A Travellerspoint blog

The Potosi Mines

all seasons in one day 15 °C
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Potosi was founded by the Spanish in 1545 after silver deposits were discovered in Cerro Rico or the “Rich Hill”. The city is 4,080m above sea level which makes just walking up a slight hill exhausting especially for someone with little acclimatisation let alone digging for silver.

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To mine the deposits the Spanish enslaved the local indigenous population and imported millions more bodies from Africa. The slaves were required to work 12 hour days and could remain underground for up to four months at a time. It is estimated that over the three centuries of Spanish rule up to 8 million perished under the atrocious conditions.

The deposits were so vast that they bankrolled the Spanish empire for centuries and Potosi grew to be one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world. Testament to this is some of the colonial architecture and churches that fill the central part of the city and provide parts of the city with a degree of grandeur. However, as output declined so to did Potosi's fortunes and today it feels like a desperate place, especially outside the touristy colonial centre.

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The mines are still operating but are now primarily controlled by miner owned collectives. While conditions are still diabolical, the money one can earn in the mines is significantly higher than the average Bolivian wage and that, combined with a sense of tradition (my father's father etc.), mean that up to 10,000 men delve into the mountain everyday. The air in the shafts is thick with dust and poisonous gases and to help make the conditions and the altitude more palatable the miners are constantly chewing handfuls coca leaves. Once entering the mines one can expect to live for,on average, approximately 10 years before succumbing to lung disease or some other form of poisoning.

Tours of the mines are big business in Potosi and for as little as $11 - $12 you can don overalls, gumboots, a hard hat and headlamp and head inside. I'm not sure whether the miners appreciate the hordes of tourists that visit the mines to gawk at the conditions but it is customary to give gifts (coca leaves, soft drink and sticks of dynamite) to help preserve some goodwill. After hearing and reading about the conditions Jess and I were unsure whether we wanted to go, but eventually I decided to take the plunge and headed into the mines for a truly uncomfortable experience.

The mines have little oxygen inside (especially given the altitude) and we spent much of our time in darkness with only the light from our headlamps. The tunnels are so low that you are constantly bent double and there is often water up to your ankles. In parts of the mine there were small shrines where the miners would make offerings to Diablo in thanks for the silver and other minerals.

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Given the conditions it wasn't difficult to believe the devil was close at hand. While travelling through the mine we would come across the miners working – four men pushing a cart weighing over a ton or a 16 year old boy (already in the mines for 3 years) making a 30 inch hole for dynamite with a chisel and a hammer.

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Occasionally we would push ourselves up against the walls of the shaft to dodge mining carts as they came rushing past, an adrenalin rush of an occurrence, which reminded me of a twisted, Disneyland ride for a brief moment. However, any moments of fantasy were truly fleeting and I emerged from the shaft glad that I would not be returning the next day.

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To end the tour on a light hearted note our guide blew up some sticks of dynamite on the slopes of Cerro Rico – something the Lonely Planet frowns upon because of the element of danger involved and the environmental impact. However, when you are in a place that has been strip mined for almost 500 years, it's hard to see that there is any environment still around to damage.

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The mine tour was an eye opener, serving not just as a window into the history of Spanish rule and the working conditions of the past but also giving you a reality check that people still work under the same conditions today. Even if one takes the view that current miners have a real choice as to whether they work, or not work in the mines, the hazardous environment and lack of safety standards would never be accepted in more developed countries and it is a terrible shame that the modern day Potosi miner is not able to demand better working conditions.

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The next part of our tour is in Uyuni where we will be doing a tour of the Bolivian salt flats and taking thousands of perspective photos.

Posted by mwalmsle 13:49 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Journey to Potosi

The Trus

sunny 24 °C
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The train to Potosi was not so much a train but a Mercedes bus with the chassis converted to run on railway tracks. The “Trus” looked hilarious and although the trip took twice as long as the bus it was highly recommended by Ebo, the owner of the guest house we stayed at.

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The Trus service is not on the tourist radar and is primarily a means of transport to and from the indigenous farming villages high in the mountains. Reserving tickets was not legally possible and you had to typically line up outside the ticket office at 4am to get a seat. Luckily for us Ebo had a relationship with the guy who worked in the ticket office, who would agree to reserve us seats for the payment of a small additional fee (around A$3.00).

The departure would have gone smoothly except that in a moment of complete carelessness I left my camera in the Taxi on the way to the train station. Fortunately, my stupidity was negated by sheer luck, in that Ubi, who had booked the taxi and come to the train station to see us off, was able to use the phone in the ticket office to contact the taxi. He got through to the driver just as another another passenger was trying to claim the camera as their own and the driver was able to repossess it and return it to me at the train station just before we departed.

Just being transported by the “Trus” would by itself have been enough to make the journey memorable but when you add in that the mountainous route passed numerous indigenous villages, terraced agriculture and some spectacular vistas it became a true highlight.

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The trip was punctuated with occasional stops to move cows or rocks out of the way and as we passed through each village the local dogs took it upon themselves to chase the train, barking hysterically and bounding right on onto the tracks in front of the Trus.

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We took heaps of photos out the window and have included lots of these in the gallery.

Next update from Potosi.

Posted by mwalmsle 12:21 Archived in Bolivia Comments (2)

Death Train & Sucre

The Bolivian experience begins

sunny 30 °C
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We arrived in Corumba on the border with Bolivia around lunch. The first order of business was to cross across into Bolivia to buy tickets for the so called “Death Train” for the following day. We went to the Brazilian police office at border to get our exit stamps, only to find they had closed for lunch – we waited there for an hour or so. We then crossed into Bolivia and found that because of the one hour time difference, the Bolivian office was still closed for lunch and we would need to wait another hour for our entry stamps. Given the lack of security we decided to come back later and headed to the train station to buy tickets. They were also closed until 3.30pm, so we waited for an hour and half. Finally, with train tickets in hand we headed back to the Bolivian border office to receive our entry stamps and with formalities completed walked back across the border to spend our last night in Brazil (no further stamps required apparently). Jess also managed to locate one of Brazil's excellent ice cream buffets (you pay by the kilo) and there are some pictures attached.

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At lunch the next day we went back to Bolivia to board the Death Train. There are a few explanations for the name. Either, the jarring, back breaking journey makes you wish for an early death or because the train historically carried the dead bodies of yellow fever victims. Given Jess and I are hardy souls (well I am) and both have our yellow fever vaccinations, we boarded the train without fear.

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The train journey certainly was jarring, but it wasn't as terrible as the lonely planet had made it out to be and we arrived in Santa Cruz for a one night stopover on the way to Sucre. Nothing much to report here but it is true that if you want to eat locally you can get decent meals for around 12 – 15 bolivianos (A$1.50 - A$2.00). At the gringo hangouts you can spend a lot more but the prices were still a welcome relief after Brazil, which was super expensive by South American standards.

After some frenetic travelling we decided to spend three nights in Sucre to do some admin and recharge. Sucre, the original capital, is k and a UNESCO world heritage site is known as Bolivia's most picturesque city and is filled with amazing Colonial architecture. Our accommodation was great, more like a guest house or B&B than a hostel and Jess and I were able to kickback and relax.

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We didn't do much of note there but did wander around the city and visited some of the museums, including a great textile museum which went into detail on Bolivia's indigenous weaving culture - sounds boring I know but it is actually quite fascinating.

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I also found a replacement lens cap for my camera, which I had lost in Argentina and had been unable to replace, so Sucre was generally a major success.

We left Sucre on another train, bound for Potosi – an silver mining city from the days of the Spanish occupation which is still operating today. The next update will cover the train ride there.

Posted by mwalmsle 19:17 Archived in Bolivia Comments (2)

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