After Uyuni, we went with our new friends, Isabel and Will, to the mining town of Potosí, a few hours away. Pictures can be found HERE and my notes are below. Enjoy!
Potosí, March 15th to March 17th
Day One: Bumpy, slightly nerve-racking to the unaccustomed bus ride to Potosí, about 4-5 hours east from Uyuni. The road is mostly dirt and rock, with some muddy spots and sections that have been washed out and re-routed. The scenery is beautiful: rolling green hills, llamas, cacti, colorful native dress. We stop after awhile for a bathroom and snack break; we buy corn on the cob for a snack, sprinkled with salt from the salar, and it’s sublime. The kernels are bigger, chewier; nothing gets caught in your teeth. We reach the mining town of Potosí in the afternoon, and, like usual, are greeted by a number of people offering us tours, taxis, and hotels. We talk to one person who offers tours to the mines in Cerro Rico, the silver mines that made Potosí famous for centuries. It was once the richest town in South America; and it is currently one of the highest cities on the planet at 4100 meters (that’s 13,452 feet above sea level!). The guy is friendly, with great English, but not pushy. We take flyer and say we’ll look into it. We decide to walk to a recommended hostel, and end up going the wrong way. We run into the same tour guide again, who points us in the right direction, gives us hostel recommendations, and tells us how to take the public bus to where we need to go. After a cramped bus ride up the hill, we reach the main plaza and find our hostel without much trouble, except gasping for air. It’s a nice place (the Koala Den), with internet, colorful rooms, hang-out spaces, book exchanges, a kitchen, and a movie room. And it’s only US$5 per person, including breakfast. We love Bolivia. We get organized, and are off to search for food. It’s a weird time of day and not much is available; the streets are chaotic and crowded. Since we’re four with our new friends, we end up buying an entire rotisserie chicken, potatoes, marinated onions, and bread. It’s a huge lunch…think we’ll just be having beer from the highest brewery in the world for dinner. Then Tyler and Isabel drop off our laundry – yay! We have problems with the internet, and when it finally does work, it’s painfully slow and crashes often. It’s cold in the hostel, but luckily we have new llama sweaters and scarves to keep us warm.
Tyler and Will go off to book our tour of the mines tomorrow – they go to the office from the man we talked at the bus terminal, and it turns out he’s a great, honest, and interesting guy. He used to work with the tour company run through our hostel, which is recommended by the Lonely Planet. The hostel tour company advertises that 15% of the total tour price (100 Bolivanos, or about $15) to the miners still working in the mine. The guy explains that he found out the company actually wasn’t giving the miners the proper percentage, and since his family works in the mines, he quit and started his own company, owned and run by miners, which does give the proper percentage of the tour price to the miners. He also offers a better price, and includes lunch. Meanwhile, the tour company through our hostel, Koala Tours, is still saying he works there, since his name is in the Lonely Planet, but tells everyone he’s on paid vacation. Based on the stories the guys brought back, the tour tomorrow morning should be really interesting!
Day Two: Miner’s Refrain; the day of the mine tour. It’s difficult, because when I first heard about these tours, I was immediately against them. How dare tourist go to gawk at the horrible conditions in the mines! But, after hearing about the guy we’re going with, I feel a little better. We’re mostly just going along with our friends anyway. But I still have a sort of moral conflict about the whole situation…one the one hand, I think it’s good to know where the minerals that make up your iPod touch and plasma TV’s come from. People should be conscious of mining conditions, which are rarely good, so we can work to change them for the better. And the money from the tours is going towards improving the lives of the miner’s and their families. But, on the other hand, the tours help keep the miners in the jobs they have. They get free money, and the tours bring them gifts of cocoa leaves, dynamite, and drinks. That doesn’t leave much motivation to leave. Plus, after having a conversation later with a different tour guide at a museum, I found out most of the miners don’t have to work in the mines; they want to. They’re proud of the suffering; proud of their strength, proud to spend all their money on cars and 96% alcohol, ignore their families, and die young of black lung. There’s still cases of kids (age 12 and up) working in the mines because their parents died and they have no education, or of old guys who work there out of what has become Quechua tradition, but it seems these are the rarity rather than the norm. So, there are definitely two sides of the coin here, and from the little time I spent there I’m not sure which one I lean more towards. What I do know is that tourists mostly take the tours for the adventure. A better option would be offering tours of parts of the mines where people no longer work: tourists can still feel cool or whatever for going into the depths of the mines, squeezing through holes, wheezing in the dust, chewing cocoa leaves to ward off headaches, and get an idea of the horrible conditions in general, and especially under colonial times, maybe get an appreciation of the work that goes into the minerals that make up so much of our technology, but they wouldn’t be supporting a broken system.
Now, about the tour itself: after the best breakfast I’ve had in a hostel in South America (it was the norm of bread and jam but with real coffee and scrambled eggs) we head over to the office. After the typical bit of waiting around, we get in a van and head up to get changed into some pretty smelly and gross “mining clothes” than only came in “Bolivian sizes”: nylon pants and jacket, rubber boots, a helmet, and headlamp. Then we cave and buy the cheesy bandanas so we maybe won’t have to breathe in as much dust in the mines (wish I had thought of that beforehand). Then we talk around the miner’s market in our ridiculous garb, or guide greeting people in Quechua, the local indigenous language, and what most miners speak. We’re here to buy gifts for the miners we’re going to visit – so we can start conversations. We buy a big bottle of juice and dinamita completa (you can guess what that is), and some cocoa leaves (yes, we tried them, yes they help with altitude sickness, really!) and head up Cerro Rico and make one last stop on our way to the mines: the mineral processing plant. It’s small and smelly, and we get to see how the different minerals are ground, refined via a series of chemical reactions, ground again, washed with water, and dried in the sun as super-concentrated minerals, mostly sold in the London Stock Market to go towards making our plasma TV’s. From just 5 minutes in the chemical processing room my throat was burning, even though it was pretty well ventilated. Not fun place to work. After a few poses for pictures at the top of the hill, we were off to the cooperative mines of the infamous Cerro Rico.
In colonial times, Potosí was the center of wealth, famous for silver (people said the streets were paved with silver…not likely but it shows the towns renown) that powered the Spanish Empire. The silver is mostly depleted, but miners continue to extract other minerals and ores. Houses line the entrance of the mine where workers can take breaks and change their clothes; the entrance looks like something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: a railroad for trolleys of materials descending into a dark, square entrance supported by wooden beams. We flip on our headlamps and head into the darkness…it’s wet from the rainy season and we’re trudging through who-knows-what liquids. Our guide used to work in the mines and knows the passageways well – he’s practically jogging down the path as we’re panting to keep up. The difficulty in breathing only gets worse the further in we go: there’s more dust, chemicals, the air gets thicker and damper. I’m chewing my cocoa leaves trying not to panic. We stop in complete darkness, turn off our lights, and listen to our guide tell stories about the mines in colonial times and how the co-ops work today. We go a little ways and stop to visit the Tío (literally “uncle” in Spanish because the word dios was too difficult to pronounce for native Quechua speakers) of the mines: the God they worship for protection, safety and wealth. They make offerings of pure alcohol (so that they can find pure minerals) and cocoa leaves to him – he exists only in the mines; outside the indigenous peoples were forced to be Roman Catholics and refer to the Tío as a devil. Next we descend a few rickety ladders further into the mines, squeeze threw a few passageways, and try to keep up with our guide as we’re bent over due to the short ceilings. We talk to a few miners about their work and give our gifts away. Next we follow a trolley delivering materials to be lifted out of the mines via wench and processed. Finally it’s time to retreat into fresh air after only a couple of hours in the mines – but that’s more than enough for me.
If you want to check out more information about the mining conditions, I hear there’s a great documentary out (we haven’t seen it yet) called “The Devil’s Miner” (2005) based on the story of a boy working in the mines of Cerro Rico.
After the mining tour, we were mostly pretty tired and I spent about 2 hours waiting for a shower as there was only one bathroom in our hostel, and trying to get the wireless to work with my computer, which, after 2 days, was never really successful. I think it was that night that we ventured out for some street food: a paper cone stuffed with a small hamburger with sauces, and packed in with french fries drizzled with mayo and spicy salsa – for 5 pesos each. For US$2 I ate two of these, and a bubbly beverage. It was amazing.
Day Three: On our last day in Potosí we got up, had breakfast, and went to walk around the city taking some photos of the different plazas and churches. We went on a tour of the Casa de Moneda, “Bolivia’s finest museum” according to the guidebooks. It was where all the silver money was minted, beginning in colonial times, and ending in the early 1900s. They still had the original machinery and refinery rooms (complete with original soot) used and we got to see the progression from hammering out coins by hand to a more refined process by machine. The latter process consisted of a silver ingot passing through a press a total of 12 times (4 times at each machine, each powered by 4 donkeys downstairs turning the presses) until it was thin enough to be cut into coin by scissors, by hand. The museum also had some art, a room full of rocks, and a room of archeological artifacts, and was in a really gigantic, beautiful building centered around 5 courtyards. It was definitely worth the few dollars it cost to enter, and it was there I had an interesting conversation with the tour guide about the mining situation in Potosí. She also mentioned that in Potosí there are basically two things to do: mine, or learn to speak English and get involved in tourism. She was much friendlier once we struck up a conversation in Spanish; I could sense a bitterness about having to speak English to find work and she chided us for not speaking more Spanish (of course!).
After the tour it was finally time to try salteñas, basically Bolivia’s version of the empanada, made with yellow corn dough instead of flour, and filled with stewed meat, onions, spices, a tomato-y sauce, and the ubiquitous bit of hard-boiled egg and single un-pitted olive. After that, it was time to catch our bus to Sucre.
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