Bolivia 2008

Bolivia-Travelogue  |  Travel time: November 2008  |  by Oliver Schuetz

Potosi - Nov 16-18

The bus to Potosi had no WC. Allegedly, it was permanently closed due to a defect, but I rather believe that the bus company did not want to invest time in cleaning and maintaining it, so they locked it. This bus ride then got like the one I made 6 years ago from Uyuni to La Paz, which I rather would prefer not to remember. Whenever there was a significant number of people to whom nature was calling, the bus driver could eventually be persuaded to make a stop, never leaving the people enough time to finish conveniently their needs. For reasons I will never understand, it was not possible to make these piss stops during the hundreds of kilometers drive through empty and lonely countryside. Instead, we had to wait until the next town or village, to settle our needs in urban area.

Potosi (4100m) is the highest city in the world. Llasa, for comparison, reaches "only" 3700m. Mining in the 4600m high Cerro Rico (The Rich Mountain), which was already undertaken in pre-colonial times, gave birth and rise to the city of Potosi. During the following silver boom, Potosi was in the 17th century the richest city in the world and the biggest in both Americas. It is said that silver was even used for horse shoes, due to problems with the supply of iron, while silver was available in excess. Several beautiful churches and convents are testimonies of these boom years. Around 1800, mining of silver was no longer rentable in Cerro Rico and the mining moved towards tin. Since the 1960s, tin, lead and wolfram is being extracted. In the 1980s the state closed the mines, because of decreasing rentability, but due to lack of employment in Potosi, the miners continue working in a cooperative system in about 100 private mines and work with only primitive tools. Actually, the summit of Cerro Rico contains still abundant silver, but further mining in the summit would cause the mountain to collapse. Similarly, the lower regions of Cerro Rico could rentably be mined for 40 more years in open surface mining (if there would be an invester), but since the mountain is a national symbol and UNESCO heritage, its surface and form may not be altered. So the mining continues in a primitive way, almost like in previous centuries. It is estimated that from the colonial times up to now, 2-8 million miners have died (many of them Native or African slaves). Several of the current miners die in their 40s due to silicosis, as the air in the mines is rich of asbest. Protective dress, helmets and lamps are sadly only available for the tourists.

With decreasing mining activity, the mines became a big tourist attraction (we even let a roll of dynamite blow up, which can be freely purchased in Potosi), while a larger part of the entrance fees goes to the minersĀ“ community. As Monday is a day off for many miners, we did not see the actual work in the mines, which was ok, as seeing the working conditions may have been quite shocking. Just walking through the tunnels was already a challenge. At several places, one had to crawl, climb or jump, which often was very difficult. Hard to imagine that the miners make these ways with carrying 20-30 kg of minerals.

On Nov 18 afternoon the journey continued to Sucre.

"Su Merced" Church.

"Su Merced" Church.

"Compania de Jesus" Church.

"Compania de Jesus" Church.

The tourist group before entering the mine.

The tourist group before entering the mine.

Statue of "El Tio" in a side tunnel of the mine. It symbolises the devil, to whom the miners make offerings, like coca leaves but also drinks. The miners say: "God may rule above the ground, but El Tio does below".

Statue of "El Tio" in a side tunnel of the mine. It symbolises the devil, to whom the miners make offerings, like coca leaves but also drinks. The miners say: "God may rule above the ground, but El Tio does below".

© Oliver Schuetz, 2008
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The trip
 
Description:
Planned is a two-week trip to Bolivia, mainly in the Altiplano with a short detour half way into the jungle. Not sure whether I will be able to attach photos during the trip, so make sure to visit the pages later again.
Details:
Start of journey: Nov 12, 2008
Duration: 15 days
End of journey: Nov 26, 2008
Travelled countries: Bolivia
The Author
 
Oliver Schuetz is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 12 years.