Sucre and the mines of Potosí

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South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department » Potosi
December 20th 2009
Published: December 22nd 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY


Although La Paz hosts the seat of national government, is Bolivia's most populous city by far and is the country's most important historical, cultural and economic centre it is technically not the capital. That distinction belongs to Sucre. This fact becomes a little more surprising whilst meandering through Sucre's sleepy streets rather than fighting through the 24 hour noise and bustle of La Paz. The story goes that 100 years or so ago the most important city in the country was Sucre, but when the democratic party were elected into power they moved the seat of government to the party headquarters in La Paz, and from that everything else followed. Sucre did manage to retain the title of official capital although the de facto honour now lives in La Paz.

Sucre is an aesthetically pleasing place but there is very little to do, so Holly and I spent an afternoon at a dinosaur park just out of town. I had assumed the park would just be an assortment of reconstructed skeletons and exhibits in glass cabinets targeted primarily at a junior audience and, whilst it did contain these, it's also a genuine paleontological site of international interest. It contains some of the best preserved dinosaur footprints, including the longest single run of prints in the world. We went expecting a theme park, but left actually learning something.

In the evening we went out and found a small music venue, who were that evening hosting 'Sucre's finest band' according to a local barfly. With that ringing commendation we bought tickets and eagerly awaited the show. Onstage, soon arrived the band (who turned out to be a table of diners we sat next to in the restaurant earlier) playing a brand of metal which the largely adolescent audience lapped up. Holly and myself were quite drunk and had a good night, once I managed to tear Holly away from the endless floor-plans she was sketching on napkins.

After Sucre we moved south to Potosí - the world's highest city at over 4,000m, or half an Everest, above sea level. The city is famous for this topographic milestone and also the mines which dominate the area, and which provided the reason for our visit. Conditions in the mines can be hellish. Temperatures vary from below freezing to above 50 degrees Celsius, although thankfully on the day we were there it was somewhere near the middle of that range. The tunnels are unsupported and often very narrow, which required us to crawl through on elbows and knees in places, and several inches deep in an unpleasant yellow-brown liquid. The lighting was nonexistent and the further we climbed into the mines, the scarcer the oxygen became (a precious enough commodity at 4,000m anyway). The air instead was thick with asbestos dust which goes some way to explaining why the average life expectancy of miners is just 35. Traversing around the mines involved putting quite a lot of trust in rickety ladders and ropes and more than one blind leap of faith from one platform to the next.

It was quite shocking, especially as these aren't museums, but still working mines. Boys barely into their teens work 12 hour days and outside children only a few years old sold mineral fragments. We also found it a little depressing, but some consolation is that the miners are paid relatively well for Bolivian standards.

Before we entered the mines we bought gifts of coca leaves and drinks for the miners, and also a stick of dynamite, some ammonium nitrate and a fuse. After touring the mines we went outside to use these latter three products. I snapped the dynamite and inserted the fuse, but our guide took responsibility for lighting the fuse. Whilst lit we had the opportunity to pose with the explosive, a chance which everybody naturally seized, before throwing it and watching rock be decimated. Definitely a satisfying end to the day.


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