06.22.2012 - 06.25.2012 58 °F
Potosi – June 22 – 25
Leaving Sucre, we ascended a long river valley, the hills covered with mahogany and greasewood, the bottoms supporting stands of pepperwood and eucalyptus. The view from the roadway could have just as easily been a side trip through the hills of Southern California as the lower reaches of the Altiplano. As we continued higher in elevation large cactus similar to small saguaro appeared and the vegetation thinned. After ascending to around 11,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation, we reached a high plateau and began to see numerous enclaves of not more than a couple of squat mud-brick homes with small agricultural plots terraced into the surrounding hills. Herds of llamas, sheep and goats each with a tender sprinkled the countryside foraging for what little the sparse hills could provide.
Potosi is an incongruous place. Located at more than 13,000 feet in elevation thin bunch-grass is the primary vegetation quickly giving way to disturbed soil in every direction. The main highway enters a large basin framed by the peak of Cerro Rico the richest mountain on earth that has been mined continuously since 1545. Active and abandoned adits are visible across the mountain along with small groups of miners clustered nearby and their minimal tools associated with the mostly hand labor used to extract the ore.
The new bus terminal where we arrived looks completely out of place among the mud, brick, stucco and tile that comprises 99% of the architecture. The circular blue glass and steel exterior structure with white marble interior belongs in a decidedly more modern locale than the rough and tumble hodgepodge that is Potosi. A short taxi ride delivered us up the hill to The Koala Den, a backpackers hostal near the main plaza inhabited by mostly young European gringos surprised to see Anne and I with our family in tow. The proprietors were very friendly and helpful, but a cramped room badly in need of a good cleaning and new paint left Bridget questioning the premise of our whole adventure. We caught dinner that night at a small pizzeria where I had a delicious llama steak, the girls settled for soup and Aidan pasta. It’s no wonder that I am the only one that has suffered any gastronomic challenges on the trip so far.
We spent the morning touring the Casa de Moneda, the Spanish mint established in the early 1600’s which became the primary source of Spain’s wealth for the next several hundred years. It is a fascinating story of early industrialization and exploitation. It is estimated that 8 million black slaves imported from Africa died in the mint alone, not to mention those that died in the mines.
That afternoon we hooked up with The Big Deal mine tour operator for a first-hand look at life in the mines of Cerro Rico. Our guide Pedro, an ex-miner himself was first rate and his knowledge of the mines and their operation was vast. We stopped first at the Miners’ Mercado to purchase gifts of coca leaves, cigarettes, nearly pure cane alcohol, and sodas for the miners. From there we went to a refining facility that would give even the most jaded OSHA inspector nightmares.
A short ride further up the mountain delivered us to a small adit where we entered the mountain. A maze of small tunnels took us into the bowels of the mountain, taking care to step over and around large holes that led straight down into the reaches below. Since it was Saturday of San Juan de Noche, the Aymara New Year, there were not a lot of miners working that day. We did find one fellow, working alone with a pick and shovel, we bestowed numerous gift and watched in awe as he packed a hole with dynamite. With the fuse in place and the dynamite well packed we moved back up the tunnel to wait for the blast. A loud kaboom, dust, and the strong smell of burnt gunpowder indicated our blast master knew his business. Bridget was not happy with the noise level to put it mildly. He was unhappy though since the ton or so of displaced rock was mostly waste rock that would have to be moved by hand in the ongoing search for valuable ore that provided his livelihood.
After the blast, we moved back down the tunnel and into a small sanctuary that held Tio or “the Uncle”, a straw and mud figure where the miners made prayers and gave offerings of coca leaves, tobacco, and alcohol. Tio provides safety, good fortune, and a link to Panchamama, the earth mother who protects all. The Mine Tour offered a fascinating insight into the proud tradition of miners that devote a life’s work to finding a good vein. By all accounts, despite the back-breaking labor, they really do quite well making on average of $200 to $500 dollars (U.S.) a week working in the mines, high wages in Bolivia.
That evening we hooked up with Pedro 2, who works with Pedro 1 on the tours, for a party at his parent’s house to celebrate San Juan de Noche. We built a big bonfire in the alley outside their house. The old Senora reminded us a little of Michael’s sister Diane - she just kept the drinks flowing. We drank and lit off fire-works until well past midnight.
Moving slowly the next day, we made our way to a small neighborhood well off the beaten path to the Resturante Don Eugenia for a traditional Bolivian maize soup in which they drop a very hot rock in your bowl that makes the soup boil. The place was packed with nary a gringo for blocks and the food was far and away the best that we’d had in Bolivia. On the way home we stopped at Potosi’s main cemetery. Being Sunday, there were many families tending the graves of loved ones with fresh flowers and prayers. The contrast with any cemetery I’ve ever run across in the states was startling. It was obvious, that for many of the people there it was a very regular pilgrimage to visit their family graves.
The next morning we were up at 6:00 a.m. to catch the 8:00 bus for the 5 hour trip south to the small town of Tupiza.