After our salt flat tour in Uyuni we started our journey towards Brazil – heading through Potosi, Sucre and finally Santa Cruz.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Needless to say, the journey went without a hitch and we began the next stage of our travels in Brazil.