Thursday, October 16, 2008

October 11-15: Sucre and Potosi

From La Paz to Tupiza we´ve been blessed with three Bolivian bus experiences. Each has come with it´s own flavor of excitement. Our first trip (overnight from La Paz to Sucre) was initially cancelled due to road blocks resulting from protests -- only to be then allowed to go at the last minute although on a cheaper version which is never a good alternative for overnight journeys. Trip #2 (from Sucre to Potosi) was on a bus driven by this kid pictured below. Trust us, he actually looks OLDER in this picture than he did in real life. On trip #3 (from Potosi to Tupiza yesterday) we tried to buy tickets on the most expensive bus available. Our agent informed us that that bus was ¨sold out¨ (translation: she had a deal with the cheaper company). So we ended up on this beauty below with ducktape holding the front window together. 7 hours into our trip we stumbled upon one of the infamous Bolivian road blocks - this one for road work instead of protests. Three hours later we were allowed to proceed.... It´s been said that you haven´t experienced Bolivia if you haven´t waited at a road block so now we are truly legit travelers thru this country!

Sucre was a beautiful little colonial town. The view from a hillside outside of town reminded us somewhat of looking down onto the Castro and the Mission from Dolores park in San Fran. Less we got too comfortable with the ease of this town, we decided to gamble our luck on a Bolivian ferris wheel in a park nearby.´

In the 16th and 17th century, Potosi was one of the richest cities in the world with silver from its mines funding the entire Spanish empire. The silver is long gone but Potosi remains a mining town with over 10,000 workers entering the mountain each day to mine ore and other minerals. The town is also the highest city in the world (4,060 meters). Although the workers in the mines are now part of mining cooperatives, rather than slaves as they were in the silver era, the work is still insanely difficult and unsafe with the average lifespan of a miner being between 40-50.
Our tour into the mines started with us signing our lives away. We then bought gifts for the miners we would meet (the favorite being pure alchohol which they drink in mass quantities every Friday afternoon, often while still below ground). Dynamite is also a popular gift for the miners as they are responsible for funding all their own equipment. Yes, anyone can buy dynamite in this town. We did.

From there we travelled deep and then deeper into the mountain. At the deepest point of the tour, our guide decided to tell us that engineers from the US did a study 12 years ago predicting that the entire mine would cave in within 5 years. The kind of information that you prefer to receive AFTER the tour.... Another guy on our tour casually asked what the white stuff was all over the walls. Asbestos. The pictures which came out here are from the mellower parts of the tour -- too much dust for the real intense ones to come out.

Our guide who was a miner for 3 years before having an accident said that he would ¨put dynamite up his son´s ass¨if he ever indicated an interest in the work. Speaking of dynamite, there was the dynamite demonstration at the end. Nader was chosen to make the bomb and tried to remain calm while it was lit under his shirt.... It´s a sad sad livelihood and we felt very fortunate to have seen a slice of these men´s lives to understand their hardships.

Off to find some saltenias for lunch....


  1. Holy cow! I learned about Potosi during my Latin American Studies M.A. and have since longed to visit due to its historical significance, but I thought I was an oddball. You guys actually did it AND toured the mine - I can't believe they have a tourist infrastructure, and I'm even more perplexed that they tell their visitors about the asbestos, etc. Kudos to you both for working this in there, and safe travels! Are you going to take on the "world's most dangerous road" (somewhere else in Bolivia)?