Potosi and Sucre: Tio of the Mine and Dinosaurios

Trip Start Aug 09, 2007
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Trip End Jul 29, 2008


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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Friday, March 21, 2008

After our tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats, Nik and I took care of some laundry and set out on our 6 hour dirt-road journey to the World's Highest City and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Potosi, located at an altitude of 4090m.  We saw snow during our climb up the highway despite that it is summer here - needless to say, the climate was cool and crisp, and the sun also intense.  Beautiful weather!! And a beautiful town, very colonial due to the large Spanish presence here from the 1500`s.  Why were the Spanish so interested in this city?  Because of the mountain full of silver and the abundance of cheap Bolivian labour of course!
 
Potosi was founded in 1546 and quickly became one of the largest cities in the world with a population of over 200,000.  This population and interest was driven by the presence of Cerro Rico (`Rich Mountain`) which is filled with silver, lead, zinc and copper - over 5.5 million metric tons of ore.  This mine was then and is today the principal economic activity of Potosi.  The abundance of minerals and the control of the mine are the only things that have changed. 
 
In the first 225 years, over 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined.  The Spanish had control of this mine and used the Bolivian people to extract the minerals.  However, due to the extreme number of Bolivian's dying due to mercury exposure and other harsh working conditions, the Spanish subsidized this work force by importing approximately 2000 African slaves each year.  These slaves worked in both the mines as well as the mint, serving as mules and turning the mills that made Spanish coins. 
 
After 1825 when Bolivia declared independence from Spain, the mine continued to be important to the country (shown on their coat of arms) but there was considerably more tin and less silver being mined.  Today, the mine is owned by Bolivia's National Mining Company (COMIBOL) but the actual miners are organized into cooperatives.  Typically indigenous workers (Quechan decent), they divide themselves into teams of about 8 people and lease their respective section of the mine from the government for 6% of their earnings.  The conditions are still extremely harsh and most miners who enter the mine are said to die within 10 years - and certainly not exceeding 40 or 50 years of age - due to the effects of silicosis.  It is said that over 8 million people have died in the mines since its beginning.  Because it is a cooperative, any safety equipment or mining supports come directly from their own pockets and, as a result, the mines are crudely supported and of the same condition they were 450 years ago.
 
Nik and I endeavored to visit one of the mines in this largely excavated mountain.  We arranged a tour with Greengo tours and left that afternoon with Julio Caesar, an ex-miner himself, to explore the inside.  First we made a stop at the infamous Miner's Market where we are able to buy simple gifts of coca leaves, pop and cigarettes for the miner's who you'll visit that day (and obviously interrupt!).  Miner's typically live around this market as well as it has cheap accommodations, cheap food, and close proximity to the mine.  You need to buy your coca leaves from one specific lady as she is licensed by the government to sell the leaves to the miner.  They are expected to consume 100g of coca leaves each day - therefore if she exceeds this average number, she is suspected of selling that excess to the black market which is then used for the production of cocaine. 
 
After buying our gifts and slipping into our finest mining gear of rubber boots, rain suits, helmets and a head-lamp, we took a collectivo (public micro-bus) to Cerro Rico.  Julio has a private agreement with one of the mine shafts which is great - we don't see other tourists, he knows all the miners personally, and the miners aren't bothered by an onslaught of tourists either.  Actually, as Nik and I were the only ones with Julio, and since I didn't go in, it was a really personal experience for Nik.  I knew initially that I was just more interested in the history etc of the mine and less interested in going in, and when we approached the tiny black hole on the side of the mountain, I was pretty sure I wasn't going in.  I ventured in no more than 100 feet I'm sure.  It is just nothing but a small, crude black tunnel, maybe 5-1/2 feet high at most, 3 feet wide, and it literally looks like it goes into a black abyss.  There are rail tracks below your feet (for the trolley's to dump their loads outside) along with mud and puddles, there are some wooden supports around you, some air compressor lines loosely strung above your head, and the air is thick and humid.  And this was apparently the best part of the mine.  Oh, and the mountain - which is literally mined from top to bottom over 450 years - is also settling by the way.  I thought I'd bide my time chatting with the miners outside - a hilarious and wonderful experience in itself.

We all enter the mine together, Julio then Sarah then me taking up the back.  After walking about 30m into the mine Sarah gets a little freaked out and exits the mine.  Don't blame her; it was pretty nuts in the mine.  Once entering the mine I had to keep a crouched walk the entire time, after I got out about 1.5hrs later my quads were burning.  The mine is built for Bolivians so no parts of the mine are greater than 6ft (1.8m). 

Julio and I walked until we ran into some of the miners pushing a cart full of rock.  We chatted for a bit and then I gave them some of the Soda that I bought for them at the Miners Market.  After the brief encounter, we headed to a place where some of the workers were drilling holes.  The mining conditions are horrendous and I was in a good mine, the other groups (tours) I heard of had lots of dust entering and also the chemicals that leached from the mine produce very noxious chemicals.  Luckily our mine had 4cm of water throughout most of the mine, which really kept the dust to a minimum. 

We ended up to where men were drilling, there was a man positioned right by a winch and a compressed air valve that were 15m above a shaft.  The man was to turn the valve in approximately 45min (he had 3 watches to remind him) at this point the men down the shaft would stop drilling and then place dynamite into the holes and then light the fuse, they would have 6 minutes to get out of there before BOOOOM.  I really didn't want to be in the mine either when the explosives went off.  Julio noticed a huge boulder that had fallen from the top of the mine roof to the floor.  The boulder was really close to the valve guy, so he asked him about the boulder - the man shrugged and laughed - so Julio told the valve man to be very careful.  Interesting part of Co-Op mining industry is they look at safety as a bit of a joke and also they don't want to put in mine improvement because it takes away from the earnings of the men. 

So we left and then headed to another station of the mine.  At this station, they had blown up minerals the day before and were hauling up the stone in bags about 10kg attached to a winch.  At the bottom of the shaft men where putting ore into bags and then 2 men would hand winch up the bags and then pour it on the floor of the upper level, from here it was shoveled into carts and removed.  Julio and I got to man the winch for a couple of bags just to see how demanding it was.  The weight of the bags was not horrible, but, if I had to do that for 8-12 hrs a day that would suck, plus it is hot and there is not a lot of air circulation (no vents or fans at all). 

After the winch station we crouch-walked to where the ´Tio´ (Uncle / Devil) was.  The ´Tio´ was the guardian or god of the mine, like in Christian beliefs Heaven is up above us somewhere and Hell is below us somewhere.  However, in the indigenous beliefs the mountain is where the Devil lives, so men who remove the minerals from his domain should pay homage.  This Devil that they have set up is life size, has a hand open for chewed up coca leaves a hand open for 98% Alcohol (which the miners drink) and then a huge dong between his legs, he is also covered in streamers and the miners usually on Fridays have a bit of a party and drink with this idol.  The legend as it goes is that if they pay homage to the devil he will keep them safe in the mine and also show them new ´veins´ of minerals (zinc, tin, lead, and tiny bits of silver). 

After this Julio turned off my head lamp, which was f-ing nuts.  It was soooooo dark in the mine and it would really suck if you light went out or if the top of the mine collapsed.  At this moment I remembered Julio saying that geologists have been studying the mountain (Cerro Rico) and had came to the conclusion that the mine was settling, almost sinking.  I thought to myself that after 400 years of mining the mountain and taking out approximately 500 tones (500,000 kg) a day that eventually the mine would collapse.  This naturally spooked me so I was satisfied with the amount of time in the mine and the conditions that the miner worked through and also the darkness.  So we headed out of the mine, I can't lie I was really happy to see light at the end of the tunnel and even picked up my pace a little to get out.
 
When outside the mine we met up with Sarah who was flirting with one of the dump truck drivers and then headed into the miners house that they had.  This house was a gathering point usually where they smoked cigarettes, drank a bit, chewed coca leaves and generally just shot the shit.  I entered the low ceiling house/shack and immediate hit my hand on a live wire (jerry rigged) of some type probably for the lighting.  OWWWWWWW, the miners saw me and then told me to sit down and watch my hands and head (great health and safety), so I did.  Inside we took a bunch of photos of the miners and such and also talked about what they were doing on the weekend.  The miners really liked to take pictures with Sarah, with me not as much.  I guess they really like the white female tourists because they can flirt with them and take pictures and tell them stuff like ¨I love you, you are so beautiful, and I want to have twin babies with you¨.  With the guys not so much they usually heckle the other miners that had their photo with me, usually they would laugh and say ¨gay¨ to the miner in the photo.  All in all they were pretty good sports though.  No women workers are allowed in the mine, one reason is because of the ´Tio´ and they women are supposed to be bad luck for finding ´veins´.  Another reason is something to do with the Pachamama (Mother Earth) legend of the indigenous and the women and men shouldn't mix in the mine for this reason.  However, female tourists are allowed in the mine, because they bring extra revenue to the miners and also gifts (coca, soda, cigarettes) and then the miners can flirt with the girls or even have their photo with them.  After the mine we headed back into the centre and then took it easy.        

We visited the Casa Real de la Monedas (the old Potosi Mint) that was active during the peak of the mine.  The museum was very well preserved - we were able to see the smelting rooms where they created ingots of silver, the subsequent mill to flatten the ingots, and the stamping area where they created the initially crude coins that were later improved to be quite round and detailed.  These coins were used in Spain primarily, but were stamped with the letters PTSI superimposed on each other - this is believed to be the origin of the dollar sign today ($).  Nik was able to stamp his own coins here by hammering down on a two sided die with a piece of cut silver between the die.  He made one in bronze and one in silver and they look amazing.  We also saw some artifacts from Bolivian history including items they used in their three main wars (of which they lost all three), some preserved mummies of small children (hard to look at), and an old lock box that contained donations made to the King of Spain.  This lock box contained a slot to deposit donations to the King and once it was filled, it would be locked and sent by boat to Spain for the King's enjoyment.  The interesting this was that these boxes had several false keyholes and only one real and hidden keyhole.  Actually, sometimes you would have to have three keys entered and turned in a very specific order into these hidden keyholes that would then activate a series of twelve locks.  Only then could this box be opened.  Very serious business.  Unfortunately, all these high-tech keyholes could not protect the treasure from the likes of the ocean, which is where many of them ended up as many of these boats sank en route to Spain.  The US recovered one of these said boxes filled with an unreal amount of Potosi's silver (worth over $400 Million Dollars)  - they were nice enough to send Potosi two coins from this collection. 
 
We also visited an old nun's convent called Santa Teresa, founded in 1685.  It was a very interesting tour in an excellently preserved convent.  We learned that typically the second daughter of the aristocratic families (Spanish families) would be expected to join the convent.  They would be admitted where 1) there was room available as the convent only held 21 women, and 2) when the family made a significant dowry-like contribution to the convent (I forget the exact number but it was in the order of hundreds-of-thousands of dollars in today's money).  If by chance a family could not afford this, that girl would be admitted but would have to live on the second floor of the convent and do all the cooking and cleaning duties for the other, more wealthy nuns.   They lived a life of complete separation.  They were not permitted to leave the convent - if they needed items, they were admitted through a turnstile to the inside of the convent so that they were never seen.  They could have a supervised family visit of 1 hour each month, but still their family could not see them (due to a black curtain) or touch them (due to a spiked grate serving as a window).  They spent part of their time making elaborate pieces of clothing for use in the church or for sale.  We also saw the barbed pieces they used for flagellation.  The artwork was amazing inside, as was the extremely elaborate system of keys that they used.  I don't know how they ever opened a single door in their - 1000`s of keys, none of them marked.
 
Other than that, we ate some amazing pizza for our Easter celebration.  There really wasn't much happening in Potosi - we think everyone makes pilgrimages away from the town. 
 
We went to Sucre the next day and were more disappointed than anything.  We took a private car there with 4 passengers total.  En route, we stopped at a check point where the guy in the front seat was bellowing for something to drink from the street-side vendors.  A 13-year old girl came up to offer him a drink.  After groping her boob, he finally bought something from her, but not without making a point to touch her again.  I was frozen in a mix of surprise, anger, sadness for this girl as it was clearly not the first time this happened, and my Spanish just was not quick enough to respond.  Luckily the lady next to us was fluent and she ripped him a new one (she was from France originally) telling him how you can go to jail for shit like that in other countries.  Never on our trip have we seen disrespect like that, not even close.  It was the first time and very shocking. 
 
Sucre was equally disappointing seemingly filled with people who were all convinced that they were number one.  We went to get some chicken for dinner and were treated horribly in this restaurant.  There was no apparent order for how to go about getting your food - and none of the 8 people working wanted to help us figure that out - they ignored us or were rude to us.  After we finally paid, we were told there was no chicken and we'd have to wait.  So we grabbed the only free table that was still dirty and sat and waited.  While other customers came and went, their tables were cleaned quickly and they were all politely talked to.  As we waited for the food to be ready, the girls stared and laughed at us.  When the food was ready, it went first to all the Spanish people who came in after us.  Another 15 minutes went by.  When the second round of food was ready, we were given our food by a snotty girl.  I had to clear our own table.  It was really unpleasant. 
 
The next day we headed to an incredibly interesting museum of indigenous weaving.  It is a cooperative set up to rejuvenate creative art, provide income and fund training of the next generation of weavers in the indigenous communities surrounding Sucre.  We saw many pieces by several tribes and learned of the significance they put into their art.  We saw a lady weaving a very intricate piece on the balcony of the museum.  The piece would take her 3 months at 8 hours a day - amazing. 
 
After this, we hopped on the Dino Truck and headed to Sucre`s claim to fame - they have dinosaur tracks up to 90cm wide preserved on the side of a mountain near their cement factory.  These prints were formed as dinosaurs tracked next to a prehistoric lake that used to exist near Sucre today.  When the lake dried and the mountains formed, these footprints were pushed steeply up the side of a mountain.  As limestone was removed from the cement factory next door, the workers noticed these mammoth tracks and stopped the excavation.  Today, it is a widely studied prehistoric area with amazing replicas of dinosaurs scattered throughout the park.  Our guide was excellent and really knowledgeable and the tracks were quite impressive, though we could not get close as previous tourists used to touch and therefore degrade the prints.  UNESCO will be covering them in latex next year to help protect them and prolong the inevitable erosion. 
 
I was feeling cruddy in Sucre and the 14 hour bus ride to La Paz was not helping the feeling much.  We decided to hop a plane for $50 (the price of a bus in Argentina, how can we *not* justify it!!?) and head to La Paz that way.  Half hour later, after a delicious snack, we arrived to Beautiful La Paz and what a breath of Fresh Air after Sucre!!
 
La Paz is amazing.  We have loved every day here and have learned much of interest about the coca leave and it`s role in Bolivian society, but that will be for the next entry.
 
Thanks as always for sharing in our adventure with us.  We love and miss you all!!
Niko y Sarita. xoxoxo
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