Potosi and La Paz

Trip Start Jan 14, 2009
Trip End May 2010

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Thursday, March 19, 2009

For those of you world travelers that have visited Potosí, the highest city of it's size and the historic site for silver mining, this entry will be review for you.

A Classic Bolivian Bus Story

After four days packed in our jeep, we jumped at the opportunity to do some more off-roading with our new friends-but this time in bus. But not just any bus. Any bus from Bolivia, which means it's usually built in in the 1960's or 70's and neither the overhead lights, windows, nor reclining seats work. Sounds great, no? We thought so, at least against staying a night in Uyuni, so we left Uyuni at 6:30pm, to arrive in Potosě at about 12:30am.

The road from Uyuni to Potosí is another Bolivian classic: bumpy, often washed-out dirt road that has to climb to 4000 meters to reach the town of Potosí, winding up steep, sheer canyons some with several-hundred-meter drop-offs. We all agreed that given these conditions, it was probably best we took the road in the dark so we couldn't see what we were getting into!

Some of us faired better on this ride than others. We stopped in a small, roadside pueblo halfway to relieve ourselves. Almost none of the Bolivian buses have toilets, so you really have to get tough and find a bush like the locals do.

We also picked up more people at this stop--all locals. This was where Emma, our friend from Tupiza and the salar trip, met her new friends. Sitting in the back row, the locals, who reaked of Bolivian whiskey, turned on their stereo in the middle of the night (a South American phenomenon you will find on most bus rides), drank and smoked cigarettes and marijuana. When they finally calmed down, the guy closest to Emma got even closer. He passed out with his head resting on her shoulder! (I can't overstate how pungent these dudes were. Emma, you're one tough girl!)

Potosě and the Mines

With all this, we arrived in Potosí safely at 1am and took a taxi to the Koala Den Hostal for some real rest (this is a great place to stay for Bolivia! Moderate prices, good location, neat space, spacious rooms all with private baths, and breakfast with eggs for a change.)

The next day was a rest day, especially since Lindsey got food poisoning again. It was a fast recovery this time though!

The beautiful tourist office in Potosí

From the top of the old colonial building connected to the tourist office, you can get a great view of the city.

Lindsey creeping back down the narrow stairs of this building.

On our second day in Potosí, we took a trip into the mines. The night before, we watched The Devil's Miner, a film created in Potosí, to get a good background on the present-day mining culture.

Lindsey doing push-ups outside the mines. Though we haven't put her push-ups in all our blog entries, if you follow the flickr link at the end of each blog, there is usually a pic of her doing push-ups in the area.

By the end of the 18-century, Potosí had grown into the largest and wealthiest city in Latin America. In the height of mining, there were millions of people here, working in the mines. Spanish conquistadors brought slaves from Africa, and millions of lives have been claimed by the mines over centuries of exploitation.

Today, Potosí and the rest of Bolivia are much poorer and there are fewer miners. Five years ago, there was about 5k-7k miners, of which about 800 were children. Today, there is only about 2,500 miners, including about 80 children. This is due to a few reasons: 1) there are fewer minerals in the mines to extract, 2) the current president, Evo Morales, has severed relationships with some of the highest exporters from the mines, and 3) ths cost for these minerals has gone down significantly. The third is the biggest contributor to the declining number of miners, and they predict that the mines will close down in the next 10 to 15 years, but no one knows for sure.

Potosí from the mining mountains

Despite the decline in price, miners still make more money that average, which is why so many people still choose this hard life. The average Bolivian makes about 600 bolivianos (BS)/mo., less than $100 USD. In the mines, there are 3 classes of miners. The 3rd class, who usually works in the mines from 0-3 years and usually does the hardest manual labor, makes between 600-800 BS/mo. The 2nd class, usually 3-7 years in the mintes but sometimes more, makes about 1200-1400 BS/mo. And the 1st class, usually the bosses of each mine, can make up to 3000 BS/mo.

Using a chemical process to separate the minerals from the soil, they can determine exactly how much the miner will make for their efforts.

Runners dumping one ton of minerals and metals gathered from the cable car.

Once the contents are dumped, they have to shoveled into smaller buckets that are pulled up by hand by winches. Ben and other tourists helping shovel the contents into these smaller buckets.

Lindsey showing off the product of some of the mine. This is mostly silver, but they also mine gold, zinc, and tin.

The miner's life is not easy. Most miners work from 8am to 6pm in the dark tunnels of the mines with NO FOOD. There is so much dust in the mines that is is impossible to eat food down there, so instead, they drink soda for the sugar and place coca leaves in their cheeks for strength and to suppress hunger. Therefore, we bought coca leaves, soda and dynamite (the stick of dynamite, the fuse, and the bag of amonium nitrite is called ¨Completo¨ or the complete dynamite) for the miners.

A 2nd class miner, 44 years old, who has worked in the mines for 30 years, chewing the coca leaves we gave him. Lindsey also gave this father of 9 some cash to buy dinner.

There are 5 levels in the mines and it gets so hot in the lower levels that the miners in these levels have to work semi-naked to somewhat tolerate the 35 to 45-degree celsius temps (95 to 110-degrees fahrenheit).

Linsey crawling through the mine shaft to come up from level 3. What took us about 35 minutes to enter and exit the mines takes the miners two minutes!

But probably most notably about working in the mines is the dust. The dust has such a strong smell that you can tell who is a miner just by their smell (we had to take two showers just to get rid of the smell after just two hours in the mines!). The kids get made fun of at school for being miners because of the smell. But the dust is more than just burdensome. The dust, over time, kills many miners through pulmonary diseases such as silicosis, or the black lung. Many miners have at least some degree of this disease. The average lifespan of a miner is between 50 and 60 years.

Dust particles inevitably in the way of our photo of the tour group in the mine

In addition to fearing death from silicosis, all miners have a fear of the Tio, the devil in the mines. They believe that a devil lives inside the mines and if you make him happy by giving him offerings or by spilling llama blood outside the entrance to the mines, the Tio will drink the llama's blood instead of the miner's and will be happy with the miner for their offerings and not kill them with tunnel collapses. To keep the Tio happy, they give daily offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes to the Tio shrine that is constructed in their mine. There is a shrine in each of the 400 mines in the mountain. It is said that the miners believe more in the Tio than in God, and their entire life is in fear of angering the Tio.

The Tio from our mine. He is decorated and has coca leaves scattered at his feet from previous offerings.

More pics from our experience:

Lindsey putting coca leaves in her mouth. The catalyst that makes the coca leave affective tastes aweful!

One of the warning signs

At the end of the tour, the guides taught us now to make explosions from the ¨completo¨ dynamite setup.

Lindsey holding the dynamite after it has been lit. This was a movie but uploaded as a picture, so we appologise for the graininess!

Here's a video of dynamite explosions as demonstration for us tourists (copy and paste into a browser):

While we had far more fun in the mines during our tour than the miners working there do, the closephobia, headaches, and dust, along with learning about the harsh lifestyle, made us all very thankful for our jobs.

La Paz

We left Potosí for La Paz, Bolivia's capital city. La Paz was built in a canyon created by the Choqueyapu River (now mostly built over), which runs northwest to southeast. The city's main thoroughfare, which roughly follows the river, changes names over its length, but the central tree-lined section running through the downtown core is called the Prado. Above La Paz is the Cordillera Real mountain range, these are huge, snow-capped peaks!

La Paz' geography (in particular, altitude) reflects society: the lower (geographically) residents go, the more affluent. While many middle-class residents live in high-rise condos near the center, the houses of the truly affluent are located in the lower neighborhoods southwest of the Prado. And looking up from the center, the surrounding hills are plastered with makeshift brick houses of those of less economic fortune. The satellite city of El Alto, in which the airport is located, is spread over a broad area to the west of the canyon, on the Altiplano. It sits at the high point of the canyon in La Paz

La Paz is renowned for its unique markets, very unusual topography, and traditional culture.

A throng of old people, so cute!

We spent most of our time near the Witches Market, buying crafts and enjoying wonderful city food like Moroccan (Marakesh), Indian (The Star of India), and Thai (Old Thai Town). We also sampled the Bolivian fusion in the business district during one night with some wonderful family friends. (Great seeing you, Ricardo, Daniella, and Rodrigo!)

The Witches Market is famous for its llama fetuses, which people bury under their business for good luck. Very different from our culture!

Lindsey trying on the local Bolivian shalls. This one, fancier than most, costs 400 BS or $55 USD!

Enjoynig the amazing Moroccan flavours at Marakesh

We did manage to squeeze a day of climbing in wihtout having to leave the city boundaries...

This rock, clearly in a schoolyard, felt like an outdoor wall the a climbing gym! So easy!

Closer view of the climbing routes

We met a local and let him climb on our rope. Because climbing is so expensive, few people in La Paz have the ability to be a climber. This guy happened to know the guys that Ben climbed with in La Paz three years ago!

View of the reddish canyons from the climbing wall, which hosts another climbing area.

A typical house in the neighborhood in which we were climbing. Clearly, we were not where the average population lives!

By the time we left La Paz and headed to Puno and Lake Titicacca, we gathered a much better understanding of the Bolivian people and political conspiracies and dictatorship that Bolivians have to endure in present times. Despite these struggles, Bolivia remains an expansive, gorgeous, and unique place to visit.

Here's a link to other photos and videos from this area:
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benandlindsey on

Re: La Ciudad en El Techo del Mundo
Thanks, Sal! We miss having you along on the ride. We did actually catch a HUGE parade in Potosì where the women wore shiney outfits with short skirts and the men were twirling the bang bang, drums, and tubas, just as you describe it, but unfortunately that was the day I had food poisoning and didn't have our camera on us. We thought for sure our friend would have caught it and we'd be able to steel photos from her but she also got sick. Oh well. Here's a link to a wonderful set from someone else on flickr of a parade just like the one we saw: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hydropeek/sets/72157606511161747/

therunningdog on

Good commentary!
I'll need to keep the life of these miners in mind for perspective when I bitch and whine about the low quality of my telemark skis!!!

Sent humbly from my iPhone.

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