Exploring a new continent

Travel time: March - June 2010  |  by Dominik Weber

11 - 13 May Potosi

Potosi might not be on a tourist map if there wouldn´t be the Cerro Rico with its mine. Since hundred of years, the mines are active and especially when the Spanish Conquistatores found out that the mountain contains silver, they was a really boom in getting the silver. It is not known how many people worked there to their death but the number of 8 million people is mentioned. That´s why the locals call Cerro Rico also the "mountain that eats humans".
Potosi´s wealth went up and down with the importance of the mines. In good times, it is said, that the streets were covered with silver. Today, they are more black than silver: the city is actually beautiful with a lot of old buildings, but it needs a big, big renovation. I think it could be a second Cartagena, but some things have to be changed. Starting with a ban on all public busses (usually old and Chinese origin) that run down and up the hilly streets and that leave always black clouds of burned oil and petrol behind them. Potoso was also important due the money factory, that was once providing coins for entire Bolivia, is a museum (Museum de la Moneda, and Bolivia doesn´t have any money factory any longer. Today, the coins are made in Argentina and Canada, the bills in France!
But the main attraction for tourists is not the money museum, it is a visit of the mines: I was booked on an afternoon trip with Koala Travel, one of the most regarded agencies and as it will turn out, it will be worth it. We started at the travel agent and our first stop was a backyard of a house a little bit out of the city where we got dressed like mine workers: trousers, jackets, rain boots and a helmet with a light.

Our next stop was the miner´s market where we were buying some gifts for the miners we were expected to meet in the mines: coca leaves, soda and dynamit. Yes, it is not a problem to buy that there - but you shouldn´t take this back to your hotel. There was the story of a tourist that forgot one stick of dynamit and the police found it in his room...
But then, there was the mine: Some tourists guides write that the working conditions there are almost middle age like. I don´t know how they looked at that time and I don´t know how they look in Western countries today, but for sure, the one here wasn´t up-to-date at Western standard. The ways were very low and although for sure, I wasn´t the tallest in my group, I had to walk ducked for most of the time. Not to talk about the "ways" from one level to the next. They were usually a hole, going down steep and of course with no ledders or steps. We had to walk on all four, almost on our tummies. And this was obviously the way, the miners had to walk every day.
In one aspect we were lucky: some ways are just wide and high enough to carry one little waggon of minerals. Usually in the morning, it might happen that you have to run if you don´t want to get hit by a car. But it was afternoon and it was a little more quiet. We did meet some workers, most of them at their break, when they re-new the coca leaves. Miners don´t eat in the mines (it is not only way too hot but even more too dusty), they only chew coca leaves. It helps fighting fatigue, opresses the feeling of hunger and makes the workers more productive due to the increase of blood pressure. The workers take quiet a few leaves into the mouth, start working and after 1.5 to 2 hours they make the next break, when they have to renew the leaves in the mouth. Of course, I also chew on coca leaves in Peru and Bolivia but it won´t be my most favorite "snack".

As I saw in the film "The Devil´s miners" in Sucre, I also saw a lot of younger miners. The first one was in his 40s, but he actually looked rather like in his 60s. With one miner we were chatting (via our guide) and we kidding that with 28 he only has one kid. Well, two minutes later, we met his colleague, a 15 year old boy with 2 kids. No wonder, that he has to work in the mine.
Back to the movie "The Devil´s miners". Most of the miners are catholic, but they believe that God doesn´t have any power in the mines. The God of the mines is "Tio". They pay respect to him and in return, Tio spares their lives and give them good minerals. At least once a week, they pay respect to him by donating coca leaves and alcohol to him, usually the 96% potable alcohol... Of course, we also did visit him and if I am lucky, I will get a nice group photo with Tio from one of the guys in our group.
But one last word about the dynamit: it was a gift for the workers, but it is also possible to "play" with the dynamit. Our guide prepared the bomb, put it on fire, we were posing with it and then he placed the bomb a few meters away and - a big, big bang... Dangerous, but funny and I hope that the security at my next airport won´t find any traces of the dynamite...
In Peru, I always had the feeling that I got treated as a tourist and that everybody just sees the money in you. Ok, I was visiting mainly tourist spots there, but I had similar feeling in Bolivia. But then, here in Potosi, I had a nice experience. Actually two.
The first was, when we returned (dirty and dusty) back from our mine tour. We made a short stop at the office of the travel agent again to get pen and paper to exchange emails. When we arrived, the owner of the agency asked us if we were there to join them for the football match. We weren´t, but we learnt that we are more than welcome to join the owner, the guide and some other tourists to the football match that evening: Potosi vs. Sucre. It was for free, we only had to pay for the ticket for the match. I already like the owner of the agency: he really tried to offer tourists to see something of his country and to experience something and not to charge them for it. It was not purely commercial.

I am not the greatest football fan, but since it is quite some time ago that I attended a football match last time, I decided to join. And it was fun. Potosi won 4:3 but it was a good match! Most fun for me was to see the police: Whenever the players started discussion with the referee about a desicion, at least two police men in full fighting armor run on the field "just in case". Beside 7 goals, we had 3 red cards and the coach of one team had to leave the stadium after just a few minutes of playing. It was fun!
After that, we had a drink and since the group of English tourists wanted to do their own thing, I ended up with three Bolivianos in a hard rock bar (one was Dieter! He himself doesn´t know why he has this German name!)! It was pretty smokey there, but nice. But I had to return to the hostel since my guide said that there is a curfew.
I was at my hostel at 11.35pm and my guide said that the curfew is at midnight, however, the door was closed and nobody opened it when I rang the bell. Well, there was nothing I could do than going back to the bar and to have a further drink with the guys. The owner of the travel agent is also the owner of a hostel in Potosi so I was hoping for a cheap place to sleep, although I saw earlier that it was fully booked that night. I asked him for his help and he offered immediately a room in his private house. What a nice gesture! Again, not for profit, just to help tourists and to show them his country! And so I did, slept at his place and when I complained at my hotel the next day, I didn´t have to pay for the night and I think the night guard might got in trouble.
Perhaps I should add that then I saw that the information about the curfew was out of date...
The next day, I wanted to take an early bus to Uyuni. Only about 200km away but the bus ride takes 6-7 hours... Looking back, Potosi wasn´t the nices city, but I had a nice time there. The visit to the mines was very interesting and the first time I really felt welcomed in this country.

Cleaned, renovated and without the busses on the tiny streets, Potosi has the potential of a really beautiful city.

Cleaned, renovated and without the busses on the tiny streets, Potosi has the potential of a really beautiful city.

The Museo de la monneda in a building that used to be money factory, prision, seat of the military among others...

The Museo de la monneda in a building that used to be money factory, prision, seat of the military among others...

On our way to the mines.

On our way to the mines.

Cerro Rico, the mountain with the mines. It might in an x-ray rather like a Swiss cheese...

Cerro Rico, the mountain with the mines. It might in an x-ray rather like a Swiss cheese...

It is holding since years, so why should the mine collapse right now when I am there?

It is holding since years, so why should the mine collapse right now when I am there?

Tio of our mine. Every little mine has its own Tio and our Tio spared us that day. Ok, we didn´t steal any of his precious minerals either

Tio of our mine. Every little mine has its own Tio and our Tio spared us that day. Ok, we didn´t steal any of his precious minerals either

A standard photo for every tourist. But hurry up, only 2 minutes and 30 seconds possible and after that...

A standard photo for every tourist. But hurry up, only 2 minutes and 30 seconds possible and after that...

BOOOOOOOM!

BOOOOOOOM!

© Dominik Weber, 2010
You are here : Overview The Americas Bolivia 11 - 13 May Potosi
The trip
 
Description:
After working for too long without a real break, I decided to go on a long planned backpack trip. After changing the departure date and the destination several times, I decided to go to South America. Starting in Colombia, then Peru and finishing in Bolivia. At least, this was the plan but once on tour, you never know what to expect. This report is for all people asking how I am doing, but also for those who are thinking about doing something similar. I hope I can inspire them.
Details:
Start of journey: Mar 19, 2010
Duration: 13 weeks
End of journey: Jun 15, 2010
Travelled countries: Colombia
Peru
Bolivia
The Author
 
Dominik Weber is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 11 years.
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