On Thursday we caught the 7hr bus to Potosi (cost 2 pound) with a dutch guy called Paul from our salt flat trip. We took the local bus, our rucksacks were strapped to the roof and the ride was cramped to say the least! The journey took us on windy, dusty roads on the side of the mountains, through deserted villages in the middle of nowhere. Locals got off the bus with lots of bags and there was not a town in sight, some people stood in the aisle the whole way and three little old ladies got on and squashed up with the people sitting on the seats at the front. Paul sat next to an old lady who tried her hardest to sit on him the whole way, a funny sight!! I was lucky to have a window seat and the stunning views made the journey worthwhile.
Colonial Potosi is the world´s highest city at 4060m and is a Unesco World Heritage Site due to it´s beautiful architecture. It is set against the backdrop of a rainbow-coloured mountain called the Cerro Rico. The city was founded in 1545 following the discovery of silver in the mountain and, because of this, Potosi grew to become the largest and wealthiest city in Latin America. Today thousands continue to work the mines: although the silver has been depleted, they continue to work in awful conditions to extract the minerals. To protect them in their hell below, they worship their devil, known as Tio and make offerings of coca leaves, cigarettes and alcohol to him.
We arrived in Potosi about 4.30pm, checked into La Casona Hostel & settled into our lovely double room with cable TV for 6 pounds. My stomach was still feeling a bit delicate from the bout of food poisoning I had so we ate in a touristy restaurant called El Meson which was lovely but a little bit more than local food. Alot of travellers we´ve met have had bad stomaches in Bolivia so I´m going to play it safe while I´m here and eat with the tourists! Back at the hostel we watched a very interesting, but harrowing documentory called The Devils Miners (2005) about the life of a 14yr old boy and his younger brother who work in one of the many mines in Potosi.
On Friday, slightly nervous, I decided to go on a tour of the mines. After putting on the gear (trousers, jacket and helmet with light) we visited the miners market to get some suppliers for the miners we´d meet. I bought a bag of coca leaves (reduces hunger,cold & fatigue), a stick of dynamite (yes you heard right), a bottle of Bolivian pop, some handmade cigarettes and a big bottle of 96% alcohol, which the miners actually drink on Fridays!!!! After the market we drove up to the top of Cerro Rico to, yes you´ve guessed it - blow up some dynamite!!! Our guide put it together, lit it with a cigarette and them proceeded to pass it round the group for piccies holding an about to explode stick of dynamite!!! Apparently the fuse lasts 4 minutes so when the time was nearly up he legged it down the side of the mountain, found a place for it and ran back up. A couple of seconds later the dynamite exploded and the whole mountain shook! After that excitment we started the tour of the San Juan mines. Jem didn´t come because he´s a bit claustrophobic so I had a lovely German guy called Matt watching my back. The tunnels were hot, dusty and smelly. I had a scarf round my mouth which I was glad of when our guide pointed out lots of asbestos! We scrambled along narrow, dirty, very unstable, shafts, met numerous miners manually working with very basic tools. I tried to bang at the rock with not much luck and also tried to lift the heavily loaded wheelbarrow that one man has to empty. The mine we visited consists of three different levels and to get down to the next we had to abseil down the side of the rock with a very dubious piece of rope! Another hairy moment was when our guide shouted quick run as we heard dynamite exploding nearby!!! Put it this way I was very very glad to get out after two hours underground!
Underground temperatures vary from below freezing to 45oC. Miners, exposed to myriad noxious chemicals, often die of silicosis pneumonia within 10yrs of entering the mines. They work the mines as a cooperarive venture, with each miner milking his own claim and selling his ore to a smelter through the cooperative. They don´t make much money at all. One thing´s for sure I´m going to try and not complain about my job again!
After lunch we went on a 2hr guided tour of the Casa Real de la Moneda (Royal Mint). A very interesting silver museum, constructed between 1753 and 1773 to control the minting of colonial coins, the restored building now houses religious art, ancient coins, wooden minting machines and the country´s first train (british made of course!!). Our guide, Diether, was lovely and he finished the tour by telling us that Potosi once made the world´s coins and now the world makes it´s coins!! He also kindly told us lots of info about the weekends annual festival Entrada de Chu´tillos which is always on the last Saturday of August and features traditional music & dancing from Potosi, Bolivia and, on the Sunday, all over South America. So we´ve had a brilliant weekend watching the very colourful parades, sitting amongst the locals in the stands that lined the 3km stretch of road. The atmosphere was electric and there was drinking galore. First beer (Paceña is my fav) then Bolivian whiskey (96% alcohol-basically industrial meths!) which you´ll be happy to hear that we skipped!! We also realised why Bolivian women are a bit on the chubby side - all they eat is rubbish, jelly and cream, crisps, candyfloss, white bread, ice lollies and ice cream (like meringue). They also drink Api which is a supersweet hot drink made of maize, lemon and cinnamon or mezclado which is mixed yellow and purple api. We had a fantastic weekend that I was really happy to be a part of and I´ll have very good memories of the Potosi party!
A funny thing happened at the local market when Jem saw an albino Bolivian girl and did a double take only to have her Mum shout `she´s no gringo (foreigner)´ at him.
In between the festivities we managed to catch the sunset over the town from the rooftop of San Francisco Convent, followed by a tour in Spanish which we couldn´t follow! We also visited Potosi´s many lovely churches and watched a full brass band perform one night in front of the beautiful Cathedral.
Tonight we catch the 12hr bus to Tarija - Bolivia´s wine region so I´ll let you know how we get on in a couple of days. Miss you all lots xxxx