3 had better ventilation to get breathe back.  Watched as teams of 12 shared work of (4 people) digging rock, (4 people) pushing/pulling 2 tonne carts on rails through the mine to (2) others who shovelled the rocks into baskets for (2 others) to lift the baskets up to the surface. Not pleasant.  I took a 5 minute shift of shovelling the rock into the baskets which was enough for me.  Went don to level 4 where we saw a lad of 13 manually drilling a hole into the rock to fill with dynamite for later explosions.  Climbed back out of the mine after 2 hours and grateful for the fresh air.
  Those of us who had bought extra dynamite were then instructed how to make dynamite and followed our guides instructions (unfortunately the guide used my dynamite to demonstate so didn´t get to make myself) before the fuses were lit and the guide ran off down the road for pretty cool explosions.

With 6 hours to kill before bus, I joined 2 Ozzy lads on a tour round the Royal mint museum which had been the sole producer of coins for the Spanish empire following the discovery of silver in the mine.  Over 20 rooms of coins, coin pressers, artifacts made with Potosi silver, religious artifacts and art gallery.  Very interesting and worth the visit.  Tour ended with a gallery containing a picture of Cerro Rico mountain with the holy trinity above and the Spanish king, pope and Potosi mayor below.

  Apparently one of most famous paintings in South America that depicts the importance of Potosi within the Spanish empire in the 18th century.

On return to hostal found that Hostal Central was locked up.  Spent 2 hours trying to get in before gave up, having missed bus to Uyuni and checked in to Koala.  Went out for very nice meal with 3 girls from hostal - had llama for 1st time which is a much blander version of alpaca.  Really nice but prefer the alpaca.  After meal, went back to try hostal but the owner swore that I had not left my bag at his hostal.  Thinking that the hostal was not where the taxi driver had taken me at all, walked around surrounding streets looking for another hostal where my backpack could be.

  A friendly local shouted after me but I didn´t want to stop.  He changed direction and followed me.  Not too keen on walking down a deserted pedestrian street on my own with him I continued before he grabbed my arm.  Not impressed, I said goodnight to him.  He went down to touch his ankle.  Not waiting for him to pull out a knife, I pulled free and ran towards the main square.  He chased after me for about 20 metres before giving up.  Went straight back to hostal for safety.

Up early following day with a mission to find backpack.  Immediately went to Hostal Central and pleaded with owner to open the doors to confirm my bag wasn´t there.  Immediately knew it wasn´t the right place.  Spent next 2 and a half hours walking around every street corner in Potosi marking in my Rough Guide whether any door looked like the front door to my hostal.

  I was left with 5 question marks and no likelies when I decided to walk to ask Tourist Police for assistance when I randomly stumbled upon my hostal.  Never been more relieved.   Incoherent talking to owner why I hadn´t picked it up day before.  Checked out of Koala and got 1st bus out of Potosi to Uyuni. 

I will still look back at Potosi with fond memories and thankful that have learned a couple of lessons about travelling the easy way without coming to any harm. 

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photo by: Biedjee