Potosi Travel Blog

 › entry 7 of 15 › view all entries
After coming back to La Paz from Rurrenabaque I met up with a few people that I had gone to Rurre with as well as a few new people and we went out for dinner and then to a very cool bar full of local Bolivians.  It was about 3 flights of stairs underground with no sign out front, so it was a little iffy at first but upon getting in we all realized this was the coolest bar in Bolivia.  There was an Argentinian tango band playing complete with dancers, who were amazing.  We stayed till quite late and didn´t do much the next day apart from wander the streets and the massive markets.   After a couple more lazy days in La Paz, I decided to head out and continue south to the mining town of Potosi.

My bus was at 9am so I got there at 8 30, only to discover that there was no bus there and they weren´t planning on another one being there until 630 pm.  Typical Bolivian timetables.  So rather then wasting a day doing nothing in La Paz, I jumped on to a bus heading to a town roughly half way to Potosi called Oruro, hoping that I could continue on from there. Luckily when I got to Oruro there was a bus leaving to Potosi in about 2 hours so I bought a ticket and continued on to Potosi.  I arrived at around 9pm, tired from the chicken bus I had just ridden on for the last 7 hours. There was actually people with live chickens on the bus, a truly awful experience.  Anyways, my spirits were slightly lifted when I got my cab to the hostel as the cab driver was wearing a Vancouver Canucks hat. I tried to explain to him that his hat was for the team I cheer for back at home, but I don´t think he cared or understood, possibly both.  That night I didn´t do much, Potosi is actually an amazingly boring town, even on a Saturday night.  I got up early on Sunday and wandered the town, but being Sunday much of the city is closed, but I still wandered the streets nonetheless.  That night I went out to dinner with some people I had met at the hostel.  We went to a great restaurant in town, I had a delicious Filet Mignon for only 38 Bolivianos, roughly $6.50.  That night we all hung out on the roof of the hostel and told stories of where we had been and where we were planning on going next.

After getting up at 8 I headed off on a tour of the famous mines which overlook the city of Potosi.  This is time for a short history lesson.  Potosi used to be one of the richest cities in the world, with a greater population than London, New York and Madrid.  The entire Spanish Empire was bankrolled due to the massive silver deposits found in the Cerro Rico, the mountain which the mines are located in.  Something like 8 to 14 million people have died in these mines in the last 500 or so years, making it probably the most deadly place on the planet.  So naturally I wanted to not only take a look, but pay money to go see what this place was all about.  Myself and about half the hostel left with the guide, a 29 year old Bolivian guy who used to work in the mines, but now just took people on tours.  He was probably the funniest guy I have ever met in my life.  He could speak a couple phrases in almost any language imaginable, he even knew a few lines of Irish, which the Irish guys I was with though was amazing.  We started the tour by going to the Miner´s Market, where we could buy supplies and gifts for the miners, and by gifts I mean, smokes, booze, and dynamite.  After a short talk about which dynamite is the strongest, Bolivian, we were all able to buy some, no questions asked.  We were also introduced to the drink of the Bolivian miner, a blinding concocation made of sugar cane that is 96% alcohol.  We would late discover that after lung disease, alcohol poisoning is the second greatest killer of miners.  Our guide, Reinaldo, insisted we try some of this awful crap, but only half a lidful. It tasted like fire and made my face go numb for a few minutes, however Reinaldo didn´t seem to be affected in the slightest.  After packing up all the essential gifts we got into the bus and headed up to mine entrance.

Reinaldo went first and we walked into the darkness.  The mine is built for Bolivians, meaning the top of the tunnels is about 5 feet high at the highest points, not exactly easy for someone my height to get around in.  There is also no lighting at all.  We walked in about 5 minutes with the tunnel continually shrinking, making me increasingly uncomfortable as I have terrible claustrophobia.  The only solace I took was that Reinaldo told us that tunnels were from colonial times, which I figured could be either a good thing as they hadn´t collapsed yet, or they were going to at any moment.  Looking at the construction of them, basically wood thrown together to hold the rocks up, it was really a toss up.  We sat down and Reinaldo told us that being terrified was completely normal, there was in fact less oxygen in the mines, we were at a very high altitude (Potosi is the highest city in the world) and its just an awful place to be. After a short breather, we started to move down towards the lower levels of the mine. 

Getting down a level is not just like taking an elevator or even stairs, but rather squeezing through 2 foot high chutes that don´t really look they are meant for people to go through.   I´m still not entirely sure why I followed this crazy bastard into the heart of the mountain but I did anyways.  After the most horrific 5 minutes of my life, we were down to the bottom level of the mine where we could see miners actually working.  We had descended about 75m into the mountain and it was hot as hell. I think they said it was about 110 degrees down there, and with the lack of oxygen and claustrophobia kicking it, it seemed like the depths of hell.  The guys working down there did not have any sort of proper tools.  One guy was hitting a chisel into a wall wiht a hammer so that they could later put dynamite into it and blast the wall down.   Another guy, which we were told had an easier job, was simply shoveling rocks all day.  I noticed that this guy only had one shoe on and he was considered relatively senior in the mine.  After 20 minutes or so, we had all had enough and scrambled back up the chute and out of the mine.  I had never been more thrilled in my life to be in sunlight.  Reinaldo then gave us a dynamite demonstration, which was incredibly explosive.  We were then returned back to our hostel, never to be the same or take work at home for granted.  That day I caught a bus to Uyuni to head into the Salt Flats.

I have pictures posted of the mines here http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/album.php?aid=2293558&id=21003002
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photo by: Biedjee