From Uyuni, our journey across Bolivia took us north and east, first, to the historic mining city of Potosi, then onwards through the lovely city of Sucre and slowly (via very bad roads), down from the Andes and onto the plains below, near Santa Cruz, from where we headed East towards the wetlands in Brazil.
We arrived in Potosi, one of the highest cities in the world, on Friday 21st August. The city came as rather a pleasant surprise to us – we had somehow expected an industrial city, but the centre is filled with charming old colonial buildings that hark back to the wealth of the past. We only stopped for a day or so, but really enjoyed the time we spent wandering the charming streets.
The city sits at the foot of Cerro Rico (“Rich Mountain”), which dominates the skyline above it.
Soon after the arrival of the Spanish, they discovered this hill was full of valuable ores, of which silver was of the most interest at the time. The city was founded in 1545 and it was soon supplying silver to the Spanish empire. The Spanish still have a saying, vale un Potosí, “to be worth a Potosí” (that is, “to be of a great value”).
Many of the tourists visiting Potosi take the opportunity to visit the mines. We thought long and hard about whether to do this as we approached the city – on the one hand, we don’t want to travel through this vast and complicated continent just seeing the “nice” things, but, we also don’t want to go and look at people living hard lives mindlessly, as if they were animals in a zoo. And that’s before mentioning the safety concerns of a visit to the mines! After a little bit more research and consideration, we decided we would go, but with a tour company run by, and for the benefit of, ex-miners.
We were given helmets, torches, overalls, wellies and face-masks and taken to see the processing works.
Then, a short drive later, we found ourselves in front of the small entrance to one of the tunnels into the mine – one of many still used that dates back to colonial times and the first mining on the mountain nearly 600 years ago. In a gap between the trolleys filled with ore being pushed out, then running back in, we could enter.
It took a little while to adjust to walking on rough, often wet, ground with just a small beam of a torch, and we were soon having to bend over and even crouch at times to get through the tunnels. The tunnels are just large enough for a cart to get through, with the miner either bent over behind pushing uphill or hanging on crouching behind as it runs away downhill. What with the thin air at altitude, the increasing temperatures as we went deeper in and the rough terrain, this was a tough few hours – as it should be, to give us some sense of the lives of the miners.
While inside this labyrinth of tunnels, aware that miners are often working completely single handed, the accident rate struck us as being surprisingly low: of the 12 Cerro Rico miners who died last year, only 4 were in accidents, the other 8 dying from mining related health issues. As our guide pointed out, it’s a much higher safety record than the construction industry. But, as we learned, everyone knew what they were doing and the, albeit informal, rules of operation.
The miners consider themselves to be well paid, compared to jobs they could get in the city. For their first three years, they work for a starting salary of ~£300 per month, with a phased process of them getting increasing shares of the results of their labour, but having to buy more of the equipment, after which they can be proposed as members of the co-operative in their own right and buy into the co-operative for ~£700. Then they are given their own seam of ore to work.
This is where the luck comes in – and they are extremely superstitious. If the seam is good, they could get to the stage where they are earning enough to be able to employ others to help work the seam. But if it is not so good, they work on their own, manually, pretty much the same way as through the mines history. Pretty hard graft! We met one miner working on his own in this way. If the seam runs out, they have to start again, working their 3 years to earn the right to buy in again for a new seam. Our guide had had to do this three times and, when the third one was bad too, he changed tactic, working for the tour company part-time and also working as a contractor to others. Tourism has certainly given him a new opportunity. The industry used to be nationalised, which gave miners insurance, pensions etc, but it was denationalised in 1994, since when the miners have worked as co-operatives of various sizes. This is a better arrangement if you are lucky, not so good if you are not.
They are all Catholics, but religion is left at the entrance to the mine, within which they have manay superstitions around their mine deity, many of which involve coca leaves and alcohol!
We spent an intense couple of hours down the mine and were glad to remerge into daylight at the end, feeling pretty shocked and daunted by the way some people have to work.
From Potosi, our route took us to the lovely city of Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia. Being a little lower in altitude, we enjoyed the gentler climate and beautiful conditions. We only had a couple of days here, but plan to return when we come through Bolivia again on our way west.
A spectacular, although slow, rough and dusty, few days drive took us slowly down out of the mountains towards the plains in the North East of Bolivia.
All along the way through this fascinating country, we saw lots of brightly coloured political graffiti painted on walls, buildings, rock faces, kerbs, etc. by the side of the road. Much of it in support of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous President, now in his second term.
We stopped for a couple of days rest at the lovely small town of Samaipata. At a much lower altitude, it is blessed with a lovely climate and surrounded by fertile plains.
Here, we ran into Vic and Maria again, living on the road in a wonderful converted Unimog truck, who we had first met on the Salar de Uyuni a couple of weeks earlier. Thank you for having us round for a lovely dinner and spoiling us with the last of your Argentinian steak guys!
Near Samaipata is a dramatic rock formation simply known as “El Fuerte”. It has had strategic and religious importance since at least pre-Incan times, when it was developed by the Chane peoples. The Incans further carved and developed it, building a settlement nearby, but it was right at the edge of their territory and, like the Chanes, it suffered from regular raids from the Guarani living on the plains below. The Guarani continued to dominate the area until well into the Spanish colonial period.
Down on the heat of the plains, we made a short stop in Santa Cruz to get the hand-brake repaired (damaged by a hidden bump on the very dusty roads) and to buy some beaded seat covers to make driving in the heat slightly more comfortable!
Then we started our drive East across the flatlands.
Along the way, we made a stop to see the beautiful old Mission of San Jose de Chiquitos.
We passed close to where one of several populations of Memonites live. Eschewing the complexities of modern life, the people we saw all wore the same traditional dress (men in dungarees and women in simple sun hats) and still spoke a Germanic language.
Our drive East was taking us, first, to the Pantanal, the beautiful wetlands region of Brazil, from where we would take a side-trip to see Rio de Janeiro and make a short return trip to the UK to visit family.
Here is a gallery with a few more pictures of the beautiful people and colour of Bolivia: