All that glitters ain’t silver. Potosi, Bolivia

August 7, 2010 at 5:32 am 1 comment

Potosi was quite a pleasant surprise. We had heard from travellers who had already been there that it was just your average industrial town with not a lot more to offer than the huge silver mine at its core. So when we came over the last of many mountains on our smokey, bone-jarring ride from Tupiza we were expecting the sprawl. Thousands of stone and tin shacks were stacked one on top of the other all the way across the valley – an endless sea of rusty brown without the slightest trace of colour. It was definitely industrial. Working our way down to the valley floor on the bus and later through narrow hillside streets in a taxi, we saw another side of Potosi though – a side we hadn’t been expecting.

Young people crowded the pathways, battling for space with speeding cars that, more often than not, seemed to be going the wrong way down narrow one-way streets. Restaurants were crammed with the Saturday night crowd and spewed forth the most incredible smells of barbequed chicken and beef and occasionally some off-key karaoke. And in the pedestrianised centre it suddenly became clear where Potosi was keeping all of its colour. Brightly painted colonial buildings lined paved streets where women in traditional Andes dress perched on empty fountains. Here and there the skyline was punctured by the razor-sharp steeples of ornate churches and cathedrals. Maybe Potosi wasn’t ‘just your average industrial town’ afterall.

Our second pleasant surprise came when we went in search of accomodation. After realising that the backpacker mecca La Casona was fully booked, that it was Saturday night and that it was getting dark, we weren’t all that hopeful about our chances of finding somewhere decent (and decently priced) to stay. Cue Hostal Carlos V, a beautiful refurbished colonial building which was, despite its modest name, nothing short of a cushy hotel. A rooftop terrace, widescreen tv, comfy beds and endless hot water – and all at a bargain price of 100 bolivianas per night rather than the quoted 150B – ensured that our stay in Potosi was going to be a little longer than we had originally planned.

While we did spend some time sampling the restaurants and attempting to barter in the local markets, it has to be said that the focus of our visit was much the same as everyone else’s – the Silver Mine. Operational since 1546, the mineral-rich mine provided Potosi with the title of South America’s richest city in the 18th century and as payment, has taken over 8 million lives since its inception. Today Bolivians still work in the mine although since the silver dried out, they have been digging for zinc. We learned all this and more in the fantastic documentary The Devil’s Miner, which won international prizes in 2005. The documentary follows a 14 year-old boy who, since his father’s death, has worked in the mine to support his family. Tragically, the average lifespan of a miner is only 10 years from the day he sets foot in the mine (women are not allowed to work inside) and the $2 a day wages did little to compensate for this harsh truth.

When we booked in with Lonely Planet recommended Andes Salt Expeditions, we were expecting big, scary, heart-breaking things from the tour. Friends had told us stories about being almost run over by carts, climbing up and down rickety ladders and ropes and having eye-opening conversations with workers in the mine. Our first mistake was booking with Andes where we were given a guide who was tired after a long day at work and so, brought us to only one of the three levels we were promised – no rickety ladders, tight crawls or rope-climbs for us. Our second mistake was going on the Saturday of a festival weekend. While we ran into around 30 other tourists, we saw no more than 10 miners.

It wasn’t all bad though and Gary, Sophie, Swatti and Paul certainly enjoyed it a lot more than I did. It was fun to crawl into a deep dark hole, watching every limb in case we touched off the walls and freed asbestos into the air. When we did encounter the miners the clanging of their picks and far-off rumble of explosives was heart-stopping, as was the mad dash we made for cover every time a two tonne cart flew past us pushed by only 4 scrawny-looking Bolivians. While our guide told us that wages had improved for workers since 2005 – making miners rich enough to afford fancy cars and many women – it was still hard not to feel immense pity for the small, sweating men who were caked in black soot and were unlikely to watch their granchildren grow up. Thankfully, to cheer us up after our crawl through hell and back, we were allowed to make some fertiliser bombs and blow chunks out of the pitted terrain around the mine.

In all, despite all our mistakes, the Potosi tour was definitely worth doing although if I was to go back and do it again, I would book my tour through the highly-recommended hostel, La Casona. And even if the prospect of climbing into a small, dark, asbestos-filled hole doesn’t appeal to you Potosi is worth a visit.

There are more pictures from Potosi available in the gallery

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This town ain’t big enough for the eight of us. Tupiza, Bolivia Sweet as Sucre, Bolivia

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Tali  |  August 8, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Thank you guys for yet another brillant post! I’ve been following your progress and enjoying your stories and beautiful photos since you got Freshly Pressed. Your adventures are amazing and inspire me to continue writing my travel blog too. Enjoy the rest of your travels!
    Tali

    Reply

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