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Three days; three cities – our passage out of Bolivia

After our salt flat tour in Uyuni we started our journey towards Brazil – heading through Potosi, Sucre and finally Santa Cruz.

To finish off our stint in Bolivia, we planned to travel from Uyuni to Potosi, stopping off briefly in nearby Sucre and finishing in Santa Cruz - where we would get a train to Brazil

To finish off our stint in Bolivia, we planned to travel from Uyuni to Potosi, stopping off briefly in nearby Sucre and finishing in Santa Cruz – where we would get a train to Brazil

Having heard about Potosi through our Amazon guide Gio and also during our stay in Uyuni, we’d decided to check out the mining town that used to be the source of Spain’s wealth.

Potosi used to be one of the richest cities in the world, but it's a bit run down now

Potosi used to be one of the richest cities in the world, but it’s a bit run down now

We wanted to take a mine tour to see first-hand the network of subterranean tunnels that still exists (and is still used to this day) – both helping and harming the local people. The mines themselves are embedded in the town’s nearby Cerro Rico (‘Rich Mountain’) and can be accessed only by the miners and tours.

We went with Big Deal Tours – a company set-up and run by real ex-miners who had decided to try and venture into the tourism industry to improve their prospects. On the day of the tour, we were given all the kit we needed to stay safe (including overalls, helmets with headlamps, face masks and boots) we were given a safety briefing about the conditions in the mines.

Kitted up and ready to go!

Kitted up and ready to go!

Our guide, Wilson, told us he’d started his career in the mines when he was just ‘eight or nine years old’ – he couldn’t remember exactly the age he was. He had worked underground for more than 20 years and lost friends in the process. I was shocked to hear that the tunnels’ temperatures could vary wildly from below freezing to 45 degrees Celsius and that noxious gases, such as carbon monoxide, could be present in places. He also warned us that the carts some miners use to transport their heavy loads don’t have brakes, so if one was coming we needed to jump out of the way as soon as we could as there was a real danger of being crushed.

When we were fully briefed, we started our tour with a brief visit to the miners market – where we had the option to buy some gifts for the miners (such as juice and coca leaves). We could have even bought dynamite if we’d wanted to (complete with charge and fuse) and Wilson told us that Potosi was the only place in the world where anyone over the age of 16 could buy dynamite with no restrictions!

The market, bustling with miners picking up supplies before a hard day's work

The market, bustling with miners picking up supplies before a hard day’s work

It was interesting to see the miners themselves stocking up before their shifts – many of them were buying coca leaves (which gives energy) but some were also buying this lethal drink, which is 96% pure alcohol!

96% pure alcohol!

96% pure alcohol!

Our next stop was a refinery, where we could see the minerals (such as silver, zinc and lead) being extracted from the raw material brought in by the miners. Wilson told us that the miners were paid according to how much of the minerals they brought in – rather than the amount of raw material. But it was really down to luck whether you found mineral-rich rocks or not, so overall it was better to harvest as much as possible every day so that you had more of a chance of finding the ‘good stuff’. Even then, you could bring in the most rocks and get paid the worst because you found the least amount of minerals.

We learnt how the refinery takes the raw materials and crushes them, steeps them in toxic solutions that strips away the precious metals and then separates the minerals from the worthless rock

We learnt how the refinery takes the raw materials and crushes them, steeps them in toxic solutions that strips away the precious metals and then separates the minerals from the worthless rock

When we finally made it to the entrance of the mine, it was a hive of activity with miners busily working around the opening. We turned our lights on and headed into the darkness. It was surprisingly wet in the tunnels – with cold muddy water sloshing around our boots, making it harder to find our footing on the slippery rocks.

I'm going in...

I’m going in…

The tunnel also got shorter and shorter as we ventured further inside the mountain – making it very hard to see ahead because our headlamps were permanently angled towards the ground so we didn’t hit our heads.

It was quite a squeeze at times too

It was quite a squeeze at times too

It was certainly a working mine – inside and out. A few times we had to dive out of the way of rickety carts or wheelbarrows full of heavy rocks heading towards the exit. On one occasion we had to rush backwards to a passing point to let a fast-moving cart sail through before it hit one of us.

Several times we had to move out of the way for one of these to come hurtling past

Several times we had to move out of the way for one of these to come hurtling past

Potosi is also still fairly high up, and some of the tunnels are at 4,000 metres above sea level – making it breathless work as you trudge, bent over double, in the darkness. Also, the mine is full of cables that hang down from the ceiling – some of which hiss rather disconcertingly as some kind of gas leaks out of them (although Wilson reassured us these lines only contained air for pneumatic drills).

Some parts of the tunnel were completely vertical, so we had to climb up precarious-looking ladders

Some parts of the tunnel were completely vertical, so we had to climb up precarious-looking ladders

All the while, our guide would stop in places to quickly chat with a miner who was passing through – asking him to tell us a bit about himself and rewarding him with a gift from one of us. All of the miners were covered in grime and dust, and some of them were clearly tired – many had been working since 2am! All of them seemed grateful to get a gift though, and it was clear to see that the coca leaves in particular were in high demand.

Spot the real miner...

Spot the real miner…

In Colonial times, two billion ounces of silver was extracted here. Over the same period about eight million people are believed to have died. The Spanish forced locals to mine for months at a time – and the miners would stay underground during these months. Although they don’t have to live inside the mountain anymore, many Potosi men (and boys) still work in the mines because they can earn more than the minimum wage in Bolivia. But the working conditions are still awful – with more than 10 people each month dying from accidents or from diseases caused by poisons in the caves.

Wilson told us the miners can’t choose where to work in the mines either – they’re assigned a seam regardless of how fruitful it is and they can’t change it or swap – so anything they find is completely down to luck.

Although the conditions were horrible, some of the tunnels were quite pretty

Although the conditions are horrible, some of the tunnels are quite pretty

This unsavoury-looking character is known as 'El Tio' and the miners pray to him - asking him to keep them safe. They also leave 'sacrifices' of coca leaves, cigarettes and that 96% alcohol stuff. We had to try some of it as part of the sacrifice ritual and it was truly disgusting - like trying to drink nail polish remover!

This unsavoury-looking character is known as ‘El Tio’ and there are many duplicates of him all over the mines. He’s the mountain god (or devil) and the miners pray to him – asking him to hlp them find minerals and keep them safe. They also leave ‘sacrifices’ of coca leaves, cigarettes and that 96% alcohol stuff. We had to try some of it as part of the sacrifice ritual and it was truly disgusting – like trying to drink nail polish remover!

At the end of the tour, I was tired and achy from walking while bent over for so long and I was very relieved to be out of the darkness and in fresh air when we emerged at the surface. I can’t imagine having to work in a place like that – and I have a new-found admiration for the miners who (for the most part) seemed to keep their sanity while working away in the depths.

Happy to be back in the fresh air!

Happy to be back in the fresh air!

The next day we stopped off in Sucre, which was where many of the Spanish lived while they were forcing the local people in Potosi to mine for them.

Sucre - 'the white city'

Sucre – ‘the white city’

Apparently the climate of 4,000 metre high Potosi was too cold, and so they built Sucre – which still has many of its colonial-style buildings.

Even at first glance it's visibly prettier than Potosi

Even at first glance it’s visibly prettier than Potosi

Some of the sights around the city, which really is mostly white!

Some of the sights around the city centre, which really is mostly white!

One thing we loved about Sucre was its Zebra Crossings...

One thing we loved about Sucre was its Zebra Crossings… The lady in the foreground kindly stepped right in front of the camera just as I was taking the picture of the zebra!

Surprisingly, another thing Sucre is famous for is dinosaurs. Millions of years ago, hundreds of dinosaurs walked across a muddy plain where Sucre is today and their footprints were preserved in the ground. In 1985, workers in a quarry found the prints in what is now a sheer rock face.

There are thousands of dinosaur prints right across this rock face

There are thousands of dinosaur prints right across this rock face

Admiring the dinosaurs

Admiring the dinosaurs

The prints themselves aren’t all that impressive (many of them don’t seem to have any distinct shape), but the sheer number of them is incredible (there are more than 5,000) and to think they were made by creatures that roamed the earth 65 million years ago is mind-boggling.

Some of the prints are clearer than others, but it was amazing how many there are

Some of the prints are clearer than others, but it’s amazing how many there are

We spent our final day in Bolivia in Santa Cruz. This city, closest to the Brazilian border, has a tropical climate, which reminded us of our stay in the Amazon. The owner of our hostel confessed to us that the city centre didn’t hold all that much interest for tourists – but just down the road was a zoo that showed creatures from the jungle.

We hadn’t planned on visiting a zoo, but we decided to give it a go while we were there and we weren’t disappointed. Although it was a bit sad to see the animals in cages (and some of the enclosures were pretty small), it was really interesting to see some of the animals that we’d glimpsed in the tree-tops or rushing away in the jungle up close.

Some of the animals we saw in the jungle up close - including what might be the little cat I saw running away from me in the dark!

Some of the animals we saw in the jungle up close – including what might be the little cat I saw running away from me in the dark!

They even had jaguars – so even if we didn’t see one in the wild, we can still say we saw some while we were in South America!

The next day, we caught the ‘death train’ to Puerto Quijarro – where we would cross the border into Corumba, Brazil. Although it has a colourful name, the train itself isn’t dangerous – it was given the name because it’s the same line that used to transport Yellow Fever victims to quarantine areas.

The 'death train' doesn't look that scary

The ‘death train’ doesn’t look that scary

Needless to say, the journey went without a hitch and we began the next stage of our travels in Brazil.

Comments

  1. Hi there, Kirsty. Have just read your blog very interesting, felt sorry for Dale in the mine, he must have bent double , as he seemed twice the hight of the miners. I spoke to Sandra yesterday, she is Hooked on your blog and can’t wait for the next instalment after reading one , she spent three Hours catching up after Wendy showed her how to , She thinks you should turn it into a book For travellers , and thinks what you are doing is wonderful. I also look forward to seeing the Next one , I thought you might like us to send you a list of the place’s we found most interesting When we were in New Zealand . If I don’t speak to you before give our love to Helen, Gary and The boys . Well I had better get on with some chores now , Lots of love Mum and Dad xxxxx

    Sent from my iPad

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  2. Hi Both! Don’t envy you in the mines – looked too claustrophobic for my liking! I’m thinking maybe the carts go faster once they’ve all had a few drinks of their special brew? I don’t expect there’s much in the way of enforced health and safety there?
    News this part of the world… nearly half term (two weeks to go) then Nanny and Grampy coming down to look after the boys so Andy and I can spend the weekend away celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary. Only going as far as Southampton (where we married) but still looking forward to getting away! lol. Take Care and enjoy the next stage of your journey, Love Aunty Sarah x

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