Published: April 10th 2006March 23rd 2006
Driven by the need to keep heading south, and aware that our time in South America was becoming ever more finite, we said goodbye to the Hotel La Joya, and La Paz, and got on a bus to Sucre.
La Paz had recently been the victim of two bizarre terrorist attacks, apparently perpetrated by a mentally disturbed American, one of which we were so near that it shook the windows of our restaurant. It seemed like an isolated incident but I'm sure our parents are glad we were heading south too! For more info on the bombings, and some coverage on the sheer wierdness of the accused bloke, do a quick Google news search for La Paz bombings.... It's worth it I assure you! Life really is stranger than fiction sometimes.
Sucre is one of Bolivia's TWO capital cities. This is apparently because their supreme court is located there, and historically because that's where the country was founded when they finally kicked out the Spanish in 1825. It's a very different city to La Paz in many ways, and provided us with a welcome change of pace. We were lucky that Rein, who we'd previously been travelling with, had
recommended that we seek out a small hostel in the Recoleta area of town. What a place! At only $15 it was pretty cheap, with lovely clean rooms and use of the kitchen upstairs. Having been deprived of cooking facilities for some time, it was something that we made much use of.
We spent a couple of days wandering around town, enjoying the white colonial architecture, and generally chilling out - it had been a busy few weeks... We visited the much talked about dinosaur footprint site and had a look around the Bolivian museum of independence - the former a fascinating place, crazy to imagine that you're looking at footprints created hundreds of millions of years ago, the latter not so interesting as it made no effort whatsoever to cater for the foreign visitor.
The site of the dinosaur prints is located, luckily and unluckily, in the middle of a cement mining site. Luckily, because they would never have been found were it not for the excavations of the cement extraction machinery (new prints are being uncovered all the time - we were priveledged to see some that were unearthed only a week before), unluckily because they
will also almost certainly lead to their destruction. The prints, somewhat bizarrely, are located on a 200ft rock wall along which the company are no longer allowed to excavate (you'd think that might offer some protection, but they are allowed to mine nearby, plenty near enough to be damaging to the prints). Apparently this used to be level ground on the shores of a lake which no longer exists, and tectonic plate movement has shoved the once level ground up at 90 odd degrees to it's original location. It's a bit wierd to see dinosaur footprints running along a mountainside, but that's effectively what you see. There are all sorts of tracks, Em and I really enjoyed imagining which were families of dino's walking together, some running, some walking (you can tell by the shape of the prints).
We enjoyed Sucre overall and were glad we visited, many people seem to miss it out and we too had been undecided for a while. On the road again though, the next stop was Potosi, the site of large scale mining using archaic methods.
Potosi itself is a charming city, much to our surprise. I guess it's stereotypical but I
was expecting a smelly, grey place, which it's not - lots more interesting colonial buildings, one of which the hostel that we stayed in - very strange layout inside, and no heating, but quite acceptable for two nights. The miners lead tours around the mines, ours was booked for the following morning.
In the morning we, along with literally herds of other gringos, got kitted up for the mine visit. Head lamp, protective gear, wellies, the lot. It was a bit of a circus getting ready with so many other tourists, especially as most of them were under 25 and full of energy (Em & I are only 31 but those are 6 important years!) but the ex-miners kept it jovial and were soon off.
The mines in Potosi are run by cooperatives, not companies. The place used to be rich in silver, it was where the Spanish colonists obtained much of their wealth, but these days it only yields zinc, lead and very little silver. Areas are mined by specific families and the spoils divided amongst the members of the cooperative. As it's not run by a company, or the state, the miners have to buy their
Inappropraitely named "Rich Mountain"
It stopped making people rich a long, long time ago...
own gear - including dynamite, which you can buy on the street near the mine. As it happens, it turns out that the perpetrators of the recent bombings in La Paz got hold of their dynamite not from a shady arms dealer, but legally and on the street in Potosi. It's a strange place alright.
After coming to terms with the sheer wierdness of being able to buy bombs from old ladies at market stalls we headed to Cero Rico (literally "rich mountain", a completely inappropriate name, these days at least) to enter the mine. Despite reading and hearing about it, nothing can really prepare you for the experience.
It's a dusty, smelly, and dirty place. The mines have some 12000 people working in them 6 days a week, 12 odd hours per day, although they decide their own working hours. Life expectancy, although not explicitly discussed on the tour, must surely be severely impacted by working in such a place. At points we helped the miners by shifting some of their minerals, and got a feel for the back-breaking work they do every day. Those men have a hard life. Mining is basically achieved by making small
holes in the rock face, inserting dynamite, blowing the thing up and then shovelling and carrying the results up to the surface. Nasty. One thing I found a bit offensive was the way that most of the tourists leaving the mine acted as if they'd just won Pop Idol or something, when those hard working miners do the same thing 6 days a week - and actually work when they're down there....
On leaving the mines we were treated to a demonstration of how big a bang you can make with a few sticks of dynamite. Turns out you can make a very big bang indeed! So much so, in fact, that Em (who was videoing the proceedings) nearly dropped her camera... The video's a bit quease-inducing so we won't bother posting it for your stomachs' sakes!
After the mines of Potosi we were heading south again, to the frontier town of Uyuni, on the edge of the biggest salt flats in the world, the Salar de Uyuni. We'd heard alot about the salt flat tours and were very much looking forward to seeing it for ourselves.....
There are more photos below