Trip Start Sep 03, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Hostal La Casona Potosi
Read my review - 2/5 stars

Flag of Bolivia  , Potosí,
Thursday, December 16, 2010

I arrived at the highest city in the world (4070m) at 5am and I was definitely disoriented when I got off the bus.  The freezing cold outside woke me up pretty quickly and I left the bus terminal to head into town.  I don't know why I didn't take a taxi, but right outside the station were minibuses.  I approached one, asked if he was heading to the center, and hopped on for 1 Bs (~$0.14).  A taxi would've cost 10 Bs. 

The first hostel that I checked (Hostal La Casona) said that they would have a single room available after checkout (10:30am) and I agreed.  I saw a flier for a mine tour at 9am offered through the hostel, but was a bit hesitant after reading the following from my Lonely Planet:

"The cooperative mines are not museums but working mines that are fairly nightmarish places.  Anyone planning to take a tour needs to realize that there are risks involved.  People with medical problems - especially claustrophobia, asthma and other respiratory conditions - should avoid these tours.  While medical experts note that limited exposure from a few hours' tour is extremely unlikely to cause any lasting health impacts, if you have any concerns whatsoever about exposure to asbestos or silica dust, you should not enter the mines.  Accidents can also happen - explosions, falling rocks, runaway trolleys, etc.  For these reasons, all tour companies make visitors sign a disclaimer absolving them completely from any responsibility for injury, illness or death - if your tour operator does not, choose another.  Visiting the mines is a serious decision.  If you're undeterred, you'll have an eye-opening and unforgettable experience."

After talking with Tim (an Aussie) over breakfast about great his tour was the previous day, I decided to sign up.  I had some time to kill before I was able to check in anyway.  Tim suggested that I ask for a guide named Chuco (pronounced choo-ko).

The tour cost 80 Bs (~$11.42), but there was a hidden cost of 40 Bs for gifts for the miners that we were going to meet.  What kind of gifts, you ask?

5 Bs - gloves (that we would use, then give)
3 Bs - a bag of coca leaves
7 Bs - 1 L of juice
25 Bs - dynamite (+ fuse, detonator, and ammonium nitrate)

Yes, dynamite.

The tour started at the back of the hostel where we got our gear:
- Rain boots
- Pants
- Jacket (rubberish)
- Helmet
- Belt
- Headlamp

After gearing up, we were taken to a street known as the Miner's market where they sell the usual dynamite and stuff.  Chuco told us that it's the only place ire you can buy dynamite on the street.  It wasn't hard to believe him.

We got back into the minibus and were taken to a vantage point from where we could see all of Potosi.  While we were there, he took out a small bottle of alochol.  He told us that this stuff is for "machos" and that "little girls" shouldn't drink it.  He poured a capful for each of us and told us that this is what the miners drink.  For being 96% alcohol it tasted really good and sweet.  It burned for a solid minute and then I started to feel sleepy.  A small bottle costs 4 Bs (~$0.57).  A liter of it will run you 10 Bs.  Too bad I can't take it back home

Chuco turned out to be a really funny, but crazy kind of guy.  I wasn't sure if I trusted him right away, but he definitely knew what he was doing.  He had been a miner himself, but was no longer allowed to work in the mines after a caving accident ripped a gash in one of his wrists.
Next we went to a hill overlooking a processing plant were minerals are separated.  There was a huge pile of pure zinc and a lake of arsenic below.  Drinking that water will put you in a sleep from which you won't awake.  A painless death, but a guaranteed fatality.

Our last stop was the mine, where we would spend the next 2 hours.  Before we entered, we saw a couple groups of 2-3 guys pushing a mine cart out.  Chuco told us that the cart itself weighs 200kg and the minerals weight 1000kg.  That's over a ton they're pushing along.

Being the highest city in the world, I kept losing my breath while walking around in the mines.  It wasn't in and of itself a difficult trip, but with the air being so thin and having to crouch often, I was wheezing almost every time we stopped.  

Chuco primed and ignited 2 pieces of dynamite, the first time without ammonium nitrate and the second time with.  The sound of the explosion of the second one was significantly greater.  We got to see a couple groups of miners work and learned that they work 12 hours shifts and don't eat a meal during that time.  Instead, they chew on coca leaves almost the entire time which suppresses hunger and tiredness.

Towards the end of the tour, Chuco introduced us to Tio.  Tio means uncle in Spanish, but is basically the devil.  Groups of miners make a little shrine to the devil to acknowledging that he is in charge of the underworld (the mines) and ask for his blessings to find good minerals (especially silver in Potosi).  They offer him cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol.  Chuco took us to the biggest Tio in the mine and told us that you're supposed to grab his penis with your left hand and drink alcohol from your right so that Tio will bless you with fertility.

It was nice to leave the mine had have fresh air.  Two hours in there was more than enough time and I'm glad I went on the tour.  Overall it was really informative and fun. 

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gf on

Quote "Chuco turned out to be a really funny, but crazy kind of guy. I wasn't sure if I trusted him right away, but he defintely"

Sir, you never finished your sentence.

bk on

lot of typos this time. the dynamita videos made up for it.

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