There's Silver in Them There Hills

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South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department » Potosi
October 3rd 2011
Published: October 4th 2011
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Tina Writes

The bus journey to Potosi was 5 hours long. The bus stank, was covered in litter and the windows didn’t close properly so it was a tad cold at 4000m. The roads were not as bad as I had come to believe, I think Bolivia have done a lot of work on their roads in the last year or so. Some idiot played music out his phone for most of the journey but thankfully that was drowned out by the rattling of the windows. The bus stopped for a toilet break half way through at the side of the road. Pull down your troosers and pee basically. We stayed on the bus!

We arrived to a flurry of taxi drivers vying for business. As it was midnight we would be giving them some. We asked the price and was told $50B (£5), haha. He quickly realised I wasn’t falling for that and it was quickly reduced to the price I expected, $10B (£1). We arrived at the hostel (Casona Potosi Hostal £10 per night) 5 minutes later and the door was opened by the very unfriendly reception guy. I reckoned as it was midnight, I would give him the benefit of the doubt but no, he was no different the next day and neither were any of the other staff for the 3 nights we stayed there. I guess this is what happens when you are featured in the Lonely Planet and no longer need customer service to do good business. We had a long lie in and went out to have a wee look around in the afternoon. We didn’t get very far though as Rob was feeling the effects of the altitude pretty badly. For once I was walking in front of him trying to slow down so he could keep up. Now I know how he feels all of the time! We decided to get something to eat and as the restaurant had WiFi, I went back to the hostel to get the net book. That’s about all we did that day. Next day was pretty much the same. We took a bit more of a walk toward a big tower thing, it looked like a cross between a water tower and something you build in War Craft. It was, of course, closed. So we walked back up the hill. This is easier said than done for me. There were little fat old ladies taking over me as I huffed and puffed my way up. I don’t know how I am going to manage the Inca Trail.

We stayed an extra day in Potosi because the one interesting thing to do there wasn’t running on a Sunday. So on Monday morning we were up early and suited and booted to visit the silver mines. We were given special trousers, jackets, welly boots and a miners helmet complete with light. There was about 10 of us. We headed in a micro bus through the town and stopped at a local market place. Here we were told about the different items the miners buy for the mines. They are kind of freelance and whatever they mine they sell to the refineries and that’s how they make their money. So if they don’t mine any minerals that week, they don’t get any money! So they buy all their own gear, helmets, gloves, dynamite etc. They also work in atrocious conditions so use coca leaves and ‘whiskey’ (96%) to help them through their, sometimes, 24 hour shifts. We all tried the coca leaves and the ‘whiskey’ (I missed that bit out). Rob nearly choked to death when he tied it but the rest of the group didn’t even blink. Apparently the coca leaves suppress your appetite, so the miners don’t need to come out to eat. I am thinking about buying a few tons of the stuff and chewing til I am a size 8! We then all bought gloves, coca leaves and juice for the miners. We headed to the mine and were soon going through the entrance tunnel. I had read in the guide book that this was a working mine and not set up for tourists but tour groups went everyday so I reckoned it wouldn’t be that bad but it was! It really is a working mine, a Bolivian working mine with literally no health and safety. At first you could hear the groups helmets hitting off the rocks above our heads, there was so much ducking and diving to be done. After 5 minutes of walking through the tunnel, we came to a ladder and the guide started going up, I thought he was joking, but no, we were to climb up. I would later realise this ladder was one of the better constructed ones for getting up and down. So up we went and met 2 miners who were preparing to blow up part of the mine with dynamite. We watched them construct the stuff and then they headed up to the level above and planted it. Rob went up first and watched but when he came down he advised me not to go up as it was very difficult to get up and down and no space to stand so we waited below as some of the group fired up and planted the dynamite. Eventually they all came rushing down and we were herded to a tunnel further back and told to sit down and cover our ears. BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM!!!! It was really scary and cool. We then headed back through the now very dusty tunnel and further into the mine. I had started to think the dynamite bit was a bit of a set up for our benefit but as the day went on I realised it was all very genuine. It got hotter as we went through and we were told temperatures can reach 40°. The walls were covered in weird looking crystals and we were informed this was pure arsenic! I wasn’t planning on licking this wall to make sure though. Rob kept telling me not put my fingers in my mouth. We came to another part that had been blown up earlier and the miner there was to sift through the rocks and separate the ore. Our guide, Choco, who was a miner there 3 days a week, explained the process and gave us all a little piece of ore which contained some silver and zinc to keep. We then moved on to watch the miners drilling the walls but to get to them was easier said than done. Our guide disappeared down a hole and expected us to follow. It really was a big hole about 40 feet from the ground, no ladder, just a rope. I stumbled down and took a wee tumble and ripped the arse out the protective trousers. Rob had been a bit unsure since we entered the mines but now he was totally freaking out. We watched them drill and got to hold onto it to see how it felt. By now I wanted to get out of there. It was really difficult to breathe. We visited one last set of miners who were working in a tiny space that was about to be cleared of the toxic gas build up. They have tubes running all the way through the mines that provide compressed air. They use the air to work the drills and to clear the air of the toxic gas. The air is provided by a different company and they pay £1 an hour for the air, a lot in Bolivia. It turns out the toxic gas miners we had seen were stealing the air from the drilling miners! We then went to visit Teo, the God of the mine, except that he is actually the devil. There are statues of him throughout the mines and the miners leave offerings for him such as coca leaves. We handed out our gifts as we went along and finally I could see daylight. Thank Teo for that! Our hands were caked in the dust and mud and our noses (even though we had masks) black. You would not want to see what came out of my nose later that day (sorry Mommy).

Once back at the hostel we got cleaned up and headed straight to the bus station, but not to get a bus. It was £2 each on the bus to Sucre but for £5 each, we could get a taxi which cut 1 hour off the 3 hour journey. So here we are in Sucre. Not sure where to next.

I would like to add that the comments being left are so lovely, some surprisingly so! These mean a lot to us. Keep em coming

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


5th October 2011

Waah, this blog was terrifying. I read it through my fingers in case it ended with you saying "and now we're trapped down here forever."
5th October 2011

wow you guys are mad! I would have lasted 5 mins in that mine! Pics are fantastic! I wish I\'d got you to write your itinerary down for me before you left so I know where your going next! I can\'t wait to read which exciting city is coming! Can you put it on your facebook? Keep living the dream and stay safe xxx
5th October 2011

Panic set in the minute you mentioned mine.Claustrophobia and hyper ventilation all through reading this blog. You brave pair of Trekkers!
13th October 2011

Hi Ho Hi Ho it's off to work we go... How brave, I don't know if I could have done this :-o and you had to mention the Boggie word :-b

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