Potosi - riches plundered past & present

Trip Start Jan 19, 2008
Trip End May 01, 2008

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Carlos V

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Friday, February 29, 2008

After a nasty experience with the public loos at the bus terminal in Uyuni, clutching our bladders we jumped on the bus for Potosi. Potosi is supposed to be the highest city in the world, with the main town plaza at 4060m. It was a pretty basic bus, bigger than a minibus but smaller and more basic than any of our other transport to date. Unfortunately our seats were next to the missing window pane. A partial repair had been done with plastic sheets and sticky tape but we rightly didn't have too much faith in this.

Potosi is only 100 miles from Uyuni but the journey took almost 7 hours. Mostly this was due to the off road, winding nature of the route but the protest we got caught up in after 4 hours didn't help much. We had finally reached a gentle valley after much bumping around only to have to stop the minibus with about 10 other vehicles in front on the edge of a small village. A few of us went to investigate the cause of the delay, which turned out to be a lot of stones blocking the road. The root cause of the protest was as follows:

The road we were on ran through a village - let's call it village A. This road was one of two routes through the hills. The other went through village B. The road through village A is supposed to have asphalt laid down in the near future. Village B are upset that this will mean no more traffic going through their village and so they have blocked the road in village A in protest. About 40 people from village B were having a meeting in the town hall of the blocked village. There was nobody actually guarding the blockade. After about an hour the weather was looking decidedly unpleasant and we needed to get going to avoid getting bogged down in the climb ahead of us. Fortunately it turned out that the villagers from B had the same problem. Just before the thunder, lightening and rain reached us the villagers started to run out back to their vehicles. We made quick work of removing the blockading stones and we were on our way again in the nick of time. Matt got pretty wet all the same as the water started to pour in through the missing window. Despite a couple of treacherous slides on the narrow road with steep drops to welcome us should anything go wrong, we arrived in Potosi safe and sound a couple of hours later in the early evening.

We caught a taxi to what turned out to be a very pleasant hostel, Carlos V, right in the centre of Potosi. The lady owner was a bit obsessive regarding her pride and joy. There was a 12pm curfew (which, as Matt found out to his chagrin, turned out to be enforced at about 10.30pm), and she was spotted on occassion running into the bathrooms after they had been used with a bottle of bleach.

Debbie and Derek had checked into the same hostel so we went out for dinner with them on the corner of the main plaza. Within half and hour we were treated to the annual miner's cooperative march - at first we just assumed this to be another protest, but no, this time it was a celebration! We cant really tell the two apart here!

The following day Matt, Itamar, Paz, Jerry and Raphael went on a tour to one of the mines for which Potosi is famous. 300 years ago this was the richest city in South America and for a couple of centuries underwrote much of the Spanish economy via it's prolific silver mine, the largest deposits ever discovered. The Spanish ruthlessly exploited both the mine and through it both the native peoples of the area and the african slaves brought in by the millions to work and die exploiting the silver deposits. Nowadays the mine cannot be economically mined for silver, but has plenty of other mineralistic treasures that make it worth the while of the local people to risk life and limb in the mines. There are about 17,000 miners all working pretty much individually and selling the ore they mine through a co-operative. The conditions are pretty unpleasant and the life expectancy for working down the mines is a little over 10 years. Matt found the going pretty tough with his asthma but it was a worthwhile experience.

To start with we got kitted up in our Ghostbusters outfits (No ectoplasmic units though - disappointed) and made our way in the overcrowded minibus to the miners market where we were informed about the working conditions of the miners and some of the food and drink they use to relieve the conditions a little - primarily this is the Coca leaf, of Coca-cola and coccaine fame. We bought some coca and drink as a gift for the miners and took this with us into the mines. We also bought some dynamite, fuses and detonators - to play with later...

The mine tour was reminiscent of scenes from the indiana jones movies with lots of people working without the aid of modern machinery, with blackened faces and empty expressions upon them.

Once out of the mine we were given a demonstration of the dynamite by our knowledgable guide. Matt was a bit too close in trying to get a good photo, the force of the explosion took him so much by suprise that the result was a bit of a blur... although he recovered a bit to capture the resulting dust cloud.

Potosi and Bolivia in general is an incredibly cheap place to holiday in. Our evening meal that evening, complete with drinks and followed by another drink each in a nearby bar came to under 3 GBP between us. Matt likes it here a lot...

The following day the others had all gone on ahead to either Sucre or Le Paz, so Matt and Kat just caught up on a few chores and took a guided tour of the old Mint in the centre of Potosi. Because of the height of the city everything is very well preserved - from the buildings themselves, to the 18th century wooden minting machines (think huge wooden cogs and gears being pushed around by mules), to some of the bodies that for some reason or other (probably just so they had something to fill an extra room in the museum) were exhumed and after 150 years have barely decomposed at all.

Sated with knowledge we settled back onto our night bus bound for La Paz...
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