Going underground

Trip Start Aug 17, 2003
Trip End Jun 04, 2004

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Thursday, April 1, 2004

And so it was on again.... Our intrepid band from the saltflats all ended up getting the same bus together the next morning, which made for quite a laugh. And the bus was anyway almost entirely white backpackers, with the exception of two. Needless to say, one was my neighbour. She was an old indian lady, who I think only spoke Quechua, so her attempts to talk to me and mine to talk back were dead in the water. But lots of smiling seemed to do the trick. Until about 11.30 when she took out her lunch, which unfortunately absolutely stank!!! Then it suddenly turned to scowls all round - and not just from me!!!

I had been warned about Bolivian buses being bad, and that was a total understatement. Admittedly, on the Lonely Planet map, this road was designated as tertiary dirt, which I guess is only a small step up from not actually a road at all, but it was the bumpiest journey I've ever been on!! Not to mention swelteringly hot with the greenhouse effect through the windows, and with possibly the world's most uncomfortable seats. I was incredibly relieved when we finally arrived in Potosi after 6+ hours of being battered about!!!

But the fun hadn't ended there... we got into a taxi to find a hostel/cheap hotel, and the taxi driver kept yabbering something at us when we showed him where we wanted to go. But none of us had a clue what he was talking about, so he just drove us there. And then we understood.... It was only half built/rebuilt!! Good one Lonely Planet!! So we went to another and finally got a chance to throw our bags down and relax.

We went down to the bus station that afternoon to book our buses out of Potosi for the next evening, and that activity was entertainment alone!! There are probably 20 different companies, offering a different combination of destinations, and different types of bus. All have staff shouting at the tops of their voices to get the attention of the potential customers. Imagine Billingsgate fish market, but without the fish!!

Eventually we managed to find our way through and got across to the staff which days we wanted to go etc. I still ended up with an aisle seat when I specifically requested a window (slightly more secure for the bags), but I'll just have to rely on my fantastic sign language skills to swap with someone when I get on to the bus.

That evening we went out for dinner and tucked into a good traditional meal - llama!!! It's actually incredibly good. Can't describe what it tastes like, it just tastes good! As we were eating, there was suddenly lots of noise outside from marching bands and processions of people, especially kids with lanterns. We asked what it was for, and it turned out we'd arrived in Potosi for the anniversary of the founding of the city!! Certainly added a little bit of local colour, and explained why there were quite so many people wandering about!

The next day we went on a trip to the silver mines which Potosi is famous for. In fact the story of the founding was that an indian guy lit a fire out on the hill to keep himself warm, and after a while noticed a bright silvery substance flowing out of the mountain - the fien had heated the rock so much that the silver began to melt. The silver mines are touted as one of teh key activities in Potosi and a must see, for the conditions the miners work in.

First stop was to get ourselves kitted out - in hard hats with lights, protective coats and over trousers and wellies.... And dressed in such an unobtrusive manner, it was off to the miners' market, where anyone can buy the miner's supplies. Which of course includes dynamite. Didn't seem particularly safe to me! Anyway, we had the various things explained to us, including dynamite and ammonium nitrate for the blasts, and of course in this part of the world, coca leaves to help the miners forget being underground all day!!! And then our guide bought stuff for the miners as presents - it became obvious later that they must put in their orders as he knew exactly who wanted what!!

From there it was up to the mine and a quick explanation of the layout and the various jobs of the miners. The guide was very keen to impress on us that this mine is better than many others because they have social security, sick benefits etc etc, which many of the other mines don't. Amazing what we take for granted! We also saw in their "common room", which had two shrines - one to Christ, and the other to Miss July 2003!!! Quite an amusing juxtaposition!!!

And so it was on into the mine. After about 20 minutes we could no longer see anything without the lamps on our helmets, and we walked slowly along the trolley tracks for about 10 minutes, getting deeper and deeper inside the mountain. We came to a stop at the end of one shaft, having put in ear plugs, to watch the miners using a pneumatic drill to put holes in the rock. 2 or even 3 of tehm were having to hold on to it at a time to keep it still!!! But the way they moved the drill each time seemed incredibly scary - it wasn't switched off, they just pulled it out of the rock and moved it to another section.

Being blonde, it took me a little while to work out what they were doing - at first I thought they were using the drill to break up the rock, but instead they were making little holes. Which would of course be filled with dynamite and blown up - much less labour intensive than the pneumatic drill!!!

We eventually watched this entire process - the holes being drilled, then drained, then being filled with dynamite. Next the fuses were cut to the right length and lit. And we seemed to still be standing there watching..... Needless to say there was a bit of a stampede back through the tunnel, but the guides promised us it was ok. We stopped at a safe distance and waited - and then the blasts started, 13 in all. It was incredible to be in the tunnel and feel the blastwaves coming down the shaft towards us. Just weird!!

After the blasts we started to walk deeper and deeper into the mine, in ever decreasing tunnels. Jane and I decided that actually it was all getting a wee bit claustrophobic, and so we wimped out and went and sat in the sunshine for an hour while the others scrabbled around in a wet dirty tunnel. To be honest, I think we made the better choice - I've been caving before - I had no real need to do it where there was dynamite added to the mix!!

We then headed back into town and had a wander around, which was a little frustrating. All of the places we wanted to see were either closed, or pretty expensive (as I was leaving Bolivia that night, I didn't really want to change any more money than necessary), or could only be viewed on a 2 hour guided tour in spanish!!! So we wandered around looking at the UNESCO world heritage site colonial architecture, which was quite impressive, but the afternoon ended up really dragging. Possibly one of them ost disappointing things was the lack of any silver to be bought. You would think in a town famous for silver mining, there would be souvenirs made of silver all over the place, but the stalls recommended in the guide book at the central market were full of tat. Really quite horrible stuff.

Anyway, eventually the day passed, and it was back to the bus station for the joys of an 11 hour overnight journey to the border with Argentina! Fun Fun Fun!!!

fairly scary silver mine type stuff, all buildings closed or expensive
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