Potosi - Happy Birthday?

Potosi Travel Blog

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Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday dear me-ee... well no, not really.

The good news was that the Potosi miners (clearly looking forward to seeing us), tired of blockading the roads in and out of the city and blowing stuff up, had struck some sort of deal and the roads were open. We were Potosi bound, still on a private coach and with another GAP group. The bad news was that I hadn't taken my travel sickness tablets in time and had a slight hangover.

The kind that you can easily deal with unless you have a rough 6-hour (6 Chad hours, keep in mind) coach journey to deal with. It quickly got worse. The road was completely unpaved and this being the Bolivian altiplano, had many windy and quite precarious mountain roads to deal with.

Within 30 minutes the only scenery I could see was in between my feet, and 30 minutes later, at the first loo break I saw my lovely breakfast (great Bostonian fry-ups and pancakes it turns out, as well as pizzas...) for the second time. I was banished to the front seat as Em stayed in the back having a whale of a time and spent the next 8 hours (6 Chad hours, remember) locked in a position with my elbows on my knees and head almost between my legs, clutching a plastic bag and praying for it to be over. I wasn't the only one, and the driving clearly wasn't inspiring confidence with his cliff top-driving if the lurches and panicked gasps from the other front-seat passngers were anything to go by.

We arrived in Potosi at around 4.30pm, wiped-out and with a sore back from my statue-like position, and I went straight to bed.

 I was feeling much better as we headed out for dinnner, accounting for the difficult breathing due to the altitude (back above 4000m) Thinking it must've been travel sickness I ordered a lasagne. Bad move. I managed a few mouthfuls before seeing that again on the way home. Most of the others went out and celebrated my birthday for me, until the very small hours.

No surprise then that as we were up early and enjoying breakfast (feeling much better), the late-nighters rolled in one by one looking distictly hungover. Perfect for todays activity, a trip to Potosi mines.

Potosi is the higest city of its size in the world, and the peak of the mountain that dominates the city view is 4,824m above sea level. Cerro de Potosi was hugely important for the Spanish during colonial times due to the huge amount of silver that was mined from it.

So much so that they didn't care how it was mined or how safe the working conditions were, and it's estimated that aound 8 million people have died in the mines, many of whom were black slaves and indigenous people. The silver deposits have long-since been exhasted and it is mined for other products, but the woking conditions are still poor, with children as young as eleven (the youngest we met) working there, wages of around 50 Bolivianos a day (4GBP), shifts regularly lasting 24 hours and a life-expectancy of around 40 years.

We stopped at a small shop on the way up the hill that supplied the miners with everything they needed. We bought some gifts for the miners consisting of dynamite (it's freely available to anyone) and fuses, coca leaves, biscuits and crackers.

Arriving at one of the entrances we got kitted out in some protective kit and a torch (including a rather fetching bright purple dust-jacket for me, enough to induce nausea itself) and made our way in to the mine.

Immediately you could see how the silver was mined in veins thoughout the mine and small wooden beam supported the remaining rock in an almost make-shift manner. There were huge holes off to the sides of the 'walkway' that led to even larger veins. There were two routes around the mine, the harder route and a slightly easier route. My adventurous girlfriend opted for the hard route and as I saw her disappearing down a very dark hole, I took the other trail (much to Em's amusement when we met up 20 minutes later and I was branded a wuss!) Every so often we would pass a miner and hand out some gifts.

I was chewing some coca leaves and beginning to realise why the miners relied on them so heavily. We stopped in one spot so the guide could give us an ear-splitting and bone-shaking demonstration of how it feels to be within a few metres of a dynamite explosion in the pitch black before heading further in. I had a go at the painstaking work of boring a hole into the rock with a hammer and chisel-type tool ready to put a stick of dynamite in there. It was all pretty harrowing stuff, and we were only in there for about an hour. Strangely, the next demonstration was of three eplosions in the hillside that Frank, Tim and Chad were only too happy to demonstrate.

Back in Potosi the boys went for lunch in a gringo restaurant and got to know some of the guys on the other GAP tour while Em shopping with the girls. After that it was another early night for me, still not 100 per cent. Onwards to Sucre in the morning.

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photo by: Biedjee