Sun, sand, salt and silver
01.11.2010 - 06.11.2010 30 °C
First things first, the more observant of you may notice a slightly different (better) style to the blog from this point onwards. This is thanks to my wonderful sister Jo, who has been slaving away in the cold, dark UK to craft me a custom blog layout, which I hope you'll agree looks pretty sweet.
The past couple of weeks have been so hectic that I haven't had a second to sit down and think about updating the blog, only now have I stopped to draw breath and can revisit some of the places I've seen recently. The last post left me in La Paz, recovering from my exploits climbing mountains. My stay in La Paz ended up being a few days longer than planned, as I was enjoying myself and the social life at my hostel so much. I was also encouraged to stay for Halloween, which is a much bigger event over here than in the UK. So after a fun night out dressed up on the saturday and another spectacular parade on the Sunday, I finally prepared to leave town on the Sunday evening.
This is where things all started to go a bit pear-shaped. Firstly, after my constant reminders for 2 days, I found out that the hostel had failed to book my bus ticket to Sucre, and the only alternative was to head straight to Potosi. This had the knock-on effect that the bus left a couple of hours later, so I had time for dinner. Unfortunately, as I found out about 5 hours later, this dinner gave me food poisoning and I endured a fairly unpleasant bus journey, followed by a couple of days in bed in Potosi. Ironically, the whole of Potosi had shut down for those two days for their All Saints day festival, so I couldn't have done much anyway.
On the third day I finally felt well enough to get up and out and start doing some activities. The first thing on my list was a visit to the silver mine. This is the most famous part of Potosi - a vast mountain full of silver and other minerals that has been the basis of the city's wealth since the 1500s. The mine was started by the Incas, then expanded by the Spanish to supply their empire, making Potosi the third wealthiest city in the world for a time. Today the mine is still worked, but with techniques not that disimilar to those used hundreds of years ago. A visit to the mine is recommended as one of the most interesting, but challenging, things you can do in Bolivia, as I was about to find out.
Our group was collected promptly at 8.00am and taken first to be kitted out with protective equipment including overalls, helmet and lamp. We then moved on to the miner's market, a collection of shops selling everything the miners need - tools, dynamite, alcohol and coca leaves. Our guide gave us a quick explanation of how to use dynamite (casually tossing it around without a care in the world), and also explained a bit more about the miner's use of coca. Conditions in the mine are so unpleasant that the miners couldn't endure for long without some form of artificial assistance and coca leaves have provided this since the Incas first started mining here. Chewing the leaves releases similar chemicals to cocaine (which is a highly concentrated extract form the coca leaves) and provides resistance to hunger, fatigue and some of the conditions in the mine. Ironically, the Catholic church apparently first banned coca leaves as an unchristian evil, then immediately reversed their decision and made chewing the leaves compulsory when they realised what a huge effect it had on productivity in the mines.
We then had the opportunity to buy presents for the miners we were about to visit - bags of coca leaves, alcohol and dynamite! Our next stop was at a mineral refinery where the rocks extracted by the miners are processed to extract the minerals. This was an interesting place, full of huge rock crushers, foul smelling chemicals and, at the end, small quantities of silver and other valuable metals. Our quick tour here ended with a line-up of workers holding out their hats to be filled with coca leaves, then we moved on to the main mine, further up the mountain. Cerro Rico (literally rich mountain), is a huge, scarred cone rising above the city and peppered with mine workings and other facilities.
We entered a small dark hole representing the mouth of the mine, and stumbled along the passage in the dark. It wasn't too uncomfortable to begin with, though just low enough to make you smack your head on the timber shoring on a regular basis. After 10 minutes or so we reached the end of the first level and started to descend to the next level. This involved squeezing down a narrow set of tunnels at 45 degrees. It was hot, dusty and really uncomfortable, and we began to understand just how unpleasant it would be to work here. Once down at the third level, we visited a group of working miners, which involved leaving the main shaft and crawling 20m through an even smaller tunnel. At the end of this was a slightly larger chamber with a wizened old miner bashing away at the rock with a hammer and chisel. The miners work in small collectives of between 4-20 people, with several collectives working each mine (the one we visited had about 100 active miners).
Our guide explained that the average wage in Potosi was about 700 Bolivianos a month (about $100), whereas the miners can make 1500-4500Bs a month, depending on age and experience and how rich the seam they are working is. This is why virtually the entire male population of Potosi is working in the mines or mine-related activities, despite the huge risks of rock falls and other dangers and the extremely high rates of silicosis of the lungs that the miners suffer due to breathing in all the dust for years and years. Unfortunately the estimates are that the mine only has another 40-50 years of life, and nobody knows what will happen to Potosi after that, as there are virtually no activities in the town that aren't linked to the mine. We chatted to the miners for a while, then left them goody bags of dynamite and coca and headed back out of the mine. By the time we were back at the surface we were all extemely relieved to get out of there and back to the cool fresh air. The last part of the tour was to explode a stick of dynamite. After having our photo taken with the lit dynamite, our guide ran down the hill and planted it, before racing back in time to watch it explode with a large band and cloud of dust. Not the most sustainable activity but good fun!
Later that day, after coughing up some of the dust I'd swallowed and recovering with lunch in the sun, a luxury the miners don't have, I visited the silver museum. This has an amazing collection of artifacts relating to Potosi and the minting of silver coins, all housed in a beautiful colonial building which used to be the national mint. It was really interesting to see some of the coins made here with the silver extracted from the mines, together with some of the amazing machines they used.
Finally, I had time to walk across town to a slightly odd tower, which turned out to be a slightly old and shabby rotating restaurant of all things. Sadly it wasn't rotating whilst we were there, but we still enjoyed great views of the city over a coffee.
Then it was time for me to leave Potosi, heading towards Uyuni and the border with Chile. I'd booked a seat on a bus through the hostel and headed to the street they depart from with plenty of time in hand. After waiting in front of the bus company's offices for twenty minutes wondering where the bus was, I suddenly spotted it hidden on the far side of the street behind a much larger bus. I rushed over to find that it was completely full, with not even standing room left, so despite the fact I had a reserved seat in theory, there was no room for me. Fortunately I managed to argue my case in my slightly less rudimentry Spanish, and eventually they managed to get me on another company's bus. This had the bonus that I ended up sitting next to Kevin, an Irish guy from my mine tour, who it turned out ws heading in the same direction as me. By the time we got off at Uyuni we'd also met Laura, a Brazilian girl also planning to do the same tour as us.
After a good night's sleep we were up early in Uyuni to sort out our tour of the salt flats, and just managed to squeeze onto a tour at the last minute. The salt plains are known as one of the highlights of any trip to Bolivia, so I was pretty excited as we pulled out of town in our Landcruiser. The first stop was the train graveyard, a surreal place where a heap of old steam trains have been dumped in the desert to slowly rust away.
Fortunately, rusting trains in the desert with bright blue skies make for great pictures, so I happily snapped way for half an hour before we moved on to the main event, the salt plains. These are a vast expanse of totally flat, totally white salt, on the location of a vast ancient lake bed. It's a jaw dropping sight, with nothing to see but the odd pile of salt and the silhouette of mountains in the background, shimmerig through the heat haze.
We stopped on the salt plains for lunch, giving us the opportunity to indulge in the standard salt plain activity, taking humorous pictures with distorted perspectives. Due to the lack of features, it's possible to play around with the scale of objects, so you can have a very small person sitting on another person's hand etc. It's quite hard to do convincingly, but I managed to get a couple of fairly good shots.
After a delicious lunch of BBQ llama, we drove on across the flats to our next destination; Fish Island (so called because apparently it looks like a fish from above). The island is one of the few things that rise above the flat plains, and it is also covered in cacti, which present a surreal spectacle against the salt flats beyond.
That night we stayed in a salt hotel on the edge of the flats. The entire building was built of salt, the walls, columns, even the beds. Certainly not a material I've considered using in my structures before!
The next morning we were up to watch the sun rise slowly over the salt plains, before driving on to our next destination. I had been focused on visiting the salt plains, and hadn't realised that the second day of the tour would be one of the most mind-blowing of my entire trip. We started off driving through the desert past various volcanoes, stopping for photos along the way and spotting various wildlife, including an owl and a desert fox.
The first properly stunning place we stopped at was Laguna Chulluncani, a riot of colours, from reds to blues to pink flamingos. We stopped here for an hour over lunch and I had a great time snapping away from every possible angle.
I had thought this was going to be the highlight of the day, but things got better and better as we drove through the desert, first past another beautiful laguna and then on to visit some amazing rock formations carved by the wind and sand.
Finally we headed on to Laguna Colorado, an even more stunning bright red due to the minerals in the water. This topped off an amazing day, and we were all pretty overwhelmed by the time we got to our hotel for the night.
A night of card games and enjoying the odd bottle of wine ensued, and we were all very bleary eyed when woken up at 4am the next morning. We bundled into the cars, and headed off to visit an area of geysers and steaming mud baths in time for dawn. It was pretty cool wandering around between the geysers and boling mud pots as the sun slowly rose through the steam, but we only had a few minutes before being whisked away to our next and final stop at the hot baths.
This was just the hangover cure I needed- lying in toasty hot water at 6.00am watching the sun rise, before enjoying pancakes for breakfast. All too soon we were dragged kicking and screaming from the water and had to get back into the car for the final part of our journey to the border with Chile.
This post has already gone on far too long, so I'll leave the border crossing for my next entry. With only a matter of weeks left, my trip is slowly drawing to a close, but with the whole of Chile and Argentina still to see, I'm looking forward to the remaining weeks.