Potosi

Trip Start Apr 05, 2008
1
15
Trip End Aug 07, 2008


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Sunday, June 8, 2008

We got up at 8.30 on Sunday to get our stuff ready to leave Uyuni for Potosi, our bus was at 10am so we got breakfast first. Five of us went to a local cafe where we got really nice muesli. After breakfast we went to the bus street to get our six hour bus. The bus was grand typically Bolivian with locals standing in the isle. About half way through the journey we stopped for a toilet break, some of the girls paid to pee in a hole in the ground in the public toilet, Paddy and Dermot went by the side of a building like the locals. The rest of the trip was grand and we arrived in Potosi at around 3.30pm. We got two taxis to a hostel recommended in the lonely planet and thankfully they had enough room for us all. We got settled in and relaxed for a few hours before all 8 of us went out to dinner. We went to a really nice restaurant just off the main plaza. Nearly everyone had 3 courses and drinks, we also had 5 bottles of wine. It was lovely and so cheap, it came to a total of 10 Euro each including tip.

We got up on Monday at 8.50am and got breakfast, while eating we found out that all routes in and out of Potosi were going to be blocked at midnight indefinitely by miners unhappy with the amount if tax they had to pay. We decided to go to the silver mines in the afternoon and leave for Sucre when we got back. The mine trip was at 1pm, only six of us went because two of the girls get a little claustrophobic. We went for lunch just before 12.30 and got probably one of the worst meals on our trip to date. The bus for the mining trip collected us at 1.15pm and our first stop was to collect our mining gear, we then went to the miners market where we picked up minerials, coca leaves and explosives as presents for the miners. We got back on the bus and made our way to the refinery where we met our first group of miners a few of them stood behind us waiting for the coca leaves to be handed out. Miners work between 8 and 12 hours a day without food and chew the coca leaves to fight off fatigue and hunger. In the refinery they break the stones down and produce a material with a concentration of 30% silver. This material is sent out of the country to be refined further because the Bolivian government can't afford to buy the refining machinery.

After the refinery it was time to go to the mines, we were all a bit nervous at this stage but were determined to do it. Our group was first into the mine with our guide Juan, the first part was ok, we could stand most of the time bar a few areas where there were pipes or wooden supports put in place to stop the roof collapsing. After walking into the mountain for 400m we got to the first level where it started to get warmer and there was a very strong smell of urine. We stopped for a short break and our guide pointed out the asbestos and arsenic on the walls and roof. The pathway was really dusty and we had to keep our bandannas up all the time. The next part of the trip was to the mines second level which was 25m down, this was pretty steep and slippy and it was best to go down on your ass. After a few minutes we made it to the second level where there wasn't enough room to stand only sit. Our guide had told us that there weren't going to be many miners working today because they were at a funeral of a miner who had been sick for four months and was in his early 50's. He died from silicosis which is the main killer for miners, after so many years in the mines they inhale so much dust and toxins that their lungs are eventually eaten away. There was only two miners working on level 2. 
        To get to the first miner we had to crawl on our bellies up a slight hill through a very small hole for about 2.5 meters, this was probably the worst part of the whole thing. When we all got through we were out of breath and were gob-smacked at the way the guy was working, he used only manual tools and every time he hot the chisel he made a heart wrenching noise. He was working down there for himself and his family for the past six years knowing that this would significantly shorten his life. The average life expectancy for a miner is only 40 years old and if they start in the mines when they are 10 they may only live to be 28. The youngest person in the mine we visited was a 13 year old boy. Once we had finished catching our breath we went back to level 2 where our guide told us we could go down to level 3 but we would have to do it on our own. He told us what we would have to do and we all agreed we would try it. 
        We first had to crawl about 20 meters where we passed a miner who was taking a break chewing on coca leaves, we then had to climb over a wooden support about 1.5 meters high and then go down an almost vertical 25 meter shaft while passing under metal supports. We were now on the third level and could once again stand up, the third level was even warmer than the second. We walked about 15 meters further into the mountain and came across a ladder back up to the second level where our guide was. Once we got back up to the second level we began making our way to the first level, this time the smell of urine was like fresh air and it seemed so much cooler than when we came in.
        Before we left the mine we stopped in the museum area where there was a model of a devil that they call Tio. The miners sacrifice llama and throw blood at the entrance of the mine once a year in the hope that the devil will not want miners blood to be spilt. They also make offerings of coca leaves and 96% alcohol every so often to keep the devil happy. Over 15,000 people work in the 500 mines in Potosi, 800 of which are children as young as 10 years old, each mine also has its own devil to worship.

Once we made it outside we had a bit of time to recover before they blew up the dynamite we had. They got the dynamite ready and lit the first one in Maireads hand for a picture, all the rest of the dynamite was lit form this and they were passed around for about 1 minute for more pictures. The ex-miners then took the dynamite and legged it down the road before burying it, a few of the smaller ones exploded first but the last explosive was packed with 11 sticks of dynamite and made a massive explosion sending a cloud of dust into the air and a shock wave over to us, only in Bolivia could this happen.

After the explosions we returned to the hostel and got showers before our taxies arrived at 7pm to take us the 197km to Sucre, the taxies cost 40Bs each (less than 4 Euro) and took just over 2 hours of what was one of the scariest car trips ever. We first went to a hostel recommended in the lonely planet but it didn't have enough space for us all which was grand because it was about 2 km outside of the town. The taxi driver then recommended a place to us which did have enough space and we checked into it. We then went for some food and drinks.
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