Drinking with The Devil in the world's highest city
Vern: We planned to spend two nights in Potosi but spent a reluctant third because we couldn't get bus tickets onward to Uyuni. Potosi is supposedly the highest city in the world at 4070m above sea level and sprawls out around the base of Cerro Rico, a large symmetrical mountain out of which the Spanish extracted millions of tons of silver which funded their empire-building in the 1500s and 1600s. Thousands of indigenous people and African slaves died in the mines. The mountain still harbours lower grade silver, zinc and other earth minerals which are mined by a miners co-operative rather than a corporation. Tour companies run tours into the mine, effectively to show tourists what an awful job these guys have. We signed up for one of these tours and were kitted out in bright yellow cover-alls, Wellington boots, hard hats and headlamps. We started at the miners market - a few street side stalls selling coca leaves, cool drinks and dynamite as well as ammonium nitrate and fuses - where we bought some coca leaves as a gift for the miners. We tried some of the leaves (chewing them into a ball and keeping the earthy mixture in our cheeks) while we were driven up Cerro Rico. Chewing coca leaves is supposed to help combat altitude sickness, and it is also a slight appetite suppressant and is supposed to give you energy. It is clear why it's so popular with the miners since they are working at 4200 meters, and are underground all day without stopping for a break to eat. We arrived, climbed out of the van, clambered over some rocks and followed some mining cart tracks to the dark little hole which is the entry to San Miguel mine. Headlamps on, we started descending into the tight cavern. It was difficult to breathe as we hunched over and squeezed down the narrow rocky tube until it flattened out
into a rocky crawlspace. We explored a bit and the guide pointed out mineral veins running through the rocks then we scrambled into a little room blasted out of the rock. Inside was one of many sculptures of Tio (which translates to 'uncle' but is actually the devil, or god of the underworld). Tio lives and works down here in hell amongst the miners. He is represented with a large penis to impregnate mother nature, Pachamama, so she keeps producing lots of minerals and on Fridays coca leaves and a dried baby llama are placed in his lap as an offering with the expectation that he'll keep them safe down there. Then they splash the statue with 96 percent alcohol, spill a few drops on the floor for Pachamama and proceed to get wasted on the rest. Our guide passed around the little bottle of alcohol after the ritual and we all had a little sip then grimaced as it set our mouths, lips and throats on fire. I spotted a cluster of transparent crystals emerging out of the roof of the cave and asked what treasure I had discovered. "Thats asbestos", was the answer, so its probably best that I stick to my desk job.
We kept on going down the dusty corridor until a spot where the senior miner was setting up dynamite. He ushered us behind a rocky wall to take cover. After a muffled bang, we followed the miners to their treasure and watched for a while as they chipped chunks of zinc out of the rock fragments. We handed over the gifts which we bought for them which they accepted without a thanks and set aside. I think they wanted us there as much as I would want tour groups huddled around my desk watching me work thinking, "Wow, he has a sucky job!"
It was an eye-opening excursion and I'm glad we went. Though three hours down there was quite enough for a lifetime. I respect but don't envy miners - it's a tough living. Apparently the NHS advises that this minimal exposure to asbestos should have no long term health impact - I'll let you know.
It was bitterly cold in Potosi, so it was a delight to return to our lovely warm hostel room, which sported a blazing radiator and cable TV, and after a simple dinner we tucked in and watched Seinfeld reruns.
The following day we visited the Casa de la Moneda, the old mint where the Spanish minted the silver into coins and supposedly where the "$" symbol first made an appearance as a design placing the letter S atop the letter P (for Potosi). To enter we had to take a mandatory tour in Spanish. Housed in an impressive colonial structure, the museum is a confused hodgepodge of artworks, machines, minerals and stuff made out of silver and because we were too cheap to buy the photo-pass which grants one the right to take photos (a right not included in the admission price) we made a game of trying to take photos of the dull exhibits without being caught and told-off by the Museum Security officer who followed the group around. As it turns out, we were very bad at this game because we got told off every time we snapped a photo.
We checked out of the hostel and went to the bus station after the museum to get on a bus to Uyuni but were turned away because they were all full. By the time we got back into town our lovely room had been given to someone else and the hostel was full. We checked into the hostel opposite the road, which had no heating and after killing as much time as possible hiding out in cafés drinking warm drinks, we returned to our room, climbed into bed in our full winter gear (jackets, thermals, beanies and all) and read our books. A lot slower than usual because it is rather tricky to turn the pages with gloved hands.
The bed eventually warmed up and we slept alright under four heavy blankets. After breakfast the next morning we boarded a bus headed out to Uyuni.