Highest City on Earth
Trip Start Nov 13, 2010
91Trip End Jul 20, 2011
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Where I stayed
Hostal Carlos V
Potosi is pretty poor now and has been for a couple of centuries - the Spanish built a railroad from Potosi to Cuzco to transport the millions of tons of silver to build the churches in Peru. The cathedral in Cuzco, with its solid silver alters, is thanks to some of the 8 million - yes 8 million who have died on the mountain and in Potosi since the 1600's. Many in mining disasters and many from the poisons used to leech the silver from the stone. They still have the old mills in the town where the water and the mercury used to wash over the silver and then seap into the groundwater. I am sure the place is still contaminated throughout the region.
I only had a full day and a half in this town as I was booked for a onward adventure.......I loved the place - it is scrappy, energetic and really easy to just be. I took the afternoon mine tour......wow - this is Bolivia where safety and regulations have not yet emerged and my three other mining friends - one from the Slovak, one Swede and one Irish joined Helen, our guide and into the mine we went.
Anyhow, we donned our gear and I fully expected a tour, tour. Nope - Helen made us buy some gifts for the miners - Orange Fanta and coca leaves and we thought that was kind of a ripoff as we had paid for the tour.....but......into the shaft - really cold for about half kilometer through the exact same tunnels built in the 1600's ( by African slaves)....nothing has changed except for some air tubes.....same tunnels, same rails, same carts and right away we figured out why the gifts - this is a fully working cooperative - meaning the workers own the mine and share the profits....ya sure.... we travel led along the rail route and basically were in the way and had to continually jump out of the way...mere inches as the multi ton carts were being pushed - yup pushed and pulled with ropes by 4 to 6 guys.
The silver is mostly gone so the quality of the minerals they are extracting is low but still many people want these jobs - average lifespan is 50 or 40 for the severe alcoholics......and the back breaking work......ahhhh.....so horrible.
I had seen the movie the day before in Sucre and Helen told me she was in the same tourism class with Basilla - he is in college now, he is 20, not working the mines - the film was not allowed for the first few years in Bolivia but a letter writing campaign by the world to the president influenced the management about the use of children and people in Potosi found out about Basilla and his family and that they were film stars. Helen said Basilla's wrists are destroyed from pushing the tonnage every day before his bones had fully developed. The mines, all 300 of them operate 24 hours a day - miners have to buy their own equipment - no rules and we saw dumping of full carts on the toes of guys - just rubber boots - lots of water in the shafts. They do not use animals or machines because everybody needs the jobs and it would decrease the number of workers.
The mines were owned by the previous government - corrupt president and he took all the profits and when they were basically bereft - he turned them back to the workers after a bit of a revolution. Bolivia is historical for revolutions - problem is they have lost most of everything over the years to bigger and more powerful neighbors of Chile and Peru and Paraguay.
The mine experience was profound - there is very little fairness around the world. Some scrape out a life hour by hour. As I am everyday - I am grateful for the luck of being born into an incredible country - one universally envied.
Bolivia is so cheap - a meal - menu of the day, with appetizer, soup, entree (usually alpaca steak or chops), dessert and drink - $2.....my hotel - basic room, right downtown with wifi and full breakfast - $6.00 rack rate - before discount!!!!
Potosi may not be pretty but it certainly had charm.