Potosi, Sucre and first impressions of La Paz


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February 13th 2008
Published: February 14th 2008
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Cerro RicoCerro RicoCerro Rico

"The hill that eats men!", with Potosi in the foreground. The mountain dominates every aspect of life in the town, both historically and currently.
Potosi

From the water bombing, carnaval related madness of Uyuni, i moved on to the water bombing, carnaval related madness of Potosi. Different town, but the same activities of spraying water and foam at everything that moved for another couple of days. Except in Potosi, they had moved on to the cunning tactic of the drive-by attack, spraying water and foam from the windows of passing cars. Its just not cricket really!

However, after a couple of days, the town was returning to normality, with only the occassional sporadic attack. Back to the business of sight-seeing then.

Potosi is located around 7 hours drive East of Uyuni, reached after a very uncomfortable all day bus journey. And accompanied by the Bolivian version of Euro-pop. Quite catchy after the 5th time of listening!

The town is located at an altitude of 4,070m, making it the highest city in the world. And as if to make things more difficult for the recently arrived traveller, many of the streets are on steep hills. The town is surrounded by brown, lifeless hills and all fresh produce has to be imported in also.

So why then build a town in such
No Light at the end of this tunnel!No Light at the end of this tunnel!No Light at the end of this tunnel!

And you think your journey every day to work sucks?
a difficult location? Well, located behind the town is a mountain known as the Cerro Rico or Rich Mountain. From this mountain has been mined millions of pounds worth of silver, tin and other minerals over the last 500 years or so. It is with this mountain that every aspect of life in Potosi revolves. From everywhere in the city, the mountain is seen as a constant reminder. Almost everyone is, at furthest, closely related to someone working in the mines. Everyone is affected by it.

OK, so a bit of a history lesson - Legend has it that a Llama farmer camped for the night on the Cerro Rico. On lighting his fire, he saw a silver liquid running from the flames. This turned out to be the discovery of a thick siver vein. Soon, mines sprung up all over the mountain.

Following the arrival of the Spanish, the local Indian population were made to work as slaves in the mines, helping line the pockets of the Spaniards. The Indians were sent in to work for months at a time, often in 20 hour shifts with 4 hours rest. It is thought for every 10 Indians who enterred the mines to work, 8 were never to walk off the mountain again. Current estimates are that 8 million people have died on the mountain.

However, all this great wealth, as well as providing Spain with all its coins, also lead to a boom in Potosi. All around town today are evidence of the many grand churches and colonial buildings that were erected. The few that did have access to the wealth from the silver, lived lives of pure luxury. This makes Potosi really interesting to walk around and see the remnants, even today, of all the wealth.

Still today, thousands of locals work in the mines as co-operatives in the most basic of conditions. Asbestos is everywhere in the air in the mines and silicosis and respiratory diseases are the main killers (by far) of the miners.

While in Potosi, i went on a mine tour and the conditions they work in are pretty awful. The air is thin so i was constantly out of breath clambering through tunnels, some on hands and knees. There is very little use of technology in the mines, and miners still carry sacks of mined rock on their backs out of some of the mines. As the miners are all self-employed, tourists bring them gifts of dynamite, coca leaves (which they chew to help deal with the altitude), cigarettes etc. Dynamite is totally legal in Bolivia, so after buying it in the miners market, it seems strange to be wandering the streets with a bag of TNT!

Life is really tough in the mines and the working life expectancy of a miner today is 15-20 years. They can retire when they lose half their lung capacity from silicosis!

The Indian miners who work today are also highly superstitious. They believe, as they are in the earth (or Pacha Mama), they are closer to hell than Heaven. Therefore, in every mine is a figure of El Tio, a representation of the devil. To El Tio, they give offerings to protect them from the dangers in the mine, as they work in his domain. They believe people in the mines who die from cave-ins, die because they haven´t shown due respect to El Tio.

Seeing the figure of El Tio in the mine adds to the creepy atmosphere in the mine. I have to say, from the minute i enterred the mine, i was keen to get out. But to understand anything of the city of Potosi, i think you have to understand the mine, as it is the city.

Following the mine tour, we had some extra dynamite (as you do). So what can you do with dynamite, but blow it up! Check the video out on the blog.

Sucre

After a few days in Potosi, i moved on 2.5 hours further East to Sucre, the second capital of Bolivia (shared with La Paz). Sucre is a really nice colonial city, with all the buildings in the centre painted white. Its also a much more pleasant city to spend a few days than Potosi, as the altitude is lower (about 1,200m lower), making it warmer and greener.

I really enjoyed chilling out in Sucre. One day i went on a pretty tough mountain bike tour with a couple of dutch guys. I think it pretty much killed me as it just seemed to be hill after hill for 60km. But it was great scenery on the ride (when i wasn´t panting, head down, up the hill).

I also visited a quarry near the city where they have discovered the largest collection of dinosaur footprints in the world. They have identified the footprints of 3 types of dinosaurs there, preserved really well in ash from a volcanic eruption. They have also created a little park with supposedly life size "scary" models of dinosaurs. To make looking at footprints in a rock face a little more interesting i guess.

La Paz

I then moved on to La Paz, the official capital of Bolivia, a few days ago. At the moment, i am spending some time wandering around the city, taking in all the sights. Its again at fairly high altitude with the main city at 3,640m. This makes it the highest capital city in the world. (Most things in Bolivia can lay claim to be the highest in the world....highest coffee shop, Irish bar, swimming pool, etc! And you are constantly reminded)

La Paz is a bit of crazy city, much more chaotic than either BA or Santiago. But that gives it a special charm. There seems to be a market of some form in most squares in the city, traffic is a nightmare and there is noise and shouting everywhere.
Who´s size 40´s are these?Who´s size 40´s are these?Who´s size 40´s are these?

2 pairs of Diplodocus Dinosaur footprints preserved in mud and ash beds, Sucre.
But i really like it for all that. It has a lot of charm.

There are some quirky little things i really like about the city though that sets it apart. Example. At most traffic junctions, the cars ignore the lights and drive through. Which is dangerous for the pedestrains at the zebra crossings. So the government are trying to control things. (Now this is a great job, if you fancy a career change!)

They employ people at the busy junctions to dress up as zebras. Most of the day, they stand at the zebra crossings. Then, when the lights change to red, they (get this!) moonwalk across the junctions in front of the traffic, forcing it to stop. As they moonwalk, they wave the pedestrians across. They look menacingly (well as menacing as someone dressed in a zebra costume can!) at drivers who go through the red lights. I am thinking life expectancy for that job may well be a lot less than the miners of Potosi. Still, very fun to watch.

Also, i am pleased to say i am back to a city that serves good coffee. A welcome relief after the Nescafe of the last few weeks.

So thats me more or less up to date. I hope everyone is well at home.

I heard Ireland slipped up again against France. No surprise there then really. But at least Wales beat England....and all is right with the world again.

Cheers,

Mike


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Mining for Silver at Level 3 in the mineMining for Silver at Level 3 in the mine
Mining for Silver at Level 3 in the mine

A manual pulley system is still used to bring up mined rock from the lower levels
A convincing miner?A convincing miner?
A convincing miner?

Just what every miner needs, a hard hat and dynamite. I knew I´d use that Geology degree one day!
The depressing reality for the miners of Cerro Rico, even todayThe depressing reality for the miners of Cerro Rico, even today
The depressing reality for the miners of Cerro Rico, even today

The overwhelming major cause of death of miners is from reapiratory problems, mainly due to asbestos in the mine. They still don´t wear anything more advanced than a bandana over their mouths.


18th February 2008

Who's the highest??
So in La Paz, did you lay claim to being the highest Irishman, in the highest Irish bar in the world??
18th February 2008

Re: Who´s the highest??
John, such slander. I´ll have you know i did no drugs at all during my time in La Paz!

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