The mines of Potosí

Trip Start Feb 21, 2006
Trip End Sep 11, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

After a long, grim bus ride over dusty unpaved roads we arrived in Potosě, the highest city in the world, and once the economic centre of Latin America with a bigger population than London or Paris. The reason for its wealth was Cerro Rico - the Rich Mountain - a stunning red conical hill that dominates the city and once "gushed silver". The silver deposits were discovered in 1545 and the city quickly became the centre of the Spanish colony, single handedly prompting development of cities in Peru, Argentina and Chile and substantially contributing to development in Europe due to the vast amount of silver which poured from the mountain. Indian and black slaves worked in horrific conditions and 8 million people perished in the mine over 3 centuries. So much silver was extracted that the mountain has actually shrunk in size by 1,000m.

Today the city is relatively poor, although still full of stunning colonial architecture. Eighty to 90 per cent of the inhabitants still rely on mining, although with the pure silver long gone it is now a mix of zinc, silver and lead that is mined. Another form of income is tourism, and one of the most fascinating things the brave or foolish can do is a tour of the mine, which of course we were well up for. We donned our mining gear and were taken up to the miners´ market to buy presents of soft drink and dynamite for the miners. For ourselves we chewed some coca leaves (yes, they are the raw ingredient of cocaine, and when chewed with a catalyst they suppress tiredness and hunger, and also help with the altitude and claustrophobia) and had a small shot of the 96% alcohol drunk by the miners which, unsurprisingly, tasted of petrol. After a tour of a processing plant it was down into the mines. The miners work for themselves, often in conditions not dissimilar from colonial times. Some of the miners working in bigger groups use machinery but others still painstakingly make holes in the rock with a chisel and hammer. They work for 8 to 10 hours a day without eating, relying on soft drinks and cheeks packed full of coca leaves to keep their energy up. The average life expectancy of a miner is about 15 years due to the toxic gases they inhale but in such a poor country most of them have no choice. The mines are cramped and dusty and to get around you have to crawl though tiny passages, clamber over rocks and around holes dozens of meters deep and up and down rickety ladders, all the while making sure not to get in the way of the carts of rocks weighing several tons that hurtle down the tracks - no health and safety regulations here! Our guide promised to tell us how many tourists have died since the tours began but thankfully never got around to it. It was a challenging few hours but really fascinating and it sure makes you appreciate the idea of a dull job in an office a lot more. Once we got out of the mines it was time to blow up some of the dynamite we had bought. Dynamite is completely legal in Bolivia - even children can buy it and it is regularly used in demonstrations! Some of the group posed for photos with the lit fuse in their hands (as you can tell there is a completely different attitude to safety here) then the guides ran it down the hill where it exploded with a huge bang.

After a much-needed shower and rest we decided to check out some of the Potosí nightlife and headed to a cafe which had some live local music. The traditional band didn´t seem to mind the audience of drunk backpackers too much and dragged a few people up to dance, try on their costumes and play their instruments, including Dave who ended up dancing the longest song ever - not easy work so high above sea level!
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