Deeper Underground

Trip Start Jun 12, 2011
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Trip End Oct 22, 2012


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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Our first stop was just a quick one to break up the journey, on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca in Copacabana. The problems with travel in Bolivia were immediately apparent when the next day we tried to get a bus to La Paz.  The Bolivian miners were striking due to ownership issues, and formed road blocks, which meant the normal public buses were not running.  After some failed negotiations with taxi drivers who were charging rip off prices we managed to catch a bus a couple of hours later, the bus simply off-roading to avoid the big piles of rocks blocking the road.  We also had to cross Lake Titicaca on a separate boat to our bus, which was ferried across the lake in a transport carrier boat, a strange site.

In La Paz we did not do much except buy souvenirs.  We were pondering the Death Road but we did the bike ride in Peru and in the end our decision was made for us by the miners as we had to stick around to arrange our onward travel which was thwarted for at least a day by the strikes.  In the end, we managed to get on a night bus to Tupiza.  Bolivian night bus journeys being a far cry from the uber VIP busses of Peru with bumpy roads and no toilets on board and the toilet stops are just a wall for us men and the ladies have to find a dark corner, no wonder the Bolivian ladies wear these big skirts! 

Tupiza is a little cowboy town, which in the 1800's attracted the attention of the infamous North American gun slingers, Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid due to the gold mines in the area.  They were subsequently killed about 100km North West of there in a shoot out in San Vincente.

We set off on our 4 day Unyi salt flats tour the following day with La Torre Tours.  There’s nothing quite like gunning across the desert in a 4x4 on dirt tracks seemingly with no disenable markings as to which direction is correct. The scenery was totally awe inspiring, from red mountains and jaggered rocks, rocks eroded by sand into bizarre shapes,  to sandy desert, obviously culminating in the huge white expanse of the salt flats.  There were also many lakes on the journey. The great blue lake, with its mirror image reflection of the snow capped mountain ranges behind it looked amazing and the number of flamingos seemed to increase at each lake we visited over the next few days.  The blue lake, white lake and the lake of colours providing an amazing sight at each. There was even a hot spring at one so we could warm up and take a dip.

At night we stayed in little villages where our cook Nancy would cook us up a feast.  The villages were very basic and most of the houses were mud construction of some kind,  electricity was supplied by solar panels but there was no heating, and the temperature dropped to around -5 degrees at night (brr!) luckily however we had big thick sleeping bags so we were nice and snug.  Star gazing was also great, as there was no light pollution and the milky way was clearly visible.  Our guide Elvis also showed us the Cruz del Sur (southern cross - constellation).

On our final evening we stayed in a salt hotel next to the Unuyi Salt Flats. The walls, tables and beds were made of salt and the floor inside was covered with thick salt crystals so it was like walking on snow throughout the whole place. The next morning we awoke before sunrise and sped across the salt flats in the 4x4 listening to Hendrix as the sun rose Illuminating the flats gleaming and shimmering white as far as you can see. We then visited the island  called Inca Wassi or Incas home, which is where the Incas would stop over night to break up their journey when crossing the salt flats.

The tour ended in Unyuni at 1:00pm, as there wasn’t a bus to Potosi (our next destination) until 7pm and as there were four of us we tried to find a taxi.  In the end we found one for the right price but his condition was that his wife and 2 year old child had to come with us. So we all jumped in the car (an estate), with Simon from Spain in the (parcel shelf free) boot.  At the  check point leaving town however the police fined our driver for allowing Simon to sit in the boot and insisted his wife and child switch with him, not sure how putting a child in the boot is better  but there you go. 

We then found ourselves in Potosi, a place famous for its silver mines but also infamous for the amount of miners that have died in the mines, (8 million in colonial times – the main contributing factor to the change of the population dynamics in Latin America at that time) and miners today still work in terrible conditions.  I decided to take a tour of the mines, whilst Clare thought the enclosed spaces might prove to be a little too claustrophobic for her.  The mines are in Cerro Rico (rich hill) which has 140km of tunnels running through it,  making it look like Swiss cheese if you took a cross section of it.  Before heading into the mines, it’s customary to buy the miners gifts, which we did at the local miners market, buying sticks of dynamite, coca leaves and pure ethanol alcohol (a good combination?) amongst other things for them.

The mines themselves had no light inside so the only light provided is from our head torches which are strapped to the helmets that you wear.  Most of the time we were stooped quite low, as the ceiling was very low, which made walking quite difficult.  Not to mention there was plenty of dust around especially when they were working to chisel out minerals looking for silver and zinc. We only descended 3 levels to 40m however even that was quite tough work, in some places having to crawl flat as the tunnels weren’t big enough to do so on your hands and knees.  The temperature in places was up to 30 degrees, extremely hot considering how thin the air was and made it difficult to breath and we weren’t even doing any physical labour!  In the bigger mines they go down 17 levels and 500m, a scary thought, considering they often use dynamite to blow up the minerals.

They also have tones of rubber pipes lining the ceiling which provide compressed air for the pneumatic drills.  However a lot of the pipes leak producing loud noise.  The dust and gasses in the air mean that most of the miners contract silicosis of the lungs, which most eventually die from.

There are trolleys which operate on small rail road tracks which run through the entire mine, full of minerals and pushed around the mines at speed. If you hear 'trolley!’ then you have to jump to the sides as it cannot stop and you don’t want to be hit by it! It reminded me of Indiana Jones. Each mine also has a effigy of the devil which they call ‘Tio’ although actually meaning ‘Uncle’ in Spanish, the real name is ‘Dio’ (meaning devil), however there was no ‘d’ letter in the quechua language. They give it offerings of coca leaves and alcohol, and offerings of dead llama or llama blood as they believe this appeases the devil, which stops him from killing them in the mines.  

Most of the miners work in a miners corporative, with people called ‘members’, at the top of the food chain. The members buy the tools for the miners to use, they pay the miners a minimal wage based on the weight of the minerals found, but they kept the profits of the silver for themselves.  We were told the miners usually work between 6-8 hours daily but I think many work a lot longer than that often working double shifts.  The youngest miners currently working were around 14 years old (or maybe younger), while the oldest was around 53.  The life expectancy for the average miner is 20 – 30 years, greatly decreased depending on what job you are doing.  For example, the guys using the pneumatic drill are exposed to so much dust and toxic fumes at the bottom of the mines their life exponentially lower.  They also chew a lot of coca leaves, to take away the feeling of hunger.  I recommend the documentary film ‘the devils miner’ about a 14 yr old boy who works in the mines and his family.  Its very interesting to find out about this way of life, but also very sobering that people have to live this way, just to scrape by.

We then moved onto Sucre a small colonial city where we visited the main attraction of 5000 dinosaur footprints that have been preserved in a cliff face close to the city.  These were found in a concrete works by accident around ten years ago but as they are difficult to preserve they are slowly eroding away. After Sucre we move onto Santa Cruz despite the miners continuing strikes.  The bus journey was a nightmare as we were sat at the front with twisting dusty mountain paths so we could see all the scary roads and driving first hand!  We did however arrive in one piece at our last stop before heading into Brasil, and noticed that there had been people travelling in the luggage compartment under the bus.  Must have been horrid as our bags were coated in a thick layer of dust!  Our hostel in Santa Cruz had a pet Toucan called Simon, who was quite friendly, but we think was lonely, as they had clipped his wings so he couldn’t fly away and be with his buddies.

 We then took the train overnight from Bolivia into Brazil the next day... our last Country, SCARY!
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