Highest town in the world

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Saturday, April 8, 2006

After less than 24 hours in Uyuni it is time to move on, travelling further away from Chile and to the Bolivian town of Potosi. Nestling at 4070m, this silver mining town was once South America´s largest and wealthiest cities.

Walking to the bus stop we bump into our Swiss friend Roland, who we last saw on the Easter Island. We learn that Chantal is in hospital after starting a tour of the Salar and suffering from water in the lungs, one of the serious symptoms of altitude sickness. Roland looks worried as he now thinks that they will have to change their plans and descend out from the dizzy heights of Bolivia. Fortunately for us, we have only suffered from shortness of breath and mild headaches.

We have been on quite a few bus journeys and they are certainly one of the best ways to experience a country, although I hasten to add you are not always guaranteed a good experience. On the road there you can always expect the unexpected.

We arrive at the bus stop 30 minutes before departure time to allow the bus driver to load up the luggage on the roof of the bus. When we arrive there is no bus to Potosi in sight but we meet lots of people that we recognise from our travels who are also heading in the same direction.

15 minutes before departure, a bright yellow bus rolls to a stop outside our bus company. The bus is quite different from the buses that we have been used to in Chile. It looks old and is smelly inside. There is a mad scramble as everyone throws their bags up to the driver on the roof of the bus.

We leave on time although just as the bus is leaving, another 10 Bolivians jump onboard. The bus is full but somehow they manage to squeeze onboard. Most of the Bolivian ladies just sit down the aisle.

John notices that our bus tickets are a different colour to the other gringos, but everyone says that it is probably because we bought our tickets from another company. As a tall westerner moves towards our seats, it begins to dawn on us that we have jumped onto a bus with the wrong company.

Initially I panic. A lady shouts that we are wrong bus and that we need to get off. I try to squeeze to the door, but there are so many passengers that I can hardly move. I wonder whether it will be possible to change onto the other bus but there is so much luggage on the roof that it will be impossible to retrieve our bags until the bus reaches its destination. If we change bus this would mean leaving our bags unattended with the hope of somehow collecting them in Potosi.

Soon I realise that I am the only person panicking. The bus driver has other worries on the mind, most notably the twisty and windy road. We decide to stay on the bus with our bags. The road is extremely bumpy and the bus shakes every part of our bodies as we stand uncomfortably squeezed in with the locals.

After 3 hours, a couple of passengers leave so we manage to get a seat. Its a lot more comfortable and we begin to enjoy the view of mountains, streams and rural villages which are made of mud bricks.

The bus conducter is not very happy with our invalid bus tickets and asks us to buy more tickets. They are only 25 Bolivians each (less than 2GBP) but John initially refuses to pay as it was not really our fault that we were on the wrong bus. No one checked our tickets until we had left Uyuni. Besides, we were standing for half of the journey. The conducter is not very friendly and says that he will hold our bags until we pay up.

Arriving at Potosi bus terminal, our friends help to grab our bags from the roof and we go away handing the driver 20 Bolivians. This money goes straight into his pocket and whilst we are leaving, another guy tries to bribe some more money from us.

We make a quick exit and find a taxi. John starts his usual banter of negotiating a good price but soon we realise we are haggling over about 10 pence.

It is cheap in Bolivia and it costs us about 2Bolivianos each (less than 20p) per person for a ride to Recidencia Felcar. Here we stay in a large double room with a shared bathroom. All the rooms all exit onto a bright and airy courtyard which is full of colourful geraniums. Its a nice relief to arrive safely and to relax.

It certainly feels as though we are in a different country as we walk through the streets. The market is close to our hostel. Meat lies hanging in unrefrigerated hallways, roast chicken seems very popular from small rotiserries and everything from individual sweets to shampoo is for sale. A ´chimmy chimmy´ boy spots our hiking boots which are crusted with salt from the salar and agrees to polish them for 3B total (less than 20p). He professionally brushes off the dirt, applies a brown dye to the leather, and brushes in some brown wax. This is followed by a polishing and then painting of the black soles. Johns 10 year old boots look almost brand new afterwards.

My first impressions Bolivia reminds me of some of the small towns that we visitd in China. Ladies sell almost everything by the market: toiletries, detergents, bread, and fruits. Minibuses with Japenese writing stencilled on their paintwork shoot past us on the roads. The tiled pavements give the town an impoverished look. Cheap internet cafes are everywhere (2B per hour, 0.15GBP). Hot water is only available at certain times during the day. The toilets are basic and toilet paper is never provided.

The main square is lined with colonial bright yellow buildings which belong to the police. We head down some narrow streets which are full of street vendors who stand behind shuttered doors. There are people everywhere and most of the ladies are wearing the traditional dress. The women are short and rounded with long black hair which is tied in plaited bunches and tied together at the end. They wear tall felt hats, flared skirts, brown tights, and woven cloaks which are fasted by a large safety pin. They have tiny feet and hobble hurriedly across the streets as though late for some witches meeting.

On our first evening, we meet with British couple, Verity and Paul that we met on the bus. We book a tour of the silver mines together with Koala Tours and then have dinner in the restaurant next door. We all order 4 courses from the extensive menu of the day. I have a vegetable crepes, followed by tomato soup. Spinach pie is for main course and I somehow manage to finish a fruit salad too. The cost is only 17B (1.20GBP). Paul and John try the meat menu for 22B and comment that the lemon and pepper llama steak is good although there is far too much to eat.

After dinner, John and I walk to the main square and enter a huge theatre. There is a free charango festival in town and tonight is the finale. The architecture is impressive inside. Rows of chairs tier down towards a curtained stage. The walls and ceiling are covered with ornate carvings and paintings. There are over 300 people inside with all the seats and aisles of the theatre packed full of Bolivian families.

The music of the 12 stringed charango is enchanting. Each band plays a maximum of 3 songs each and they each have their own unique style. Some men play solo whilst other are accomapanied with guitars. One group even includes drums, keyboards and electric guitars. The best musician of the evening is actually Chilean. He plays with a Bolivian guitarist. As there have been political tensions between Chile and Bolivia there is an air of initial sceptism from the audience. The music soon breaks down all the barriers and it leaves everyone applauding loudly. From the balcony I see the musicians hands moving so fast that I cannot distinguish his individual fingers strumming the strings. After 3.5 hours the music still continues. It is 10.30pm and most of the children seem to be sleeping with their parents merrily clapping their hands to the beat. John looks almost asleep too so we head back down the busy Saturday night streets to our hostel.

The next morning the sky is blue but it is still cold. We decide to take breakfast in a cafe which is easier said than done as everything seems to be closed on a Sunday. Eventually we end up in the Cactus Cafe again. Unfortunately breakfast is more expensive than last nights dinner and the service is unbelievably slow. John orders the American breakfast which includes two fried eggs, bread and coffee. He is not impressed with the young waitress who lies to him saying that their coffee machine is not working when it clearly is.

In the main square, there is more music. Today it is Palm Sunday, an event celebrated by christians one week before Easter. Policemen line the streets (and also pop in for a quick beer in a corner of the Cactus Cafe) whilst a band of drums, trombone, and trumpets play military style music. A young boy prepares fresh orange juice from a small cart for 2B each. Children run around in bright costume.

There are many Catholic churches in Potosi and I turn up for the 11am mass. Palm Sunday is usually celebrated as a joyous event to symbolise the entrance of Christ to Jerusalem but the feeling is nothing but morose here. The church is full but it feels cold inside as it is dark and most of the congregation dont seem to say any prayers aloud which results in a very unatmospheric feeling. For the first time ever I experience no money collection, I guess this is because of security reasons. I see last nights Chilean charango player enter but he soon leaves after a solo guitarist starts playing badly and singing in a very depressing voice. Warmth spreads for a split second during the sign of peace when everyone turns to oneanother and offers a single kiss on the cheek. Palms are available from outside the church from little ladies weaving complicated shapes and after the mass has ended, everyone rushes up to have their 3D crosses blessed with holy water.

The next day we wake at 7am and decide to cancel our trip to the silver mine. In the nearby hill of Cerro Rico are a labyrinth of underground mines which harbour silver and platinum. The mines were responsible for making Potosi (and Boliviar) into the wealthiest and richest towns of South America. Unfortunately conditions in the mines were and still are appauling with poor pay (100 USD per month), an average working life of 10 years, 24 hour working shifts, 1 loss of life per month, many accidents and diseases from contact with toxic chemicals and dust.

Instead, we visit some of the stately buildings which were a result of the wealth that the mining industry brought. Unfortunately the gianormous mint house building is closed on a Monday but instead we visit Conventos San Francisco, and Santa Teresa.

A pleasant lady takes us around Igelsia San Francisco. Inside the church, morning mass is taking place and we creep up a stone spiral staircase which takes us outside and on to the roof. Here its sunny and there is no one except for ourselves to enjoy the view. There is a bit of hairy walking along the apex of the church roof and up a scarey outdoor staircase onto the main dome of the church. The view of the city and Cerro Rico is excellent and is accentuated by the music and chanting emmanating from within the church. Looking down I see a huge array of different church towers, and the brown ceramic roofing tiles which makes me feel as though I am in Italy, not Bolivia.

The tour continues for about 2 hours. We descend into three crypts which are underneath the alter which contain skulls and bones. We look at old paintings in the sacristry and walk through the back of the church to a peaceful cloistered courtyard.

We are amazed at the inner beauty of San Francisco and head to another the convent of Santa Teresa. It´s close to lunchtime (siesta time) when we arrive but John manages to persuade a guide to take us on a whistle stop tour of the convent. It is here that young nuns would take a vow of silence and enter the thick wooden doors of the convent, never to re-emerge into society. You could expect the conditions of the nuns to be very tough with a lot of suffering. We did see some self-flagellation instruments which were highlighted by our Lonely Planet guide but in the main, I think that the sisters lived a very good life in comparison to the life outside. In order to stay in the convent the nuns had to pay a dowry equivalent to 100,000 USD. The rooms and chapels within the convent and are richly decorated with wooden floors, gold gilded paintings and ornate alters. Everything is still in perfect condition.

We are led through two bright and sunny courtyards which have numerous large wooden doors which are all unlocked using big keys fit for a castle. We see the kitchen, complete with 12 burning stoves fuelled by llama droppings, huge copper pots, stone pestle and mortars and wine decanters. The dining room is sparsely decorated. We see a skull sitting infront of the mother superiers table and John translates that it is a reminder that ´we eat to live, not live to eat´.

The nuns had no contact with the outer world. Offerings from the public or family members could be made via wooden rotating partitioned wheels or long wooden spoons which could be passed through small holes in the wall. We see lots of art work, embroidery and floral decorations on the wood. The library houses a spectacular collection of ancient looking books bound in pale fading calf skin.

We find a bus to Sucre from the bus terminal which is a short downhill walk from Recidencial Felcar. There are more market stalls selling goats heads and other strange animal bits. I see ladies selling strange dried powders and a man with tarot cards.

On the bus we meet some friends who look pretty exhausted after an unforgettable experience in the mines. Some people had to leave after 45 minutes because they couldn´t stand the heat and claustraphobia. Bev tells us that she will never complain about an office job again after seeing the terrible conditions that the miners have to contend with. The mine is apparently government owned and the miners work independently, paying the goverment a small commission of their earnings.

We watch the sun setting and casting shadows on the hills. I like the colour and vibrance of Potosi but John says that he is glad to be leaving it behind.
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