Anthony on the Gringo Trail 2005 travel blog

My room in Potosi

Potosi in the morning

View of Cerro Rico from Hostel

El Tio and our guide - munching coca as usual

Bolivians tin streaming

Potosi colonial architecture with Cerro Rico

Potosi is apparently the highest city in the world, at over 4000 metres. Luckily the altitude seems OK with me. I am staying in what used to be 17th Century accomodation for friars, it is rather nice. I even slept well, amazing considering the altitude, though the nosebleeds are back. Potosi is a very attractive small city, with lots of narrow winding streets and colourful houses and colonial architecture, generally a nice place to just wander around, which I do when I can. And no shops selling ethnic ponchos,etc. What I am mainly here for though is to visit the mines of Cerro Rico. The other interesting thing they do round here is have these huge long ritual fights amongst villages, sometimes ending in deaths. Wrong time of year for that, though the pictures I have seen make it look a bit too wild for my taste. Something else I keep forgetting to say about is that the Bolivian flag is red, yellow and green, making this a good place for buying Rasta paraphernalia.

Cerro Rico is this big pinkish mountain behind Potosi, basically a giant slag heap if you look closely. It was the source of silver for the Spanish Empire, and is still mined today. My guide told me 8 million slaves (African and native Indians) died in the mountain, working four month shifts with no breaks. And spookily their descendants still work there, in many cases using exactly the same methods. Several thousand people work in the many different mines.

So after the usual fannying around, me and two french women went with our ex-miner guide to visit the mines. The french women were very right on and destined not to get on with the ex-miner. It is traditional to buy gifts for the miners, who mostly don't get anything for having tourists get in the way of their work. Our first such stop was one of several dynamite shops. Needless to say the women refused to buy any. So I bought some dynamite, some fertiliser to help it go with a bang, and a detonator. Only about 70p. Not much security for explosives round here. Unfortunately I never got to set it off myself, but the gift was appreciated, beats giving pencils to kids, I reckon. If I had thought about it more I could have bought some for later. And then to the coca leaf stall, to buy big bags of coca, again refused by the women. And lastly to buy fizzy drinks, this time refused on the basis of the cost involved (about 10p). By this point the guide and I had taken quite a dislike to these two women and could not understand why they were there.

The done way to do your coca leaves round here is to not really chew them, but just pad them up in ones cheek and let the saliva do the trick. All the miners had a bulging cheek each, and our guide was constantly adding to his. And honestly you could smell the coca leaves in the mines, even over the arsenic, mercury, asbestos, lead and God knows what other noxious chemicals were being used down there. The miners excuse for porking coca leaves constantly was that they didn't eat while working, hence coca and sugary drinks. But shit, do they work hard. So we continue on our mission by kitting up with overclothes, helmet, wellies, lamp, etc. The mines have a very poor air supply and lots of poisonous chemicals as above, so we all buy a little mask thing like Japanese wear. It costs about five pence and I wouldnt really want to have to rely on it in the event of exposure to poisonous chemicals....whoops!

A short drive and walk up to an entrance at 4400 metres, and then we set off down this five hundred year old tunnel designed for hobbits, into the depths of Mount Doom. The smell is pretty chemical and bad, I can still smell it now, several hours later and I think it is at thr root of my headache. Perhaps its my semi-Cornish heritage, but I always go down mines when I get the chance, and I have been down working mines before, but not like this, it was like going back to some Victorian time. There was very little equipment that wouldn't have been used by one of the original slaves. All rock was moved in ore carts on rails and pushed and pulled by people, two on each end, really straining. I helped push one up one of the inclines and I can testify that they were very heavy, and it is hard work at that altitude. Sensibly enough, when they could get momentum up, they did. However, this meant that at periodic intervals we would have to run at a crouch along dark tunnels to avoid either getting mown down or obliging the miners to lose their momentum. We cut it a bit close a few times. Also periodically these carts would derail, and they took some heaving to get back on the track again. Ironically it is some of the cheaper tin from here that killed off the Cornish tin industry.

Our guide was explaining things well - in Spanish as usual, never seem to get the promised English speaking guides - and was trying to explain what motivated people to do such dangerous, hard and badly paid work. The women were outraged though, and kept arguing with him, like he was responsible for free-rein capitalism and corruption. So a lot of walking around these dark tunnels with what looked like very unstable roofs, interspersed with gorgeous and strong colours and crystals, as the mountain is just full of metals. But it is mostly silver they are after. So we wandered around, crawling at some points, trying not to get in the miners' way too much and generally learning about their lives and their work, which was incredible stuff. A particularly interesting thing was these little temples to their 'god' Tio. This is basically the devil, on the basis that God has the sky, the devil underground, so they need to keep him sweet. As such he gets offerings every Friday, coca, drinks, fags, etc. And these are all devout catholics. There was also llama blood all over the mine entrances, from sacrifices.

So I took the rest of the day fairly easily, partly due to my growing headache. Just wandered around the rather attractive city, and tried to finally make up my mind on the rest of my itinerary, which I think I have done. What I really need is another six months and the money to go with it, but in the meantime it looks like I am heading to Chile briefly via the Salar Salt Plains and the Atacama Desert before heading back over the Andes and across Argentina, and perhaps a bit of Paraguay for the sake of it, to the humungous Iguazu Falls on the Argentina/Brazil border. Yet more miles.

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