May 16, 2004

Potosi, Bolivia

From Uyuni we ventured to Potosi, once upon a time it was the second largest city in the world with over 200,000 inhabitants. At that time it was one of the ritchest cities in the world as well thanks to the large amounts of silver in Cerro Rico (rich mountain). Click below to read what we got up to in Potosi.

The bus ride from Uyuni to Potosi went by some incredible scenery, and two swiss bikers just outside of Uyuni :) They were pushing their bikes up the first big hill outside of Uyuni but I have heard from them and they did make it safely to Potosi, although after a few cold nights. It took us about 5 hours on the bus to reach Potosi and to our releif our packs were still on the bus. We caught a cab to a Resedencial (cheap hostel) that sounded OK in our guide book and went to get some lunch. I ordered a tortilla, which I thought would be of the mexican variety so I was a little surprised when what arrived was an omlette ontop of some rice. Luckily I'm not picky and like omlettes. I think that was about it for that day, pretty lazy.

The next day we went to the Museo de Moneda (mint museum) in the morning but found that the next english tour (our spanish still isn't that good) wasn't until 2:30pm. So we went to Koala tours and booked a mine tour for the next day at 8am. Eventually 2:30 rolled around and we went to the mint. The ticket lady wasn't in and some Isreali girls were getting kind of anxious that the tour hadn't started yet and the gaurds weren't letting them into the museum yet. After a couple of minutes the ticket lady returned from lunch and we all got our tickets. As we were waiting around a blond girl in our group was asked to pose with some guys infront of the fountain and ironic smiling face in the first courtyard of the museum. It turns out that this girl was from Quebec so we chatted with her through out the tour. The tour was very interesting, especially the old machines that they used for making coins (well, interesting to me at least). The most impressive was a set of metal flatening machines that are made of wood. They occupy two floors, the bottom floor is where mules would drive a large shaft that would transfer power to rollers via some gigantic would gears. They were in perfect condition because of the dry, cool air in Potosi, very impressive. The more modern machines were interesting as well. The other machine that stands out in my memory was a trunk that the Spanish used to send silver coins back to Spain from Potosi. It had an incredible locking mechanisim, moving 12 bolts with one key. And to get the key to move at all you had to do what looked like a magic knock, tapping the key three times while moving it clockwise before the locks would open. Sarah says that I took too many pictures and was slowing down the tour :)

We had coffee with Valerie, the girl from Quebec, after the tour and she invited us to diner at a museum/theater later that night. We are very glad we took this invitation because it was the best dinner we had in Bolivia so far with good live music even. We ended up going back the next night as well. Before that next night however we had a mine tour to go to!

We were warned to wear shorts and tshirts for the tour since it got very hot in the mine but 8am in Potosi is not exactly warm. I decided to wear a tank top under a long sleve shirt and shorts under my MEC pants. After breakfast we got into a bus that drove us to the place where we got to put on some super sexy overalls, helmet and lamp. I stripped down to the tank top but left my shorts and pants on. This left me at a reasonable temperature.

The next stop on the tour was the miner's market. This is where miners, and anybody else for that matter, can buy things like dynamite (the best is from Bolivia, most nitroglycerin!), fuses, blasting caps, lamps and batteries (or calcium carbide if you still have a 'lime light'), pop, smokes, 96% alcohol (for drinking on fridays) amongst other things. We bought some pop and coca leaves for our gifts to the miners, other people bought some dynamite, amonium nitrate and fuses (the completo).

From here we went to the newest stop on the Koala tours Cerro Rico tour agenda, a processing plant. The state shut down their mines in the 80s with the collapse of the world tin market. Now the mines are run by sets of miner co-ops. They get ore out of the mountain and sell it to processing plants nearby depending on the quality of their ore. It turns out that most of the processing plants are Canadian owned, which is kind of disturbing because they don't seem to have any environmental ethics. All the plants just dump their waste, which includes such nice things as cyanide, into what our guide Juan (aka spicey) calls the black river. This river eventually ends up in a lake in argentina and kills fish. But I digress, we went to a bolivian run processing plant, which was a WCB disaster waiting to happen. But since I don't think that they have anything like the WCB in Bolivia, or at least it isn't enforced, there is no problem :( Basically it consists of a set of open pits of bubling stuff that is being skimmed by giant paddles that are driven by shafts which in turn are driven by very quickly moving belts with no protection whatsoever. It was a scary place to walk around in.

From here we went up and up and up Cerro Rico to the Candelaria mine, one of the oldest Spicey told us. We entered the mine inbetween little train buckets full of ore heading out of the mine. The first destination was a museum in the mine which we got to after a 10 minute walk through some very low roofed tunnels and dusty air. It was not comfortable. Sarah was a bit nervous because while we were back at the processing plant Spicey told us that the mountain is like Swiss cheese, full of tunnels. Suposedly 10 years ago an American geological survey gave the mountain another 7 years before it collapsed under its own weight. So this made Sarah a little nervous. The museum had some interesting information, such as 8 million people died in the mines over 300 years while the Spanish used indian and african slave labour. There was also a statue of the Devil, or Tio (uncle) that the miners pay their respects to all the time. Since it was Friday, and specifically the first Friday of the Month, the miners were starting to booze it up to ask mother earth for a good haul for the month. This involves spilling some 96% alcohol at Tio's feet and then drinking some. I tried some much to Sarah's dismay, I think that it must be what like rubbing alcohol tastes like (I didn't go blind).

The next stop was a small tunnel down to the 3rd level (we started on level 2). This tunnel was pretty small (had to slide on one's bottom) and steep and hot. This was more than Sarah could handle and she went back with some other people that didn't feel like squeezing down the tunnel. I on the other hand was first down, right behind Gordito (fatty, one of the guides). I thought it was pretty cool once I got over how difficult it was to breathe. The 3rd level had tunnels that were easier to walk around in since they were pretty tall in most places, still had to watch out for the occasional ore cart hurtling down the tracks. At the bottom of the inter-level tunnel we met three miners who all had exceeded the expected life expectancy of 45. The miners breathe in the dust all day which happens to contain asbestos and arsinic. One guy was 49 and had worked in the mines for 33 years. He had a bit of a cough, ok quite a cough, but he was smoking and drinking the 96% alcohol, I'd say he had at least a few more years in him. Some of the miners actually get to retire. I'm not sure how many retire because of old age, I think most get injured or have too much of a problem breathing. If they are members of the miner's union, which requires working 4 years as a helper and paying a one time fee of around 3000 Bolivianos, they get basic health care coverage. But considering they make at most around 30 Bolivianos a day, 3000 Bolivianos is a big hurdle to jump.

From level three we descended down another very small and steep tunnel to the even hotter and more cramped level 4. Here we got to go see a guy manually hammering a hole for a dynamite charge in a very small and very hot cave. I had problems crawling on my stomach into his cave. He had been there 10 hours hammering this hole and had about another 2 hours to go he told me. I got the impression that most of the dynamite holes were manually hammered. There are some automatic ones but maintaining a compressor isn't cheap. Some other medevial facts from the mines:

  • Calcium Carbide lamps (lime light) were used predominately until about 4 or 5 years ago. For you of those don't know what these are, they are a container of calcium carbide (lime) to which you add water. The resulting reaction creates acetylene (think blow torch) which exits through a small hole and is lit to create light. This have the advantage that they also act as carbon monoxide detectors since the flame will go out if there isn't enough oxygen. Now they use 'gringo' carbon monoxide detectors Juan told us jokingly.
  • The ore comes out at level two, but there are 3 levels before this where ore is extracted. They now have an electric winch to bring the ore up levels but before this (only about 5 years ago) they brought the ore up manually in backpacks. Juan used to do this, he'd bring 40 to 50 Kilograms of ore up on his back, and he only weighs about 46 kilos.

Level 4 was the deepest we went. On the way out we got to be in the tunnels for a few dynamite explosions which was interesting. They use fuses you light and wait for which is more suspensful than an electric fuse would be thats for sure. There were supposed to be 3 blasts on our level and 5 up one level. There were 2 on our level then 3 very loud ones from the level above. So 3 didn't go off and they have to wait 24 hours before checking them. On level two we ran into a group of drunk miners discussing whether or not they should come back tomorrow with hangovers to do more work. It was an entertaining conversation to watch. Then we left, the climb from level 3 to 2 was draining given the heat and lack of oxygen at over 4000 meters. But before we made it out we had to dodge an inbound, empty and fast ore cart which added a little excitment before seeing daylight for the first time in over 3 hours.

The mine tour has to be one of the best bang for the buck and time tours that we have done so far (only $10 US per person). It was very interesting and our guide, a former miner, spoke nearly perfect english (I had to correct him on his pronouciation of cyanide). If nothing else, it made me appreciate how cushy most people have it in Canada.

Those UCLA geology students have some good pictures of the mine here, We have some good pictures too and they are on their way.

Posted by bforsyth at May 16, 2004 01:09 PM