Day 74: Having A Blast!

Fri. 26th October 2012

Not going to give up our day jobs!Yet another bus journey to start the day as we moved from Uyuni to Potosi. We are all a bit frazzled after having been in either a bus or a 4×4 for most of the past 4 days. The good news this time is that we are going to be travelling on a tarmac road – this is going to be a distinct novelty. Apparently, the road is only 3 years old and before it was built, the transfer involved (more) 4x4s and driving along river beds.

Danger de avalanche!The bad news is that it is our smallest bus yet and it has no separate compartment for our luggage which has to be piled up in a wall behind the driver. We carefully chose seats a couple of rows back so that in the event of an avalanche, we wouldn’t end up be buried! As we headed out of town, the fields seem to have been sown with plastic bags – all the rubbish that gets discarded just blows across the fields and gets snagged on plants. Jolly poor show, as one might say! Fortunately, as we climbed up the hills, we got to have our last view of the salt flats which made us all think back on the great experiences we had over the last few days.

Cerro Rico dominates the town of PotosiAs we drove on, we couldn’t help but notice how the landscape changed as we went over mountains and down into valleys – sometimes it was cacti, sometimes trees (yes, with wood!) and sometimes just nothing. Neil got the bus to stop in the middle of a desert when he needed the loo, fine for us men but a contentious decision so far as the women were concerned! Then at last we got our first sight of Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), the mountain that not only dominates the vista of Potosi, but also the economics of Potosi from the early days of the Spanish. Cerro Rico is the closest that the Spanish ever got to finding El Dorado, they found a mountain of silver rather than a city of gold. As we later found out, they extracted 40,000 tons of silver at a cost of the lives of 8m slaves. Only the middle and bottom (inc. underground) sections of the mountain are still mined as the top is so riddled with holes it is just too unsafe (by Bolivian standards!!!)

Roof supports fully compliant with H&S standards (not!)Most of the silver is now gone, the last big jewellery grade strike was 12 years ago, but the mine is still active today and still dominates the local economy. Up to 15,000 miners work there (in terrible conditions) to extract around 2,000 tons per day of ore containing silver (not jewellery grade), zinc, lead and tin. A handful of us are not detracted by the tales of dark, cramped, wet conditions and sign up for a tour of the mine.

£2 worth of explosives - "hello there, OI'm your new neighbour!"Before we can visit the mine, however, we need to stop off in the miners market and buy some gifts for the miners. As well as the traditional soft drinks, coca leaves, cigarettes (unfiltered, obviously) and gloves there were some more surprising items available. These included:

  • Bottles of “potable” 96% alcohol (for drinking down the mine);
  • Ammonium nitrate (pre-mixed with diesel to save any awkward pfaffing about);
  • Detonators and fuse cord; and
  • Sticks of TNT (dynamite clearly being too dangerous!).

Yes, we really did have to scramble down 2m vertical drops using just a ropeWe sampled the 96% firewater and then all spent about 20 bolivianos (£2) buying various combinations of all of the above as gifts for the miners, got kitted out with overclothes, wellies and helmet and then headed on up to the mine. The mine working is all very manual – 1 ton ore trucks are pushed by hand and loaded by men with shovels. The trusses and roof supports are wooden (see picture above) and there are pipes everywhere running compressed air and electricity down to the furthest corners of the mine. Whilst we were in there, we felt more than heard some of the blasting happening below us and met some of the miners who were waiting for the dust to settle on their earlier blast so that they can get to moving the ore.

Dave & Jorge - who is better endowed?One of the highlights was meeting Jorge, an idol representing El Tio – one of 3 gods worshipped(?) by the miners (the other two being Jesus Christ and Pacha Mama). El Tio is based upon Catholic depictions of Satan (introduced by the Spanish to incentivise the natives to work hard but has been adopted and evolved by the miners to become one of their deities). Samantha, our guide on the mine tour, took us through the ritual that the miners will go through with El Tio.

First he is sprinkled with coca leaves (a gift of one of the key substances that helps the miners get through their day), then he is sprinkled with the 96% alcohol – on his eyes (so that they can find a rich vein of ore); on his (large) penis (for fertility); and then on the ground (for Pacha Mama, so that the yield will be high). They then sit around for a couple of hours drinking more – before going back to work.

Potosi church at sunsetWe are quite humbled as we come out of the mine. It is way beyond anything that would be tolerated in the UK and yet there is a waiting list of people who want to work in the mine. I suspect that we all spend some time reflecting on how lucky we are. One thing that does lift the spirits, is that when we are dropped at the hotel, the sun is just setting with spectacular shades of red and some of the churches and cathedrals are all lit up – a very photogenic combination. However the photos are spoilt by the crisscrossing telephone and electricity cables. Still the attached photo of an illuminated church tower is still worth admiring.

As we went out for dinner that evening, we saw more of the sights of Potosi illuminated. It is such a shame that we have less than 24hours in Potosi. We had better make good use of our time tomorrow before we move on again.

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