The journey to Potosi (highest city in SA, possibly the world) was interesting. The bus seemed nice on the outside but as it was a local bus the engine was not very powerful and when the majority of the journey is up hill and it the road is randomly paved or simply a mud path it takes a little while. Inside the bus I got sat on, my hair was pulled, I was nearly hit with a broom! James got serenaded in his left ear for the whole 5 hours by a small boy on repeat! Luckily the views made up for it and we saw some more stunning scenery.
We arrived in Potosi quite late in the afternoon so we settled into our room and went out for a bite to eat. The town is really nice, very peaceful and has some lovely colonial buildings. We booked our silver mines tour for tomorrow morning and after one room change, due to drilling below our room we got an early night.
If you read Lonely Planet it pretty much tells you not to go into the mines because they are not safe and in particular if you suffer with asthma (James does!). We ignored these warnings (we are so mental) and went anyway. Antonio was our guide and he used to work in the mines but left because he was worried about his health. We went to the miners market first where we got to try the products that we would buy as presents for the miners. They were selling, on the street, coca leaves, 96% alcohol (they would laugh in the face of OPR!), special cigarettes, drinks, crackers and ……. dynamite! Antonio said it is the best place to go if you are a terrorist! I tried everything but the alcohol, after smelling it I couldn't bear to put it near my lips, James and a few others said it tasted better than it smelt, I was still not convinced. We bought a 'happy meal', this consisted of a small portion of all the above and some soft drinks to give. We were all ready to go in our bright orange jumpsuits, welly boots and helmets with torches and we said goodbye to the sunshine for two hours as we went into the dark depths of the mine. The mines are made of small tunnels, all different shapes and sizes, with nothing to support the structure. We ducked, walked, climbed, slid and crawled along the tunnels with Antonio stopping every now and then to give us some more depressing news about how the mines were constructed and the difficulties miners face today.
- Over 8 million people died in the first century of the mines opening
- The life expectancy of a miner completing 'normal' work is 43
- The life expectancy of a miner working near the asbestos is 35
- Miners can start work at 14, this used to be 7.
- The wage of a miner who is most qualified is 50Bs (around £5)
- Miners work for around 8 hours every day and use coca leaves to tell the time
- Miners have to take 3 buses to get to the mines as they cannot afford to live in the city.
They are all addicted to alcohol and live every day as if it is there last so all in all a pretty depressing life. It was nice to give out the gifts we had bought as they were all really friendly, in particular to the girls-sexy miners, and I thought it was good that they asked for the soft drinks before the alcohol and coca. The most exciting/scary thing we did was to blow up some dynamite; a Kiwi had bought some so Antonio gave us a demonstration. Only two people were allowed to go with Antonio and light the fuse and after a competitive game of rock, paper, scissors and some Derren Brown mind games with a German girl James got to with the Kiwi. It turned out that we were sitting only a few metres from where the dynamite was and the extreme accuracy of how Antonio calculated how long before it went off was worrying. After about 3 minutes (mas o menos) of us all with our fingers in our ears it exploded, wowzer, it was so loud and you could feel the force go through everyone. We were situated by Pachabamba and Tios, the devils that the miners give presents too to keep them safe and provide more minerals. It seemed to work, we were all a bit shell shocked and our adrenalin was running high but we were alive. When we got out of the mines the sunlight was really strong and it was so nice to be able to breath properly again and not worry about whether or not we were touching asbestos. Outside of the mines was where the women worked, they were in charge of smashing the rocks together to collect the minerals. It was an informative trip and quite exciting but I wouldn't want to do it ever again, 2 hours inside a Bolivian silver mine is plenty for me.
The rest of our time in Potosi was not as exciting but just as enjoyable. We had some great food, including salteñas that we ate on a bench and spilled the majority of the juices on the floor, not a pretty sight. We visited the Mint Museum and our tour guide was my highlight, he reminded us of the wedding planner from Father of the Bride, so funny. The museum held some pretty grotesque religious paintings, money making machines, rocks and more mummies. Potosi was a great city but it is nice not to be so high and you can actually breathe and walk at the same time!