Getting high in Bolivia
We arrived to Bolivia’s capital early in the morning and were luckily shown straight to our room at the hostel we’d booked and offered breakfast…good start. Sucre was a nice surprise with clear blue skies every day, beautiful buildings to look at and a fairly lively night life. We had booked two nights but ended up staying seven.
We had good intentions of finding somewhere cheaper to stay but our hostel (Case Verde) was so good that I managed to persuade Sam to stay. When you get an amazing breakfast, a swimming pool and a fully equipped kitchen to use for only £19 per night who’d want to leave all that to save a few quid? Anyway by extending our stay to seven nights it meant that we got a discount…bonus!
There is not much to say about Sucre as we didn’t do much at all. Our days were spent reading, swimming, cooking and drinking local red wine. We took advantage of the kitchen and cooked every night…well I cooked every night while Sam watched. We enjoyed lots of local red wine which was actually pretty decent and only £2 a bottle. Or it could be that it’s been such a long time since I have had any decent wine that any wine now tastes good to me!
We made a few friends whilst there and even dragged ourselves away from the hostel for a night out. It was really good fun and included several bars, a club, and we ended the night in a local karaoke bar. At 4:30am we realised that bed was a better idea than singing an Islands In The Stream duet, and so we headed home. Needless to say we felt pretty rubbish the next day and didn’t move from the comfort of our hostel. It was a much needed cheap and relaxing week but it was time to move on so we reluctantly bought our bus tickets to Potosi.
According to the Lonely Planet, Potosi is the highest city in the world at 4070m above sea level. Not true. Sam was determined to prove LP wrong, and after some searching it turns out that there are several higher cities, the highest one being in Peru. We’d been warned that it was very cold there and that the altitude made even walking up a small hill very difficult. However, when we arrived it was lovely and sunny and perhaps because we’ve become acclimatised to the altitude, we didn’t really notice the thin air. Potosi was once the richest city in the world due to the local silver mines, and the centre of town was very pretty with some impressive buildings.
The silver mines are still open and one of the things you can do here is take a tour and go into the mines. We had met a lot of people who had done the tour and said it was amazing and others who had refused to do the tour because it was dangerous and quite harrowing. Even as we were getting ourselves kitted out in miners gear, I still didn’t know if I wanted to do it.
We were a group of four and once we’d all been kitted out and bought a bag full of goodies each to give to the miners, we were on our way. As we stepped into the mine shaft all I could think about was the Chilean miners from a few years ago and my mind just went into overdrive. We’d walked only about 30m in and that was it for me…I couldn’t go any further so I decided to turn back. It was the point of no return as going in any further would have meant stopping the tour for everyone. As Sam was brave and completed the tour, it’s only fair that he should write a little about it…
Hearing all of the stories from people who had already visited the mines was not really enough to prepare me for the experience. Upon entering the mine (and waving goodbye to Katy), the temperature dropped to near freezing. The tunnel also got much narrower and the ceiling much lower. Walking through one foot of water in the pitch black, we were then told to watch out for the trolleys exiting the mine. They would be carrying up to two tons of material, and could be very dangerous. I didn’t really see how I could get out of the way as the tunnels were so narrow at that point, but thankfully soon after they opened up a bit.
As we ventured deeper into the mine, it got much hotter. Wearing a scarf over my mouth didn’t help, but this was essential. There are numerous noxious chemicals present in the mine including asbestos, mercury, arsenic, phosphorous and silica dust. Most miners die of silicosis pneumonia within ten years of beginning work in the mines, so I didn’t fancy taking my chances. Since the mine opened in 1546, over 8 million people have died there.
As we got deeper into the mine, we met some of the miners at work. Most start work at around 04:00am, and work until 17:00pm. We sat with two miners just as they we about to get back to work after having a break. Coca leaves is an essential part of work there, as food isn’t generally consumed in the mine due to the chemicals in the air. Instead they chew coca leaves mixed with ash, which suppresses hunger and gives them the energy to keep on working.
They told us about how miners used to spend six months down the mines at a time, and that they worship their devil (Tiá) as God doesn’t exist down there. There are several statues of Tiá where the miners can provide offerings including alpaca foetuses, cigarettes, alcohol and coca leaves.
Some parts of the mine were very claustrophobic, and involved crawling through very tight spaces. It was probably a good job that Katy didn’t go any further in. If she freaked out at 30m in, then it could have only have been worse a 3km in with temperatures at around 45°.
We were in there for about one and a half hours, and it was an experience that will be hard to forget. It also makes our normal working lives seem much more bearable, even after not working for almost a year.
We’re now in Tupiza, a small town in the very south of Bolivia and also known as the wild west of South America due to its amazing landscape of rainbow coloured rocks, hills and canyons. Even at 2950m above sea level it’s very hot so naturally we booked another hostel with a swimming pool.
I managed to persuade Sam to get back in the saddle and what better place to do it. We went out for three hours and cantered along the dry river, stopped at a canyon for a quick break and I had great fun watching Sam bob up and down on his horse. I think three hours was enough for both of us as it was really hot and Sam was soon feeling the pain. He did very well again and even had a mini gallop at one stage…definitely not intentional but once one horse goes they all go.
It was a great morning and we had hoped the afternoon would be spent around the pool but unfortunately it had clouded over and then we had a big thunder storm. Instead we settled for a late lunch of local empanadas with a peanut chilli sauce, which were delicious…think Cornish pasty but much nicer.
It’s been a great place to relax and enjoy some sun, and yet another very different place to add to Bolivia’s long list.
As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link (we’re slightly over our monthly quota, so more will be added in due course):
Until the next time.
Posted on 15/09/2012, in Bolivia and tagged Accommodation, Back-packer, Backpacker, Bolivia, Bus, Butch Cassidy, Food, Horse Riding, Hostel, Mining, Potosi, Round the world trip, RTW, Silver Mines, South America, Spanish, Sucre, The Devil's Miner, Travelling, Tupiza, Weather, Wild West. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.